Exploris Middle School eyes historic Raleigh warehouse after apartment plan gets scrapped

ccampbell@newsobserver.comSeptember 24, 2013 

— A blighted historic warehouse near downtown could become a charter school after plans for an artists’ community there didn’t succeed.

Earlier this year, the Raleigh City Council approved a 99-year lease for the Stone’s Warehouse property on East Davie Street to a group of developers aiming to build affordable apartments for artists. But the Raleigh Arts Village didn’t win $4.1 million in low-income housing tax credits needed to fund a renovation, so city leaders are going back to the drawing board.

A city council committee voted Tuesday to seek new proposals for the building, which the city has owned since 2001. One of those proposals will come from downtown developer Greg Hatem of Empire Properties. He’s working with Exploris Middle School to find it a bigger location.

“This seemed like a wonderful opportunity for them to establish another downtown charter school,” Hatem told the council. “We know it’s very complicated, but that’s our commitment to them.”

Exploris opened in 1997 in partnership with the former Exploris Museum, and the school is now located on Hillsborough Street. But starting next school year, Exploris will begin adding elementary school grades – a move that will require more space.

“We think about how we can broaden our impact if we had those students longer,” Exploris director Summer Clayton said. “Starting at kindergarten, we just feel like the impact is going to be so powerful.”

But the expansion poses a challenge: there aren’t many spaces downtown that can accommodate a projected student body of 500 to 600 kids. “It’s very important to us that we stay downtown, being a downtown community school,” Clayton said.

Hatem and Clayton said they’d love to have at least part of Stone’s Warehouse renovated in time for next school year, eventually shifting the entire school from Hillsborough Street. They’re eager to refurbish the building that was once home to Carolina Coach Garage and Shops. In addition to museums downtown, students would be able to walk to Chavis Park and the Walnut Creek Wetlands Center nearby.

But before Exploris starts work on the property, it must compete with any other interested developers. The council committee voted Tuesday not to rezone the property first, so whoever gets the building will go through that process – the current zoning is specific to the Raleigh Arts Village proposal.

The building will cost more if the proposal doesn’t include affordable housing, because the city has grant money tied up in the property for that purpose. But Clayton said Exploris can afford the deal.

“We pride ourselves on being fiscally conservative,” she said. “We’ve been able to build up a decent reserve.”

Southeast Raleigh community leader Danny Coleman had been skeptical of the artist apartments proposal, questioning its value to the neighborhood. But he called the Exploris proposal “a very exciting idea.”

“I’d just like to see that follow a path that makes sense, that doesn’t disengage the community,” he said.

Vann Joines, the developer who proposed the arts village, won’t be putting in another plan for the site. He said he didn’t win the tax credits because the site isn’t close to a grocery store – and the application also faced 150 competitors for 30 funding awards.

The state’s criteria, he said, “favors a suburban archetype as opposed to giving preference to something like public transit or other amenities besides a grocery store.”

Joines is calling on city leaders to lobby for a change in that criteria. If that happens, he said he thinks the arts village would have a good chance of winning the needed tax credits.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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