April 25, 2023
Read article on TheOaklandPress.com
Drayton Plains Elementary School, at 3000 Sashabaw Road in Waterford, has been empty for years. An attractive nuisance. That’s changing.
Joe Bruz, owner of Luke’s Excavating, had been driving by the old school routinely. Then he learned it was about to be demolished and alerted an old friend Ramiz Sheena of a chance to redevelop the site. Sheena and Bob Sowles, his business partner for more than 20 years at Highland-based Rave’s Construction, were intrigued.
“I was born and raised in Waterford,” said Sowles. For years, he specialized in custom home renovations but more recently has been devoted to renovation projects for Kroger.
“They were talking about tearing it down, but my partner and I thought we could keep and preserve it,” Sowles said.
It’s harder to remodel an old building than to simply tear down and rebuild, Sowles said, but he, Sheena and Bruz are all Waterford natives. They liked the idea of preserving what they could of the old school. The building, which is more than 23,000-square feet, stands on just over four acres of land.
Tentative plans call for 21 units ranging from 800 to 1,400 square feet, with a line of garages for residents. Available basement space will provide up to 400 square feet to the smaller units, for storage and a laundry area, Sowles said.
The township has approved rezoning the site but officials still must review building plans and sign off on construction permits. That work could take up to six months. Sowles estimates construction would be complete about a year after that.
During the rezoning process for the parcel, some residents worried that the complex would disrupt the quiet neighborhood.
Sowles is quick to say the units will be condominiums that are purchased, not rentals. He said the price range is still being determined and will be based on market rates set months from now.
“We could have up to 21 units, with the units where the gym is having two stories with an overhead loft,” Sowles said.
The project is so new it doesn’t have an official name, just the lofts at Drayton Plains Elementary. Sowles said he’d like to somehow incorporate the school’s original sandstone sign into the project.
The brick school, completed in 1925, replaced an older wooden school building, according to Sally Strait, Waterford Historical Society’s president, who also grew up in the township.
The old wooden schoolhouse was donated in 1965 to the Oakland County Pioneer & Historical Society and has been preserved at Pinegrove.
The brick school’s auditorium/gymnasium was added in 1933 as part of a Works Progress Administration project. For years, students in grades one through eight attended classes there, until the school district added junior-high schools, Strait said. The last district classes were taught there in 1979, according to the Waterford Historical Society’s history of the building
The front part of the school is the oldest. The main exterior changes will be to doors and windows, but the brick facade will be preserved, Sowles said.
Strait is thrilled with the plans for the brick schoolhouse.
“Maybe that’s odd for a historical person, but I think there’s a way to preserve what we had and move into the future,” she said. “We have to be realistic. We’d love to buy old buildings and restore them, but the cost is prohibitive for a lot of organizations … It’s great when a person comes in and wants to do that. I was very positive about this from the very beginning.”
She’s hoping the renovation will get people excited about the future as well as talking about Drayton Plains’ past.
“Change is not always bad. That poor school has been sitting there, getting bedraggled and not being taken care of, not getting landscaped. It’s an eyesore now but we’ll see something that looks cool,” she said.
Work so far involved interior demolition and asbestos abatement, Sowles said.
Rave Construction peeled off interior layers added over the years revealing clean pine rafters, which will remain exposed, Sowles said. They’ve also found decorative brick tiles under plaster.
“I’ve seen it before,” Sowles said, explaining it’s a sign of attention to detail by the original builders.
Still, there were parts of the building that just couldn’t be saved, some of it vandalized while the building sat empty.
Bruz said as word is spreading through the community about the project, people are getting excited.
Jeffrey Polkowski, the township’s planning and zoning superintendent, said this project is the first of its kind – and exactly the type of housing that will draw older residents who are downsizing and young professionals who are looking for a place to live before buying a single-family home.
Attracting young professionals is important to the longevity of the community, he said. The school renovation is the first sign of revitalization of the Drayton Plains community. A stretch of Dixie Highway that runs through the area is slated to become a walkable downtown area.
Township Supervisor Gary Wall didn’t attend the school but his two children, Dennis Wall and Shelly Wall, were among the Drayton Plains Elementary’s last students. Wall’s dad, aunt and uncle also attended decades earlier.
“I see this as a great redevelopment project of this historic building,” he said.