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Nonprofits

In Joppa, a Shuttered School Could Become a Community Center

A partnership between HKS and the former freedmen's town aims to remake the old Melissa Pierce School into a vibrant community center.
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The main entry of The Place at Honey Springs, where the existing school and new construction meet. Courtesy: HKS

The story of Melissa Pierce School is also the story of Joppa, the neighborhood in which it sits. Formerly enslaved people founded this freedmen’s town on the banks of the Trinity River after the Civil War. Following decades of isolation and neglect as the city grew, present-day residents want to turn the neighborhood’s historic school into its only community center.

Named for the daughter of a slave who donated the land for the school, Melissa Pierce was built in 1953 to offer a closer option for Black children in a segregated Wilmer-Hutchins School District. It operated as an elementary, middle school, and K-12 school over the years. As school districts gradually began to desegregate following Brown v. Board of Education, Joppa’s children had more options for schooling in nearby Dallas ISD. Melissa Pierce’s enrollment declined until the school closed in 1968.

A church used the building before it was donated to Habitat for Humanity, which built more than 100 homes in the area over the last two decades. During that time, Joppa became increasingly isolated from the rest of the city. Bordered by the Trinity River, train tracks, highways, and heavy industry, the community lacked access to healthy food and many other taxpayer-funded resources and services readily available to the rest of Dallas. It recently lost regular bus service and has never had a public space for gatherings.

Fifth-generation Joppa resident Shalondria Galimore is leading the effort to change that reality. Galimore is now the Joppa Neighborhood Association president and the CEO and founder of the Melissa Pierce Project, the nonprofit behind transforming the Melissa Pierce School into a community center. Habitat previously planned to build homes on the Melissa Pierce property, but Galimore and the Joppa community worked to preserve the building and convinced Habitat to donate it so it could be redeveloped.

UT Arlington architecture students and faculty stepped in to help, talking with neighborhood residents to learn how they would like to see the school adapted to serve the community. They organized charettes and interviewed neighbors to understand what the school meant to Joppa and how it could serve the neighborhood going forward.

News of the work in Joppa found its way to Citizen HKS, a public interest studio within the Dallas-based architecture firm that does pro-bono architecture and design work. Agustin Mauro and Mariana Santiago, two Argentine architects working for HKS, took lead on the project. They met with Galimore and other stakeholders who were often wary of outsiders’ influence on the community after decades of systemic racism.

“I have always been passionate about reusing preexisting buildings and readapting them. Most people would prefer to tear it down and build from scratch,” says Mauro, the lead designer on the project. “But I was pushing toward keeping the school because of its meaning and architectural value to the community. It has been one of my biggest drivers for getting involved.”

Eventually, a vision emerged for a $20 million community center that would repurpose most of the school while adding square footage to create a new multifunction space. The old school will house classrooms that can be modularly configured to meet different needs. The new building will include a basketball court, and more classroom and office space will be installed along a spine connecting the two main structures. “As a native of Joppa, I am glad that the community lined up,” Galimore says. “This is what we needed.”

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The front plaza offers opportunities for concerts, fitness classes, and food vendors. Courtesy: HKS

The center will be called The Place at Honey Springs, named after the original community that preceded Joppa’s incorporation and the creek that runs through the neighborhood. Renderings show a soccer field, indoor pool, garden, food co-op space, and several multipurpose rooms and outdoor areas. Galimore hopes that the center can be leveraged to address food insecurity, mental and physical health issues, and community-building hurdles that exist in Joppa today. She says the organization has met with Methodist Health System and the YMCA to discuss offering healthcare and other community services, and she is working with additional partners who will want to use the space.

Now that a conceptual design is in place, Galimore is heading up the fundraising. The project was recently awarded the Greater Dallas Planning Council Dream Project Award, and if everything goes to plan, they hope to break ground on the community center this fall.

The completed project design is ammunition for the fundraising effort, and Galimore says she plans to organize at least four fundraisers this year, including a celebrity golf tournament. Details are still being ironed out, but the project received a $250,000 brownfield project grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to prepare the land for construction. Additionally, Galimore says the YMCA, local chambers of commerce, and the city may choose to be financial backers of the center.

Since the founding of the Melissa Pierce Project, Galimore says the organization has raised $100,000. She says she is confident that clarity on the vision for The Place at Honey Springs will help them meet their goal.

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The courtyard could host larger events and could include aeroponic gardening. Courtesy HKS

She sees the community center as a catalyst for a return to the vibrant community that residents of Joppa remember.

“To come back to Joppa and see that not much has changed, it was evident what needed to happen,” Galimore says. “Joppa is a food and transportation desert with a lack of social and civic services, numerous environmental hazards, and a plethora of disadvantages. With the multipurpose center, all the services can work together to yield success.”

Author

Will Maddox

Will Maddox

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Will is the senior editor for D CEO magazine and the editor of D CEO Healthcare. He's written about healthcare…

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