By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — Northside High School, once the anchor in the Klondike-Smokey City community, was shuttered in 2016 due to minuscule enrollment. But the sounding of the death knell did not fall on death ears.
The alumni and community residents wanted to know if plans are afoot to repurpose the beautiful and spacious orange-brick building at 1212 Vollintine Ave. that was built in 1968 for an 1,800-student body.
A nonprofit group, Northside Renaissance, Inc., has hosted several meetings over the course of months seeking input from the community prior to hosting a charrette Thursday, Nov. 11, at Perea Elementary School, formerly Klondike Elementary, Northside’s next-door neighbor.
The nonprofit and its partners provided a design update for the renovation of Northside so that residents and community stakeholders would have an idea of what is possible for the vacant school building.
Charette attendees were inquisitive. “Is this going to be a public high school?” one man inquired. The answer was no. Shelby County Schools closed Northside and most likely won’t open another one in its place.
Preliminary design concepts for the building include arts and studio spaces, technical training, retail options, healthcare access, restaurants/coffee shop, a community garden, fitness and wellness opportunities, workforce development, affordable and senior housing, and more.
“We’re trying to take advantage of an empty building that has been vacant for five years into an asset that will benefit Klondike and the greater North Memphis community,” said Archie Willis III, founder and president of ComCap Partners.
ComCap Partners is a local development firm working for Northside Renaissance, Inc. along with other partners – Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., The Works Inc., Neighborhood Preservation Inc., Pyramid Peak Foundation, and others – to prevent the building from laying waste.
“The idea is to use this as an anchor to help stimulate the revitalization of Klondike,” Willis explained. “This is the biggest piece of real estate and the largest structure in Klondike.”
Other queries included the projected cost of the project and the completion date. Willis said the project would cost millions – perhaps as much as $50 million or more – and the completion date is yet to be determined.
“This is a very complicated project turning a school building into something other than a school building,” he said. “It’s a very expensive project. We’re working on a financial plan.”
Lauren Tolbert, project designer and project manager for LRK, reemphasized the potential uses for Northside as a mixed-use facility – including reactivating the gymnasium and auditorium.
LRK (Looney Ricks Kiss) is a nationally full-service architectural, planning and interior design firm located in Memphis. Northside is one of the company’s projects currently on the drawing board.
The school’s gymnasium will be an asset to the community, Tolbert said. The space could be utilized for “afterschool programs, youth volleyball and basketball tournaments.”
The auditorium was one of the largest among Shelby County Schools. Regarding the total project, Tolbert said, “We want this to be more focused on the neighborhood that’s here.”
Iola Casey took in the information and processed it accordingly. “It’s a great plan if we can only utilize it and make it available to the people in the Klondike area,” said Casey, mother of Fyron Irby and Sheila Irby, both graduates of Northside.
“We’re the ones who watched the school go down,” she said. “We know what it has been; we know what it can be. We’d love to see it revitalized and come back to what Northside should be.”
Overall, Casey is impressed with the revitalization plan for Northside and the surrounding neighborhood where blight and decay are evident. But she is concerned about the proposed living spaces.
“With everything that will be going on…and the living quarters on the third floor…it seems like a lot of activities for senior living,” she said. “I’m kind of wondering if that’s a good idea. It’s needed, but I don’t know.”
Katherine Larsha’s focus on Northside and the neighborhood is acute. But her vision for the school and the neighborhood – where residents are grappling with poverty and their homes in disrepair – differs in scope and perception.
A 1983 graduate, she said matter-of-factly, “We have a medical need, like physical therapy. It could be a school for nursing, CNAs (certified nursing assistant), even acupuncture.”
A neighborhood clinic is proposed, but Larsha is not exactly on the same page with the team of planners and developers, which, at the onset, began soliciting suggestions from community stakeholders like herself.
About affordable housing, Larsha said unabashedly, “What this is is gentrification. They’re saying they are gonna make it low-income. The majority of these people – like (the) Uptown (community) is now – will not be here.”
Pointing to a redesign of Northside’s exterior, Larsha said, “This space does not reflect the people living here now. This is what gentrification is.”