National

TOO COSTLY TO RAZE BUT NOT TO RENT OUT

Closed schools finding new leases on life

With schools closing left and right amid the nation’s declining birthrate, necessity is forcing cash-strapped local governments to come up with creative ways to reuse such facilities, many of which are aging.

Take for example Mikawadai Junior High School in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. Its students were incorporated into nearby Jonan Junior High School in 1998 due to a drop in enrollment.

The 45-year-old building has been renamed Minato NPO House and is now home to 27 nonprofit organizations.

“We are heading in the direction of utilizing the resources of the private sector,” said Takashi Sugimoto, a ward official in charge of vacated school buildings. “NPO House showcases our effort to work with NPOs.”

In the past, the ward would have shunned the idea of renting out vacated schools to private companies and groups, believing public property should not be used to the benefit of certain private entities.

However, such conventional notions have become obsolete as the ward enhances cooperation with NGOs in providing public services, Sugimoto said. Services offered by some of the groups operating out of the former school building include assistance for patients with atopic dermatitis and boxed-lunch deliveries to senior citizens.

According to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, 311 elementary, junior high and high schools closed nationwide in fiscal 2001 — a 64.6 percent surge from 189 in fiscal 1992. This trend follows the general decline in the nation’s birthrate.

School closures are not only conspicuous in rural regions experiencing depopulation but also in central urban areas undergoing commercial development, according to a recent ministry report.

In Tokyo alone, 165 schools were closed down between fiscal 1992 and fiscal 2001, the second-largest figure by prefecture after Hokkaido.

Although it had been common practice for local governments to tear down schools after they closed and build new public facilities, such as gymnasiums and community centers, this is no longer a viable option as the protracted recession eats away at tax revenues.

“We have no extra financial resources to build new facilities, which cost at least a couple billion yen each,” said Tomohiro Yoshino, who is in charge of industrial promotion in Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward. “Our tax revenues have fallen to the level of 16 years ago.”

Some local governments, including Arakawa Ward, are trying to go beyond just filling empty space with tenants by linking the “recycling” of school buildings with a local industrial revival.

In 2001, the ward started renting out classrooms of the former Dokanyama Junior High School to venture firms. The move enabled the ward to attract new businesses at minimal cost — just setting up a fiber-optic network, according to Yoshino.

Drawn by a monthly rent of just 10,000 yen and the convenient location, 156 venture companies applied, from which the ward selected 20.

Although tenants must pay a 200,000 yen deposit and 20,000 yen a month for utilities, it is still a bargain, especially for a fledgling firm whose financial standing is unstable, said Teiichi Yokoyama, president of Cyber Crew Corp., one of the firms that operate from the building.

Tokyo’s Sumida Ward has taken this a step further by teaming up with a private university to promote industrial revival.

This fall, the ward plans to turn part of the former Nishiazuma Elementary School into a “business incubation facility” in cooperation with Waseda University. The university is expected to rent the first floor of the four-story building, which has been vacant since 2000, to jointly conduct research and development with local manufacturers.

By promoting exchanges between local firms and the private university, which has the technological seeds for new products, the ward aims to breathe new life into local small and midsize companies that have been hard hit by the economic slump, officials said.

Another factor that is pushing municipalities to reuse, rather than tear down, vacant schools, is the legal obligation to return a portion of school construction and remodeling subsidies to the central government when they are converted into other facilities.

“The subsidy issue certainly serves as an obstacle (to converting schools), but (reusing school buildings) is no big hurdle,” Minato Ward’s Sugimoto said.

Reusing old school buildings has another benefit for local government officials: It enables them to avoid what Sugimoto called “the most difficult and time-consuming” part of building something new — trying to harmonize a new facility with the surrounding community in such aspects as cityscape and safety.

Since schools tend to occupy large plots, what takes their place could have a significant impact on the lives of people living nearby, he said.

Minato Ward regularly receives project offers from private developers due to its prime location at the capital’s center. But mainly due to this obstacle, only four of the 11 public school buildings that were closed down between 1991 and 1998 have been or plan to be changed into other facilities, the official said.

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