Rochester eyes millage to save old RCS admin building

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published February 21, 2024

 The city of Rochester hopes to ask voters this fall if they would support a millage to help the city save the Rochester Community School District’s historical administration building at 501 W. University Drive.

The city of Rochester hopes to ask voters this fall if they would support a millage to help the city save the Rochester Community School District’s historical administration building at 501 W. University Drive.

File photo by Mary Beth Almond


ROCHESTER — Voters could be the deciding factor on whether the Rochester Community School District’s historical administration building at 501 W. University Drive will remain standing in downtown Rochester for years to come.

The city of Rochester hopes to ask Rochester voters this fall if they would support a millage to help the city save the structure. Rochester Mayor Stuart Bikson and City Councilwoman Debbie Jones recently appeared before the RCS Board of Education to see if the district would be interested in collaborating on the project.

The old Rochester Community Schools administration building complex has “an important legacy in our town,” according to Bikson.

“Everywhere I go, people always ask me, ‘What’s going on with the administration building?’ And … everybody is very interested in it. A lot of people, especially some seniors who have gone there and things like that, have a very warm place in their heart for the building,” he said.

“It was my middle school, so I have a personal attachment to that building,” added Jones.

A school building has been on the site since 1847, Rochester-Avon Historical Society President Tiffany Dziurman said, when a private academy was first built on the property. It was converted to a public school in 1857, burned down in a reported arson fire in 1888 and was eventually replaced with a new school in 1889 — first known as the Avon School District #5 Schoolhouse and eventually renamed the William S. Harrison School. In 1916, the first Rochester High School building was built at the corner of University Drive and Wilcox Street, and it was eventually connected to the Harrison School building via an addition in 1928. The 1889 Harrison School building was placed on the Michigan Register of Historic Places in 1987, although an official marker was never erected for the building. The district’s last major renovation of the structure was in 1988.

Knowing that the building is in dire need of updates, the school district hired architect Kingscott & Associates to complete an assessment of the structure in 2018, which identified issues with infrastructure, code and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance that would cost the district anywhere between $21.2 million and $29.1 million in renovations. Tearing it down and constructing a new facility would cost between $26.4 million and $31.4 million, according to the 2018 report.

The district ultimately opted to purchase the former Letica Corp. office and warehouse facility at 52585 Dequindre Road for $7 million to serve as its new administration building, leaving the old building vacant.

In an effort to save the old admin building for the city and surrounding community, the city of Rochester is interested in exploring a collaboration with the district.

“We would potentially like to turn this building into our city offices, maybe a home for the nonprofits in our community, and we have some other excellent ideas that we are looking at pursuing, so we have some pretty big plans for the building, but … we’re in the very initial stages,” Bikson explained. “We do understand that this building would take millions of dollars to renovate. We clearly understand that, and we are committed to looking at putting a millage on the ballot this fall to raise that money and also to give the voters of our city an opportunity to weigh in on this project.”

“Ultimately, it’s very important that this goes to the vote of the people, and I think that’s also something that the council is really emphasizing,” Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Salvia said.

During the Feb. 12 RCS Board of Education meeting, board members shared their preliminary support for the idea and agreed to meet with city officials to discuss the details further.

Trustee Andrew Weaver said the proposition is “very encouraging,” adding that the process with the old admin building has “really generated a lot of emotion” in the community. He said he also appreciates the city’s “sense of urgency,” since the building has been sitting vacant for a long time.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “The community has made it clear that’s really what they feel, and giving them the opportunity to vote on it, I’m just here for it.”

“I think a lot of people wanted to see something like this,” added Trustee Jayson Blake.

Trustee Jessica Gupta said she is also “encouraged” by the idea.

“I’m not comfortable with the idea of us donating such a large asset, but I’m sure there could be a way, creatively, to work together in a collaborative way that is mutually beneficial. … Hopefully, we can get something together and move forward,” she said.

RCS Vice President Barb Anness encouraged the city to think about opening the potential Rochester millage proposal up to residents of Rochester Hills and Oakland Township as well.

“I know there are folks that have a lot of deep roots in the city of Rochester proper that live in Rochester Hills and Oakland Township. They’re watching what is happening with this building, so my recommendation would be to cast a wider net,” she said.

The first step in the project, Bikson explained, is to meet with the district to construct some kind of agreement between the city and the district.

“We’re not sure what that looks like, but we want to explore that and see what we can do,” he said.

Bikson said any ballot language would need to be submitted by May or June to make it on the ballot this fall.

“It is a very aggressive timeline, so between identifying the need so that you can put numbers to it — because the quotes that we have are eight years old or something, so we know they are going to be outdated as well from a cost perspective — I look forward to hearing more and, hopefully, we can get all those details wrapped up so that this can get on the ballot and can move forward,” said Board President Michelle Bueltel.

The city’s annual budget is around $16 million-$17 million, according to Bikson, so he said the residents would have to look at “a serious mill or two to make the project work.”

“We have a very small budget, and we will need help with the community,” Jones added. “If it doesn’t pass and the building gets torn down, we’ve done everything we can to save the building. The whole community would need to support this venture, and I’m really hopeful that we will save that building.”

Jones said she’s also exploring, through legislators, the potential to secure grant funding for the project.

“There is a trend right now to save old schools, and I am sure there is grant money out there that could be helpful in this process,” she said. “Unfortunately, we are on a time frame, and a lot of times it’s a slow-turning wheel on grants, but I will do everything I can to see if there are any funds that can help not burden the citizens so much.”