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Oasis Community gets foothold in new apartments

A historic school in Grand Rapids is being transformed into an apartment building that will include a few units reserved for the Oasis Community of West Michigan, a group dedicated to making sure that adults with special needs are included in new housing developments.

“A lot of people just don't know that the disabled are a huge percentage of our population,” said Grace Smith, the Eastern Elementary School project's design architect and a board member of the Oasis Community. “Pretty much everybody has an association with somebody who has a disability of some sort, whether it's cognitive, physical, behavioral, emotional or whatever the situation is. Sometimes all of the above. Lynn Surdock, the electrical engineer for this project, is also on the board at Oasis. We both do a lot of work with clients who do affordable housing, so the two of us have both made it our mission over the last few years to kind of educate them about the disabled population. Our mission was just to make sure they were aware that Oasis existed and what we were trying to do. We're not trying to build a whole separate community just for disabled people, we just want to be able to include them in other housing projects, to somehow get our foot in the door. We have all these people who could really benefit by moving into an apartment building. Some of the kids are very excited about finally having some independence and living for themselves.”

Eastern Elementary School, 758 Eastern Ave. NE, was built in 1929. It was one of the first public schools in the nation dedicated to the education of special needs individuals, so it already has many accessibility features. The school also served as the neighborhood's elementary for nearly 80 years. Smith said their goal is to restore as many of the building's historic 1929 features as possible.

“I'm the historic preservation architect, so my job is to do all the applications for the tax credits,” Smith said. “I document the historic building, I document what they're going to do to it and I work with all the contractors, designers, architects, engineers and everybody to tell them what they can and can't do to preserve that tax credit. Now that I've said they're going to keep all these things, they can't go in and start demolishing everything because then they'll lose the tax credit. Then in the end, when it's all finished, I have to take the documenting photographs to prove they did what they said they were going to do. That's how they get the certification and the credit.”

The school closed in 2008 and has remained vacant ever since. The Inner City Christian Federation bought the property 2013 with a goal of creating affordable housing for working families.

“Before they even bought the building, though, they met with neighbors, they had some open houses in the building and they had people come in to give ideas and opinions in an open discussion,” Smith said. I've been working with ICCF on this for a number of years. I got the building on the National Historic Register for them, which they needed to do in order to get a 20 percent federal historic preservation tax credit. Then we had to figure out where we are going to go with this building, what are we going to do, can we make the numbers work, how many apartments can we fit in there, how many do we have to fit in to make it financially feasible and what kind of funding can we pull together. That was the biggest issue, just getting the funding sorted out. I do a lot of these projects with non-profits who are pulling together tax credits, and it always comes down to funding. It's not cheap at all; they have a lot of work to do.”

The building is 62,500 square feet, four stories high, next door to a 2.5 acre public park with a playground and baseball diamond, and has a huge gymnasium.

“It's a nice building in a nice neighborhood on the northeast side of Grand Rapids,” Smith said. “It was a very big school, so it's a full, four story building, and it's just massive. You come around one side and it doesn't look that big, but it is really huge. All of the exterior will remain. We've got photographs of the historic windows. Right now, they have some smaller windows in and there's an insulation panel above these windows. That will all come out and they'll get new, large windows that will approximate the look of the historic windows. They'll be huge. They're also going to try to save as much on the inside as they can. The location of the corridors and the corridor walls will probably not change. They'll probably try to keep the door openings even though we might have to get new doors to get the fire rating that we need. The gym will be cleaned up and fixed where there are problems, but it will remain as is. That will also be used as a community space, so it could be used for a party, a potluck, a movie or anything like that. There's an upper part of the gym that will be used as an exercise room for the people who live there. There is also going to be an ICCF leasing office downstairs and there are two office or commercial spaces. We don't know what's going to be in there yet. There is going to be a lot more parking. The existing parking will be cleaned up and expanded, then on the northwest corner there is a big green space, a hill. It will be flattened out on top and there will be a big parking lot over there.”

The current plans call for 50 apartments, three of which are set aside for the Oasis Community.

“The discussion has been about how many people we can get to commit on our end,” Smith said. “If we have more than that, we might be able to get a few more. If we have less than that, we either need to find more people or we'll just sign up for one or two units if that's all we can fill. We're hoping we have the people and the interest. I think we have a lot of parents who are excited about it. But then sometimes they'll think, 'Oh, that means my kid is actually going to leave my house!' Mom and dad may have kept them under their wing a little bit and they're not quite sure they want them to go. That kind of slows things down. A great candidate to move out on their own would have to be very independent. They could cook for themselves, do laundry, go places on the bus, have a part-time job, and so forth. So our goal is to get people interested, then anybody who is really serious still has some time to get their kid trained, to get their child enrolled in some cooking classes if necessary, or whatever they need to do to prepare them to be successful as they move out on their own. They may not be able to live completely on their own, they may always have some assistance of some sort, maybe just somebody who comes in a couple days a week. Maybe some friends living on their own can kind of take care of each other, help each other out. 'What you can't do, I can do.' It seems like such a simple concept, but it's so hard, because parents want desperately to protect their children. And since schools are now required to educate these children, you see a lot more of these kids integrated into the public school system. So now they see their friends growing up to be independent adults and living on their own, and they want to do the same thing. But we're talking about kids with cognitive disabilities that may be way too trusting and could get into trouble because they trust the wrong people, so we have to make sure there are some kind of supports there to prevent that from happening, to prevent somebody from taking advantage of our kids. What we're hoping is to build community relationships within the building, so you have other people in the building who are kind of keeping an eye on the kids. It helps the other people in the building realize that our kids are wonderful, normal, healthy neighbors, to not be afraid of them, to help them and look out for them. That is the goal of the Oasis Community.”

Construction at Eastern Elementary is scheduled to start later this month. For more information about the Inner City Christian Federation, visit iccf.org. For more information about the Oasis Community, visit oasiscommunity.info.

“Society has changed,” Smith said “We used to keep our kids and family members who were cognitively impaired kind of tucked away at home and you didn't see them out much. But since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, everybody now has to comply, so you see a lot more people with disabilities out there.”

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