New life proposed for old Cooley High, but plan faces pushback

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A nonprofit that’s revived one former Detroit public school has set its sights on resurrecting an even bigger target: the former Thomas M. Cooley High School. But two school board members who would have to approve the property sale have already criticized the group’s tactics. 

Cooley High opened in the Hubbell-Lyndon neighborhood on the city’s northwest side in 1928, and operated for 81 years before closing at the end of the 2009-10 academic year. It is a massive facility and a three-story Mediterranean-style architectural gem. In 2017, a fire ravaged Cooley’s gorgeous auditorium. It’s also one of 63 empty public school properties in Detroit, according to a recent report by the city and the Detroit Public Schools Community District. 

The Detroit nonprofit Life Remodeled, which focuses on revitalizing neighborhoods with the help and cooperation of residents and community organizations, unveiled a $37.5 million proposal Wednesday to buy the 18-acre facility from the school district and renovate the blighted property. Life Remodeled would locate various nonprofits at Cooley, including a pediatric mental health center and vocational college. A new football field would be constructed to provide recreational opportunities in the neighborhood. 

The Detroit Public School Community District board would have to approve the sale of Cooley to Life Remodeled, and two members of the seven-person board have already indicated they are skeptical. The pair lambasted the nonprofit for holding a press event announcing its proposal before presenting the plan formally to the school board. 

“I despise these sort of strong-arm publicity tactics,” Sonya Mays, a school board member, wrote on Facebook Wednesday afternoon about Life Remodeled’s press conference. “It has been made perfectly clear to (Life Remodeled CEO Chris Lambert) that Detroit Public Schools Community District is not currently marketing properties for sale. The District and the Board is (sic) painstakingly investing in a 20-year facilities plan. This plan will help to ensure that any vacant building or land that we do opt to sell is done so in a fair and equitable process – and not just in ways that most benefit the connected and privileged.”

Fellow school board member Misha Stallworth West commented on May’s Facebook post and agreed. She wrote, “A white man trying to use publicity pressure tactics to change the community-driven decisions of a board of Black women as well as receive special treatment from the board doesn’t, let’s just say, sit well with me.”  Life Remodeled’s CEO, Chris Lambert, is white. 

At the Life Remodeled press conference, held at Calvary United Methodist Church across the street from Cooley, more than 100 residents and others came to learn about the plan. Many were enthusiastic. 

The proposal includes:

  • Make a $400,000 offer to the public school board in January to buy the facility. If the sale is approved, the group aims to open the renovated school in three years. 
  • Create a 100,000-square-foot pediatric mental health center that will be run by Methodist Children’s Home Society, a nonprofit that is based in Detroit and Redford Township. It would be one of the largest facilities dedicated to the mental health of children, organizers said.  “We are in a crisis of mental health for children in this country, this state and in this city,” said Kevin Roach, CEO of Methodist Children’s Home Society. “We want Cooley to also become a place where kids can go to escape crisis and begin to heal, meeting urgent demand for services that, sadly, are not yet available in Detroit.”
  • Another major tenant would be a potential 20,000-square-foot vocational school run by a Florida-based group. The group operates several McDougle Technical Institute facilities. The organization is run by Octavia McDougle and her husband, Stockar McDougle, who played for the Detroit Lions from 2000 to 2004. 
  • Another former NFL player, and Cooley alumnus, Lional Dalton, aims to help build a new football field that can be used by local organizations. The field may also be the home for a team that would represent the McDougle vocational school. 
  • Become a hub for residents that would help with things such as home repair and neighborhood clean-up efforts. 

Life Remodeled operates the Durfee Innovation Society, which is in the former Durfee Elementary School. The building is fully occupied with 39 tenants, including many nonprofits and local entrepreneurs.  It also includes an open gym and planetarium. 

Cooley is one of the largest empty public schools in the city, according to City documents. The 302,600-square-foot building is more than twice the size of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Life Remodeled has been reaching out to community groups, residents and Cooley High alumni for more than a year to get an understanding of what they want. One supporter is Charlotte Blackwell, president of the nearby Happy Homes Neighborhood Association. “This could truly make a difference,” Blackwell said. 

Another local resident, Darryl Woods, said the neighborhood is tired of dealing with blight. Woods is helping with Life Remodeled’s community engagement. He has helped collect 200 signatures to persuade school board members to agree to the sale.  “This is an inspiring project,” Woods said. 

School board members May and Stallworth West made their comments about two hours after the press conference and several media outlets had broadcast or published stories. It is a common tactic by developers, and sometimes Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration, to hold press events touting a potential land deal before the plans are approved by various city agencies. 

Late Wednesday, Life Remodel’s Chris Lambert responded to the school board members in a written statement. “We have been consistently engaging with and listening to Cooley community members since February of 2020 in order to discover their hopes,” Lambert wrote. “We have also been in ongoing discussions with DPSCD since February of 2020. We’re looking forward to continuing the conversation with the community and the School Board about our plans to formally submit our purchase offer to DPSCD in January with the hopes of transforming Cooley into an opportunity hub.”

Earlier in the day, the school district didn’t directly comment on the potential sale. Instead, it released a statement attributed to Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti that said the school district intends to release a 20-year facility plan In January that will outline its goals regarding new buildings and major renovations. It will also address what to do with its vacant school properties. The school district owns 24 empty school properties, which could mean a former facility or land where a school used to be. The City owns another 39 former school properties. Here’s a link to the City-owned properties that are for sale. 

Here’s a link to learn about Life Remodeled’s plan.  

2 thoughts on “New life proposed for old Cooley High, but plan faces pushback

  1. I =, along with numerous family members, live in the old Coley catchment area; some attending Cooley HS. This story sounds good, but is it once again smoke & mirrors designed to mask the real intent of a hidden agenda? I hope not. Our youth can ill afford to, once again, become pawns in a cynical chess game.

  2. A legitimate plan from a successful school bldg. developer to renovate another vacant school bldg., a fire-damaged Cooley High School Bldg. that has been empty for over 10 yrs. & there is baseless racial, gender & equity pushback from two DPS board members?! I hope that the rest of the DPS Board looks at the redevelopment proposal with a realistic, factual & common sense approach to what is in the best interests of the neighborhood, the broader community & this City & make all vacant school bldgs. available for redevelopment!!! Unless DPS has specific redevelopment plans & funding themselves to renovate & reactivate a school bldg. to fulfill DPS’s main responsibility & mission to educate the children in our City then there would be no reason to hold onto vacant, blighted & deteriorating bldgs.! However, DPS needs to include a legal clause within all of their school bldg. sale agreements that if the proposed renovation of school bldg. is not meeting successful benchmark goals in its redevelopment timeline than the school bldg. will revert back to DPS. Case in point, the Southwestern High School bldg. that DPS had invested millions into & the community fought DPS not to close it because Southwest Detroit young population of families needed a 2nd high school was sold to a developer that did not perform & there it sits; a vacant, blighted, deteriorated & stripped school bldg.!!!!!!!!

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