Developer gives old school renewed hope

By Derrick Perkins

Years after developer William Cromley went to City Hall for a permit to demolish the former Carver Nursery School, he’s returning and asking for permission to expand the neighborhood landmark.

If Cromley receives the board of architectural review’s consent May 22, it could signal the beginning of the end of a multiyear struggle to preserve the ailing building. Constructed in the 1940s, the North Fayette Street structure served as a nursery school for the neighborhood’s black families before morphing into an American Legion post.

After buying the property, Cromley unveiled plans to raze the structure. While the city signed off, it the demolition angered residents, who wanted the former school preserved. They sued to prevent Cromley from moving ahead in 2010.

The resulting litigation put the property in limbo while Cromley, city officials and neighbors sought a buyer. But when the two-year grace period ended in February, not a single entity had expressed interest in saving the structure.

That didn’t deter local preservationists from mounting a last-ditch effort to raise the necessary dollars. In the meantime, though, Cromley proceeded with plans of his own to save the one-time school.

“What I’m doing now is increasing the size significantly to give it more of a chance to appeal to someone who would adaptively reuse it. I’m not building that addition but applying for it,” he said. “The people who have never gone through [the BAR] process before, it’s very intimidating to them. If the building has a chance to be preserved, I need to take away the things that scare [buyers] away and the BAR is frightening. I’m hoping that makes the difference.”

While no buyer came forward during the two-year effort to sell the building, there was interest in the property. But prospective owners agreed with Cromley’s original assessment of the former nursery school — it wasn’t worth saving.

Several groups have kept in contact with Cromley about purchasing the property. No definite agreement has been reached, but by applying for — and hopefully receiving — permission for the 1,454-square-foot addition, he hopes to alleviate concerns about the building.

“My original calculation that it wasn’t economically feasible [for adaptive reuse] as it stood turned out to be the case because it was on the market for two years,” Cromley said. “It seems to me that the economic reality still holds true, so I’m trying to change the economic equation to make it big enough to be adaptable.”

To Planning Director Faroll Hamer, who has reviewed the plans and sought to reassure residents that the pending application would not signal the building’s demolition, Cromley’s solution is a clear-cut victory.

“We think it’s fabulous,” she said. “This is a great success story.”

Boyd Walker is one of the prominent residents who sought the building’s preservation — a list that also includes Ferdinand Day and Andrew Macdonald. He similarly praised Cromley’s efforts.

Walker, though, hopes the interested parties will — in some way — pay homage to the building’s history.

“[This] meets the goal: to save the building,” he said. “But many people in the community were hoping it would also serve a larger purpose, possibly as an extension of the Black History Museum or another possible use. Part of whether we know it’s a success story is whether it gets [saved] and what its future use will be.”

As for Cromley, more than five years after buying the property, he’s given up hopes of redeveloping it. If the building’s to be preserved, he said, it must be done correctly.

“I’m the developer and to develop something it … has to be in a way that works financially, and I’ve argued from day one that there wasn’t a way to make the building a financial success by preserving it,” Cromley said. “What I’m trying to do now is make sure that if it’s preserved, it’s preserved in a way that it’s actually restored. And the only way I can see that happening is increasing the footprint significantly.”

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