A chunk of residential properties previously earmarked for a city-ordered auction has presented an expansion opportunity for a local private school.
Richmond City Council this week approved the purchase of eight tax-delinquent parcels along North 29th Street in the city’s East End, the bulk of them comprising half a city block across Newbourne Street from Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School.
Ownership of the properties, totaling just over 1 acre, will be transferred to the school, which plans to build a 30,000-square-foot building to include a gymnasium and additional classrooms and offices.
Head of School Mike Maruca said the expansion, which he estimates would cost between $5 million and $6 million, will help the school expand tuition-free classes to include kindergarten and first, second and third grades. The 9-year-old school, which started as a middle school, also offers tuition-free fourth and fifth grades.
The faith-based school offers full-tuition scholarships valued at $14,000 annually to just over 100 students, more than 75 percent of whom reside in public subsidized housing.
Maruca, who has led Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal since its inception following stints at The Steward School and with the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, said the school had been mulling expansion opportunities when they noticed signs on the nearby properties declaring them as tax-delinquent.
“This whole block right next to us, except for a couple of dilapidated, boarded-up former homes, is completely vacant – overgrown, trash, but there it is right next door to us, and still right across from Creighton,” he said. “We thought it would be cool to maybe one day get that, and then we saw all of a sudden these signs went up saying an auction would be happening.”
The school is housed in a one-story brick building built in 1974 and owned by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. It previously was used for subsidized childcare for residents of the nearby Creighton Court housing complex, Maruca said.
A recently completed $600,000 addition enlarged the building’s cafeteria, which also serves as a multipurpose room, as is the plan for the gym, he said. As was the case with that project, funds for the new building will be provided entirely through private donations, which also cover the school’s $1.5 million annual operating budget.
Maruca said the auction for the delinquent properties was to be held last August, but the parcels were removed from the sale with a verbal commitment to sell them to the school following talks with the RRHA and city councilwoman Cynthia Newbille, herself a product of public housing, having grown up in the East End’s Whitcomb Court.
Maruca said the plan was for the school to receive the land by way of the city selling it to the RRHA, but those plans were changed to allow the city to give the land to the school directly.
The total purchase price for the land is just over $145,000, covering the amount of taxes due on them and other expenses and fees. Four of the parcels previously were owned by Sandston-based Richmond Investment Company Inc., while city property records show one was owned by Richmond-based Tower Building Properties LLC and another by Chesapeake-based M & M Corp.
Maruca said the school is in talks with several design-build firms to handle architectural plans and construction for the new building. He would not disclose the firms considered but said a selection would be made in about a month.
Permits pending, Maruca said the school is aiming to start construction within a year, with the project expected to take about 18 months.
Named for the African-American educator and activist, Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal employs 10 full-time teachers who lead single-gender middle-school classes and mixed-gender classes for grades 4 and 5. Students in grades 6-8 can participate in athletics, and the school boasts a high graduation rate, with 100 percent of its first class of students graduating high school and 70 percent enrolling in college.
The land purchase and transfer is the latest boost from the city for the area around Creighton Court. Work is underway to replace the old Armstrong High School property nearby with a 256-unit mixed-income subdivision called Church Hill North, while construction is starting on a new culinary school and grocery store planned at Nine Mile Road, North 25th Street and Fairmount Avenue.