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A photo of the school project in May.
The school project in May.

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In Adair Park, a rescued Atlanta school and the birth of affordable ‘art-force housing’

How a community for creatives southwest of downtown aims “to be different than what anyone’s ever seen” 

As a Capitol View resident of nearly 20 years, Neda Abghari has often ventured into nearby Adair Park, gazed upon the Academic Gothic architecture of George W. Adair School, and wondered what it used to be, below the surface, on a deeper level than classroom education.

Built in 1912, the school was the community’s central hub for decades, a relic of a time before school cafeterias, when kids were sent home for lunch each day, laughing, teasing, chasing each other en route. The school closed about 45 years ago, as surrounding neighborhoods tumbled into blight, and the building functioned as central offices and meeting space for Atlanta Public Schools until the roof sprung leaks in the 1990s—an issue that six layers of tarps failed to resolve. Abghari’s visits to the old school in its most exposed, dank, and weather-ravaged state were disheartening.

A school addition under construction during the Great Depression, circa 1937.
Digital Library of Georgia/Hargrett Library

“It was pretty intense just being in there—so sad, so sad,” says Abghari, a former art teacher and real estate investor who founded nonprofit The Creatives Project. “We’ve all had dreams for what that building could become.”

As a to-the-bones renovation of the George W. Adair School gained steam throughout the spring, Abghari’s dreams for the property—and the future of her nonprofit—have begun to materialize on a scale she didn’t always consider realistic. Her group has partnered with developers to create a center of what they call “art-force housing”—a bastion of affordability for creative types and a gathering point for the greater community—in a neighborhood pegged by real estate brokerage Redfin as the “hottest” in Atlanta last year, where even starter homes are commanding north of $300,000.

Image courtesy of Stryant Construction

Project leaders say The Academy Lofts Adair Park, as the venture is called, will be unlike anything else in Atlanta, and Abghari says she’s not aware of a similar model anywhere: a hybrid in which a for-profit group supports a nonprofit to create art-centric programming on site, while providing affordable housing. (Indeed, the phrase “art-force housing” yields few if any Google hits beyond Atlanta).

“How does [this project] impact the community when you bring it back to life, when you do it in a really conscious, inclusive way?” Abghari says. “I think it’s going to be different than what anyone’s ever seen.”

“This is what made me fall in love with it,” developer Stan Sugarman says, awed by the school’s ornate main entrance, during a tour in May.

Sugarman, a managing partner with residential and commercial developers Stryant Investments, has teamed with Building Insights and Abghari’s group as the driving forces behind the school’s rebirth, an effort boosted by state and federal historic tax credits and a $1.5 million Invest Atlanta grant, part of the Housing Opportunity Bond Program.

Sugarman’s been itching to dig in here for years. His team went under contract on the property in 2014, but the protracted squabble over Beltline funding between APS and the city prevented the deal from closing. Now, he recognizes the uniqueness of the adaptive-reuse potential at hand.

The plywood-blinded windows above the school’s main entrance, with its ornate torch statuary, as seen in May.

“These are all gone,” Sugarman says of Atlanta’s century-old school building stock, as he enters a decayed, musty, gutted space where plywood sheets make rickety bridges over removed floors. “Either they didn’t make the cut, or got modernized, or turned into fancy condo buildings. We’re going to save as much as possible.”

It’s the final day of demolition, with framing for 35 rentals set to begin tomorrow. The walls will dissect these floors into some of Atlanta’s smallest micro apartments, counting between 250 and 300 square feet in studio layouts, each with kitchenettes and bathrooms, some resembling miniature classrooms. Rents should be around $650 or $700 monthly, with leases capped at one year.

“This is a residency, basically,” Sugarman says. “It’s a way to build up your resume and move on.”

Elsewhere, expect wide hallways for art exhibits and other gatherings, plus a public coffee shop, 5,000 square feet of loft offices for nonprofits and like-minded creatives, and the property’s marquee space: an auditorium that could morph in function between an art gallery, community events space, and performing arts center.

For now, only shadows dance in the school’s 1930s auditorium. A planned coffee shop would operate under the stage, with access from the street.

Sugarman’s ambitions to create no new parking spaces for the property might not have passed review boards, but he stresses that tenants won’t need automobiles, given the two-block proximity to the Atlanta Beltline’s Westside Trail and the West End MARTA Station a 10-minute walk away. Core renters, he says, will be making about $20,000 annually.

“It’s for people who want to live in a neighborhood, and not an industrial setting,” says Sugarman. “It’s definitely that neighborhood school you don’t see anymore; it’s definitely in the neighborhood.”

And it’s turf that Abghari’s The Creatives Project is familiar with.

Chalkboards still cling to the walls of classrooms though the floors have been removed.

The project was founded in 2011 as a mean of finding and pooling resources for professional artists in Atlanta during the Great Recession. Abghari, the project’s executive director, partnered with small-scale real estate investors in Adair Park and Pittsburgh who agreed to subsidize leases for artists, who then committed to volunteer their time and talents in underserved communities.

Programing included, for instance, a photojournalism project that taught youth to photograph and record the stories of seniors in Adair Park, and a local camp run by an artist that stressed anti-littering. But the economy took off, Atlanta’s intown housing market heated up, and property owners removed the artists from their investments to promptly cash in.

Workers finished demolition efforts in May. Here, a member of the demo team knocks old mortar from savable bricks behind the building.

“We wanted to try to figure out a way to scale our model so that we [partner with] a larger developer, where a sudsidy on a few units out of an inventory of 300 is a lot less of a stress on their books,” says Abghari. “As opposed to a small-time investor who has like 20 properties.”

Enter: the George W. Adair Park School, and Abghari’s chance introduction to the Stryant team, via a mutual acquaintance.

“This is hopefully the first of many developers that want to support us,” she says. “We’ve had studio space at the Goat Farm [Arts Center] since the beginning, but we’ve never had a home for our outreach. We’re just so excited to have a place to invite people to come in—more of like an in-reach.”

If the waitlist of more than 300 “creative enthusiasts”—that is, people who want to live in, work in, or otherwise be associated with the inimitable building—is any indication, The Academy Lofts concept may have struck a chord.

Actors, freelance musicians, showroom managers, a sculptor, and others chimed in to a recent survey about the school project, offering their logic for wanting to be part of it. They were ages 20 to 68, many with college degrees. They said, in part:

“Affordable housing would help alleviate the stress of overhead while building my brand.”

“[It’s] the responsibility of creatives that get access to a space like this to connect with the community at large so they can have a positive impact on urban neighborhoods—especially Adair Park, which is a historically black neighborhood and is facing issues around development and gentrification right now.”

“Affordable housing and studio space in Atlanta is very difficult to come by, and even harder to keep ... I have been priced out of neighborhood after neighborhood, preventing me from returning to live in the only city that has truly felt like home to me.”

Sugarman expects the building to open next spring. As the renovation nears completion, Abghari says, applicants will be interviewed, with the aim of installing a healthy mix of programming, though other details of the selection process have yet to be hammered out.

An early rendering of The Academy Lofts.
The Creatives Project

“A lot of the vetting is going to be determined by what we’re required by law to provide, in terms of income levels,” she says.

Beyond the allure of $650 apartments that zoning classifications would allow to function as workshops, Abghari predicts the revived school will reverberate with a “sense of openness, creativity, and innovation” that fosters a deeper value: artistic communion.

“In today’s housing market, creatives are being pushed out of the city, just like so many others,” she says. “They’ve made a commitment in the design of the building. That micro-units concept is going to provide a level of affordability that attracts young professionals, artists, students, regular individuals looking for affordable housing and a vibrant community, and I think that’s going to last.”

Learn more about The Creatives Project here, and have a look at the nonprofit’s future Adair Park hub on the final day of demolition below:

On the wall outside the main entrance, a stone plaque commemorates Board of Education members at the time the school was built.
The upper floors.
A door eerily hangs in the air as plywood leads a path over beams in the floor.
A crumbling poster still emits positivity.
Vines have overtaken the building’s backside, as a school bell still clings to its position.
Tiles in the partially flooded bathrooms beneath the auditorium.
The subterranean spaces at left are planned to be changing areas for stage performers.
Old doors and a decayed ticket booth leading into the school auditorium.
A basketball goal still hangs in the auditorium between two boarded-up windows.
The side of the old school, which will become Academy Lofts.

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