The historic Henry P. Archer School building on Charleston's East Side won't be redeveloped by the city, but it could still be brought back to life as a housing development.
The city entered a contract in March to buy the property from the Charleston County School District with plans to reuse the vacant building for affordable housing. The 1.9-acre parcel on Nassau Street is near a larger city-owned block of vacant land where other affordable housing is likely to be built.
But after an evaluation of the structure, City Council and Mayor John Tecklenburg reached the conclusion that redeveloping the historic building would be too costly and complicated to take on.
For one thing, it needs to be retrofitted structurally to make it more resilient to earthquakes. The school district found out in 2010 that a number of downtown school buildings, including Archer, couldn’t withstand a 5.0 or greater earthquake. The school was unused at the time, and has remained vacant since.
The Charleston Board of Architectural Review agreed in July that the building originally constructed in the 1930s shouldn't be demolished.
City Planner Jacob Lindsey said on Tuesday that all of these things factored into the decision to back out of the deal.
The school district has since listed the property for sale and is seeking bids until Dec. 17.
Lindsey said although the purchase wasn't the right move for the city, it could be for a private developer.
"This site is a challenging one," he said, "but it’s an opportunity for the right builder."
Archer is within a federally designated Opportunity Zone, where private developers are offered tax cuts for building in low-income communities.
"We don't get the benefits of opportunity zones. Private developers do," Lindsey said.
A redevelopment would also qualify for historic preservation tax credits as well as a different state tax credit for redeveloping abandoned buildings, according to Kevin Drexel, executive director of Charleston Redevelopment Corporation.
The nonprofit is interested in partnering with a private developer and placing the property in a land trust, which would keep it affordable.
"Having a nonprofit involved means you can control the vision," he said. "It’s a community asset. It’s historic, and it has an important legacy."
The original schoolhouse was built for black children in the segregated 1930s, with other wings added on over the years as its overcrowding problems grew. For decades, it was one of three elementary schools for black students in the city. Civil rights icon Septima P. Clark taught there in the 1950s until she was fired from the school district for working with NAACP.
Residents of the historically black East Side neighborhood opposed its demolition, and some told the BAR they want to see affordable housing there.
Drexel said that's still possible.
"Some people think that historic rehab and adaptive reuse is more expensive," he said. "New construction is very expensive as well."
He said most projects hoping to offer truly affordable housing require some sort of government subsidy, and Archer would probably be no different.
None of that should stand in the way of realizing the vision, he added.
"I think it could be done in both an economical and sensitive manner," he said.