Back at the Head of the Class

Faced with declining enrollment and an aging building stock, the Buffalo Public School District took unusual measures to finance a 12-year, $1.4 billion renovation of 48 of its structures

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Teams completed Buffalo Public’s 48 school renovations in five phases, a strategy that kept most schools up and running while some students attended swing schools. Phase 1 renovated 9 schools, Phase 2 renovated 13, Phase 3 renovated 9, Phase 4 renovated 10, and Phase 5 renovated 7.

It was a problem that required a creative solution. Buffalo, the second largest city in New York, was educating 32,000 children in antiquated structures that averaged 70 years in age while facing declining enrollment numbers. Students and parents who watched other schools improve and adopt new technologies grew frustrated, so in 2002 the New York State Legislature created a joint school-construction board and approved a comprehensive $1.4 billion renovation program designed to update 48 of Buffalo’s public school buildings.

Paul McDonnell, AIA, director of facilities, planning, and design for the Buffalo Public School District, has been involved with the project since day one, and he says its most important aspect has been standardization. “We wanted to bring the same technology, the same infrastructure, and the same energy standards to each building,” he explains.

And, by facilitating the hiring of minority- and women-owned companies, the project also helped Buffalo Public meet aggressive diversity goals. More than 20 architects worked on the project and were selected not just for their experience in designing schools but also for their expertise with signature urban design. “We didn’t hire school architects; we hired good architects,” McDonnell says.

The program, funded by tax-exempt bonds, wrapped in mid-2014, and the students and the community are now reaping the rewards. The district was able to renovate most of its buildings, bringing each one up to modern standards (including increased energy efficiency) while improving academic settings and enhancing safety. Labs, classrooms, and other spaces are now connected to the Internet and to smart whiteboards, and overall the facilities are bright and welcoming. Read on for a deeper look at the various improvements.

Historical Preservation

Though Buffalo is a city with a fair amount of period architecture, the renovation of its schools was in fact the largest historical preservation project the city had ever seen. The first step was surveying all 78 buildings within the district, many of which had leaky roofs, inefficient heating and cooling systems, and inadequate power supplies. “We had to convince people we should renovate and not just tear down,” McDonnell says. “It would actually have been much more expensive to start from scratch, and you just can’t replicate the inherent quality of these rich buildings.” Officials consolidated the district by closing some buildings (a total of 18 since 2003) and selecting others to renovate.

Among the renovations at South Park High School was a total overhaul of the facility’s spacious, historic auditorium. The renovation of Buffalo’s public schools was the largest historical preservation project in city history.
Among the renovations at South Park High School was a total overhaul of the facility’s spacious, historic auditorium. The renovation of Buffalo’s public schools was the largest historical preservation project in city history. (Photo: Tim Wilkes)

As president of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture, and Culture and a chairperson of the Buffalo Preservation Board, McDonnell worked closely with New York’s State Historic Preservation Office in Albany. Most of the Buffalo Public buildings involved were on or were eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. “We wanted to maintain the historic fabric of these structures while ensuring they meet or exceed modern standards,” McDonnell says.

The old buildings provided a solid foundation from which to work, and builders, contractors, and vendors worked to update and complement brick façades, terrazzo floors, and ornate auditoriums with the latest building elements and technologies. Additionally, specialized companies replicated and matched historical features such as antique windows and original wood detailing.

South Park High School was originally built in 1915 with 10-foot-high windows and finely crafted wood doors. CannonDesign worked on the $30 million renovation of the facility, which included retouched roofing, repointing, and the installation of a new wing, seen here on the right side of the elevation.
South Park High School was originally built in 1915 with 10-foot-high windows and finely crafted wood doors. CannonDesign worked on the $30 million renovation of the facility, which included retouched roofing, repointing, and the installation of a new wing, seen here on the right side of the elevation.

Technology, Infrastructure, and Efficiency

McDonnell likes to joke that students once had to unplug the fish tank to plug in a computer. Though that may be an exaggeration, access to technology is no longer a concern for Buffalo Public’s students; the renovation provided each classroom with a minimum of six computers and a smart whiteboard, and each building has at least one dedicated computer room.

CannonDesign’s overhaul of the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts provided the school with a fully outfitted auditorium with a new fly loft, acoustical walls, a portable sprung floor for dance recitals, and raked seating for 720.
CannonDesign’s overhaul of the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts provided the school with a fully outfitted auditorium with a new fly loft, acoustical walls, a portable sprung floor for dance recitals, and raked seating for 720. (Photo: Timothy O’Shea)

Contractors were also able to remove inefficient and outdated roofs, ceilings, and floors in favor of insulated and efficient models, and they replaced all light fixtures district-wide with energy-efficient ones that have electronic ballasts. Every building now has an extensive security system with dozens of cameras recording data to hard drives, and each high school features a state-of-the-art science lab. Additionally, sophisticated control systems by Johnson Controls allow the district’s custodians and engineers to monitor each room of each structure separately from a remote location.

The upgrades won’t stop now that the project is over, either. “We want to maximize the potential here and look for further opportunities as time goes on,” McDonnell says. Currently, teams are working to add solar panels to 20 buildings to generate electricity through a power-provider agreement. A vendor will finance, install, and maintain the panels while selling electricity back to the district at a reduced rate.

Among the other improvements to the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts was a fully outfitted dance studio.
Among the other improvements to the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts was a fully outfitted dance studio. (Photo: David Lamb Photography)

Vocational Education

Buffalo’s career and technical schools forced McDonnell, program provider LPCiminelli, and strategic-plan architect CannonDesign to take a few extra steps. McKinley High School teaches building trades, and the existing structure has a carpentry loft three stories high in which students build a complete house in two enormous pieces. Burgard Vocational High School houses an automotive program in a building with ramps that will take a car to the fourth floor. Emerson School of Hospitality—Buffalo’s culinary school—includes a functioning restaurant operated by the students and open to the public. And, stages at the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing arts have seen the development of notable students such as Jessie L. Martin and Ani DiFranco. Since the trade schools were designed before students there were required to get a full academic program, the renovators added science labs and other standard features while updating all specialized spaces.

Creative Financing

As the third-poorest city in the country, Buffalo’s options to finance the monumental renovation of its schools were strictly limited. New York State pledged to reimburse the district $93.7 cents for every dollar spent, but a method still had to be developed to borrow the money the city would actually need to spend.

Lawmakers developed a unique public-private procurement model through special legislation, allowing the district to sell tax-exempt bonds through the Erie County Industrial Agency. To cover the remaining 6.3 percent, the district entered into an energy-performance contract with Johnson Controls that produced $71 million in operational savings. “We parlayed those savings into paying for projects while generating interest on the bonds,” McDonnell says. All told, the project cost $1.4 billion, but amazingly, the city never raised taxes: the cost to taxpayers was $0.

McDonnell, who comes from a family of teachers and renovated the school where his grandfather served as principal, started with the district in 1995 and knows just how important these renovations are. “We built in five phases, and people were skeptical,” he says. “But we needed this for our future. And after people saw the first buildings in phase one, I think they understood what we could together achieve.”

The original Beaux-Arts structure (here) of Buffalo’s City Honors School dates back to 1912. Construction teams tacked on a series of additions (below) in 2010, including a new swimming pool and gymnasium, a new library, and high-tech science labs.
The original Beaux-Arts structure (here) of Buffalo’s City Honors School dates back to 1912. Construction teams tacked on a series of additions (below) in 2010, including a new swimming pool and gymnasium, a new library, and high-tech science labs.

Fresh athletic facilities, new finishes, and the more substantial changes are helping remake the district’s identity and instill in the students a new sense of pride. “People come here and see that it’s not run down anymore,” McDonnell says. “It’s been good for the city.”

His favorite part? Watching the students enter a renovated school for the first time. When students—some of whom were required to use a swing school for as long as two years during construction—reenter a building and slowly explore, they gape with wide-eyed wonder. “It’s a big deal for these kids,” McDonnell says. “They feel like they’re finally getting the attention they deserve.”   

The Buffalo’s City Honors School, after construction.
The Buffalo’s City Honors School, after construction.