The Birmingham City Council has delayed plans for the city to purchase and redevelop the Smithfield Community’s defunct Hill Elementary School property.
Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office had proposed that the city purchase the school, which has been closed since 2014, from the Birmingham Board of Education for $820,000. That money would come from Community Development Block Grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The city had applied for but failed to receive a different $35 million Choice Neighborhood Grant from HUD, which would have gone toward redeveloping the Smithfield Court housing project and other properties in the community, including Hill Elementary.
Still, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Kelvin Datcher told the council Tuesday, Woodfin wanted to be “aggressive” in acquiring and redeveloping the property and had developed new plans to renovate the existing building into workforce housing, with private redevelopment partners to be selected after the purchase was complete.
“What we’re looking for now is to be able to utilize that for workforce housing, because of its proximity to several employers downtown and where it sits in the community,” Datcher said. “We believe it could contribute to the vibrancy and the revitalization of Smithfield … . We don’t want to just sit here and be handcuffed because we weren’t awarded that grant by the federal government. We think it’s incumbent on us to find new ways to revitalize the Smithfield community.”
The school board already has passed a resolution offering the building to the city at the appraised amount of $820,000.
But several councilors argued that they had not been adequately informed of the city’s plans for the property and demanded more information. The choice of Hill Elementary, when there are other abandoned school properties spread throughout the city, was a particular concern.
“It seems to me that there’s got to be a master plan,” said District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott. “It seems to me that we’re kind of limping along in the dark in a city where there are plans for things that have not been shared with us. There’s a real shortage of information that’s been shared with the council.”
“This is just one of many,” she added. “We all seem to have abandoned schools in our districts … . What made this suddenly pop up and become an opportunity?”
Datcher responded that the proposed purchase “is just a great opportunity that has arisen at this time.”
The council opted to delay further discussion of the item until its next Committee of the Whole meeting, requesting that the mayor’s office provide a detailed presentation of its overall plan for abandoned schools throughout the city.