Nonprofit eyes new life at former Cooley High School in Detroit

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Cooley High School has been vacant since 2010.

Detroit — A nonprofit organization wants to breathe new life into the former Cooley High School building and 18-acre campus, creating a community hub with mental health and education services for Detroit families.

Leaders with Life Remodeled, which repurposes vacant school buildings, announced a proposal last week to buy and transform the vacant high school building and its property on the city's west side near Fenkell and Hubbell Avenue. 

Possible uses include pediatric mental health services, a junior college and career education program with student housing and a synthetic football field, said Chris Lambert, CEO and founder of Life Remodeled.

"We've been listening and learning from the community for two years and we all agree this project needs to be equitable and sustainable for this community," Lambert said. "We are very much committed to continually earning the trust of the neighbors that live near the school, implementing the community's vision for this project, and working alongside other organizations/stakeholders who have like-minded missions and passion for this community."

Lambert said his organization will present a proposal for $400,000 to the Detroit Public Schools Community school board in coming weeks to buy the property and wants to raise $37.5 million to redevelop 320,000 square feet of building space. 

The building was appraised in 2017, Lambert said, when it was deemed worth $400,000 but after a fire later that year, it has deteriorated.

The vacant high school sits on Detroit's west side.

Located on 18 acres, Cooley High School opened in 1928 and has remained vacant since it closed in 2010.

"The building infrastructure at Cooley has deteriorated almost beyond repair and needs immediate attention before it’s too late," Lambert said. "Along with our partners, we are ready to begin this work immediately."

One of the classrooms of the former Cooley High School. The school closed and has remained vacant since 2010.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, said the district will provide the board in January with a draft 20-year facility plan that will recommend an investment of about $700 million of one-time COVID relief funding for new school buildings, major school building renovations and projects related to upgraded roofs and HVAC systems. It will also address vacant properties like Cooley.

"The plan will also make recommendations to address the vacant properties the District still owns, including investments for new or upgraded school buildings or the sale of those properties," Vitti said.

"The School Board and Superintendent have only sold vacant properties if the district did not predict a long-term use for the building or property and has always sold that property at or above market value," Vitti said.

Community members say the site needs to be redeveloped.

A rendering of the plans to redevelop 320,000 square feet of the former high school.

"Since 2010 we’ve experienced the ramifications of blight and crime perpetrated by the vacancy and abandonment of Cooley High School, including a loss of life," said Pastor Will Council of Calvary United Methodist Church. "There is a fierce urgency of now to actively move the partnership with Life Remodeled forward. We are ready for a hub of opportunities in our community."

Kevin Roach, CEO of Methodist Children’s Home Society, said a mental health crisis needs to be addressed in the city, state and nation. 

"We want Cooley to also become a place where kids can go to escape crisis and begin to heal, meeting urgent demand for services that sadly, are not yet available in Detroit," Roach said.

Graffiti near the side and rear of Cooley High School.