Hot real estate market in Aurora squeezes out space for charter schools

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There’s a quiet crisis developing in northwest Aurora for charter school advocates.

Available space for schools vying to open in ZIP code 80010 has all but disappeared in recent years, posing a major hurdle for educators aiming to bolster education in that corner of the city and stem the lingering dilemma of overcrowding and low performance at Aurora Public Schools.

“I have walked through every available space in northwest Aurora that was over 8,000 square feet — probably 40 or 50 properties,” said Sara Taylor, executive director of Laurus Collegiate Charter School, a K-8 charter school approved by APS last year. “I’ve been willing to make a lot of things work as long as it’s safe and secure, but there’s just not a lot out there.”

Taylor became the latest victim of northwest Aurora’s packed real estate scene last month when she was forced to petition the APS Board of Education for a one-year delay in opening her school. She cited the lack of a sufficient facility as the cause for the holdup.

The last two charter schools to open in the city were also forced to postpone opening one year due to an inability to secure an adequate location.

Taylor, who developed the curriculum for Laurus based on anecdotal data she collected during a one-year fellowship that allowed her to analyze charter schools across the country, said that she’s looked at every kind of structure to house the future school, from abandoned churches to blighted big-box stores. However, a packed market across all categories of real estate has made the task increasingly challenging.

Vacancy rates in ZIP code 80010 were well below five-year averages in the final quarter of 2015, according to data compiled by Denver-based real estate firm CoStar and provided by the Aurora Economic Development Council. During that time, the vacancy rates for office, industrial and retail spaces in that area of the city clocked in at 3.8 percent, 6.1 percent and 7.7 percent, respectively. The respective five-year averages are 6 percent, 15.3 percent and 10.8 percent.

Multifamily homes — which Taylor has considered as a solution to house Laurus — were also in short supply in north Aurora in the third and fourth quarters of last year. Residential vacancy rates hovered around 3 percent, according to CoStar and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. However, the condition of most of the neighborhood’s residential housing stock is vastly different than the rest of the city, which can make tabulating true vacancy rates tricky, according to city spokesman Michael Bryant.

“North Aurora’s stock of apartments tends to be older, with fewer units per building, and owned by private landlords, compared with many properties in other market areas of the city that are newer, have more units and are owned by corporations with property management companies,” Bryant wrote in an email.

The city’s aging infrastructure, as referenced by Bryant, is something Taylor has consistently wrestled with during her search for a building. She said that many of the facilities she looked at weren’t up to code and that it would be too expensive to repair them.

“To be at code, stairwells have to be a specific width, and because many of these building have never been schools or were built a long time ago, they’re not big enough,” she said. “That’s a tremendous expense because that (requires) structural renovation instead of just cosmetic. That’s been cost prohibitive.”

Taylor added that the proliferation of the marijuana industry has served as yet another hurdle.

“Most of the property along Colfax is within the boundaries of a dispensary, and that causes an issue for schools,” she said.

Under state statute, a recreational marijuana shop cannot operate within 1,000 feet of a school.

Despite the ongoing obstacles, Taylor said the she is determined to open her school in a neighborhood that is in desperate need of additional education options.

“We really want to be in the 80010 ZIP code if possible because that’s the majority of where the students we want to serve will be, and we want to make sure it’s not a challenge for our students to get to school,” she said.

Laurus Collegiate has already received letters of intent from more than 140 families and is tentatively slated to begin serving students in the fall of 2017, according to Taylor.

When it opens, the school will operate as a part of the Aurora Public Schools District and become one of only a handful of charters to join APS since 2008, according to APS charter coordinator Wendy Sullivan.

Sullivan acknowledged the difficulty of finding an appropriate space in northwest Aurora, though she said that the district welcomes educators who are interested in opening new, qualified schools in the area.

“I would say that APS is one of the districts that’s faced with fairly significant facility challenges,” she said. “We don’t have much space for charters and we don’t have the commercial space that lends itself to schools.”

Sullivan added that APS recently changed its charter application and review rules to give school backers more time to find amenable facilities.

But such changes came too late for Jennifer Douglas, founder of New Legacy High School, which opened as a part of the state-regulated Charter School Institute last year.

Douglas’ school, which serves pregnant and parenting teens, was forced to pump the brakes on opening its doors due to its own fruitless search for a building. New Legacy eventually partnered with the Urban Land Conservancy to demolish a derelict bowling alley on Montview Boulevard and Dayton Street and construct a new facility in its place.

“We looked at what felt like every possible facility in (80010) without any luck at all,” she said. “When we had to make the decision to delay it was really disheartening and so tough. But having been through it, it was absolutely the right thing to do.”