• The 108-year-old Bancroft Elementary and its grounds in Kansas City, Mo., will be transformed into 50 affordable rental apartments supported by a wide range of on-site community services.

    Credit: Courtesy Make It Right and BNIM

    The 108-year-old Bancroft Elementary and its grounds in Kansas City, Mo., will be transformed into 50 affordable rental apartments supported by a wide range of on-site community services.

This summer marked the 13th consecutive year that no student graduated from Bancroft Elementary in the Manheim Park neighborhood of Kansas City, Mo. Shuttered in 1999, the historic, 108-year-old school has gone from a vibrant community hub to a constant reminder of inner-city decline in what is known locally as the Killing Zip Code.

“The placement of a school is so critical and central to a neighborhood, that when it goes dark, it sucks the life out of the surrounding community,” says Bob Berkebile of BNIM and the Vision 2020 topic chair for Regenerative Design. “If you can reintroduce life into it, you can transform a neighborhood.”

The team behind the Bancroft Redevelopment Project including (among many stakeholders, including residents) BNIM, local developer Dalmark Group, and Make It Right, the nonprofit foundation created by actor Brad Pitt to rebuild a section of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, broke ground recently to transform the old, three-story school and its grounds into 50 affordable rental apartments supported by a wide range of on-site community services.

But the project is far more than just buildings and repurposed space. It is the first injection of what Berkebile calls “a healthy virus” through “urban acupuncture” that will ideally spread not only through the greater Manheim Park neighborhood, but also to similar communities locally and across the country.

“There’s a lot of potential for this model because there are a lot of urban centers with a lot of empty schools,” says Berkebile, noting that the development team has already identified three others in Kansas City’s designated Green Impact Zone. “It’s a whole new approach to housing and access to public-realm services that really adds to the vitality of a community that we’re not getting in typical development models.”

Almost everything about the Bancroft project is different than the norm, and in almost every way better. Per the Make It Right financial model that proved successful in New Orleans, the $14 million project will have no debt upon its completion about a year from now. All six buildings, including the school, with units ranging from 668 to 1,200 square feet (including 10 percent designed for special needs), will be LEED-Platinum and rent from as low as $200 to no more than $600 a month.

The list goes on: Roof gardens for urban agriculture and native landscaping irrigated with recycled greywater and stormwater runoff will cool both buildings and grounds and foster community and sustainability; training for local contractors about building green will help develop local resources and skills, creating and maintaining jobs; deals with a local health care provider and local police to provide on-site services and combine with job training, child care, recreational opportunities, and public gathering spaces.

“This project proves that the model we established in New Orleans will translate to other disaster areas, in this case economic and social,” says Tim Duggan, the local coordinator for Make It Right and a former BNIM associate. “We’re already getting calls from mayors wanting us to ‘do the Bancroft’ in their cities.”

For Berkebile, the project provides one more example of the value of community input and leadership (which continues) and communal goals that hold the key to regenerating the industry. “It is the perfect time to redefine the market and the housing being provided to meet new needs,” he says, “with a greater interest in people’s health and the health of their neighbors and the community and the planet.”