More than a year after announcing its intention to purchase and transform the vacant Cooley High School on the city’s west side, Life Remodeled’s offers have been rejected by the Detroit Public Schools Community District board.
The Detroit-based nonprofit initially offered the school district $400,000 for the property, which has been vacant since 2010, with a plan to invest $37.5 million in development over three years. Following negotiations, the organization gave the board two offers: $1 million in cash for the complete property, including approximately 5.7 acres of athletic property; or $500,000 in cash, excluding the athletic property, with a promise to eventually donate $1 million to the school district.
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Life Remodeled announced the board rejected both offers Friday afternoon, two weeks before the March 31 deadline placed on the final offers.
“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,” said Life Remodeled CEO Chris Lambert in a letter to community members Friday. “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.”
The bid on the property was not discussed during the board’s March 14 meeting, and a spokeswoman for the district could not confirm whether the topic was mentioned during the board’s closed session, which lasted more than an hour. During the meeting, board chair Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said negotiations with Life Remodeled were ongoing, however, Life Remodeled COO Diallo Smith said the organization received the official rejection shortly after the board’s closed session ended.
A statement from a district spokesperson Friday afternoon reads: “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. 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.”
Life Remodeled planned to repurpose the former high school into an innovation opportunity hub, similar to its Durfee Innovation Society, where it would house for-profit and nonprofit tenants that offer workforce development and youth programming. The building has fallen into disrepair in the years since the high school shuttered in 2010, with extensive water, roofing and fire damages, making the negotiations particularly urgent, Life Remodeled leaders said.
“We’re disappointed to say the least,” Life Remodeled COO Diallo Smith said in a conversation with the Free Press Friday. “Quite frankly, it’s a little numbing. While I respect their approach and their decision, it seems a little remarkable and hard to make sense of.”
DPSCD awarded Life Remodeled the bid for the vacant building in October 2022, and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti recommended the board sell Cooley at $400,000 and pending negotiations for a purchase agreement. The proposal never reached the full board for a vote, instead communications were transferred to each party’s legal team and months passed with no official commitment.
After securing the bid, the school district withdrew the purchase agreement framework associated with the request for proposal and said it instead wants to enter a five-year development agreement that the district could revoke at any time, according to Life Remodeled. The agreement laid out a rigid construction timeline and a fundraising plan for the $37.5 million of development funds that Life Remodeled must complete before beginning construction and securing lease agreements with tenants.
These requirements would make it difficult to attract donation commitments and other forms of financing, making the entire project essentially “not plausible,” Smith said. “What they wanted was for us to be able to not have the property but for us to be able to show that we’ve raised every single penny of the construction costs before we can even have access or ownership of the property, well that’s backwards.”
The rejection does not mean the door is completely closed on the Cooley project, Smith said.
“There’s always a change of mind change of heart, there’s always a revisiting of the facts to maybe come to a better conclusion,” he said. “We don’t know if that will happen with the board, but we certainly would be willing to listen if there was a change of mind or change of heart in regard to their current format of expectations for a purchase agreement.”