Cooley High School sale is off as Detroit school board rejects nonprofit’s latest offer

A landscape shot of a vacant high school building, with boarded and broken windows as well as graffiti tags along the facade.
One side of the vacant Cooley High School in northwest Detroit. Known in its heyday for its academics, athletics as well as its Mediterranean Revival architectural style, the building has decayed in recent years following its closure in 2010. (Ethan Bakuli / Chalkbeat)

The Detroit Public Schools Community District has formally rejected offers by nonprofit Life Remodeled to acquire the vacant Cooley High School, setting back plans to rehabilitate the dilapidated building.

The decision comes over a year after the organization publicly bid to buy the former high school and redevelop it as a community hub over three years through an investment of $37.5 million.

“The District, through the School Board and Superintendent, rejected the latest Life Remodeled offer because it did not include commitments prior to the sale that the building and land would be used as the sale proposal outlines,” district spokesperson Chrystal Wilson said in a statement Friday afternoon. 

“The School Board is committed to ensuring that if the building and land were sold then the planned use occurs. Since the negotiations regarding the sale have concluded, the District will now move forward to explore alternative uses for the building and land.”

DPSCD was preparing to sell Cooley last fall to Life Remodeled for $400,000. But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti revoked his initial recommendation of the sale in November, citing opposition from some board members about whether the district was underpricing the property, and about how its future owners would use the site. 

At the time, Vitti signaled that the two parties would begin renegotiating terms of their agreement. But according to Chris Lambert, founder and CEO of Life Remodeled, there was little negotiation in the following months. 

“Despite fervent pleas from neighbors and alumni, the DPSCD Board, without a public vote or discussion, has denied our collective efforts to transform Cooley in the ways the community wishes,” Lambert said in a news release.

“As a result this formerly grand building will continue to be in a state of decay for the foreseeable future rather than becoming what you, the School Board’s constituents, have enthusiastically stated you want for it to become.”

Lambert said Life Remodeled made two final offers to the district on March 8: either $1 million for the school property, excluding the athletic fields, or $500,000, with the inclusion of a $1 million donation to the district.

The district rejected both offers. According to the Life Remodeled release, the district sought the addition of financial and construction benchmarks to indicate whether the nonprofit had secured enough donations to complete the project.

Lambert said that those guidelines would “handcuff Life Remodeled” and provide DPSCD “with too much discretion to either withhold its approval … or to claw back the property without due process.”

Back in November, Vitti said that those benchmarks would provide added security that the future of the site would be “aligned to the proposal and beneficial to the community of DPSCD.”

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, board members deliberated in a closed-door session over the negotiations between DPSCD and Life Remodeled, disclosing only after the session that the discussions were ongoing.

“We are still in active negotiations,” board President Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said at the meeting. “Our legal team has language to go back to the bidder so that it can be considered for acceptance.” 

The board has been working to update new members elected last November on conversations surrounding Cooley’s sale, Peterson-Mayberry added. 

Located in northwest Detroit, Cooley opened in 1928 and became one of the city’s most storied high schools, revered for its athletic programs as well as its Mediterranean Revival architectural style. In 2011, a year after the school closed, the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2017, the building suffered severe damage from a fire in its auditorium.

In the past decade, neighborhood residents and alumni have called on the district to address the blight, either by selling or reopening the high school. 

“I’m here today because Life Remodeled is the only group that has come to our community to say anything about doing anything with Cooley High School,” Sandra Sterling, a leader with the Calvary Community Association block club and longtime area resident, said after Vitti’s decision in November. “Do not carry this into another year.”

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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