Could teachers find a home at the Indian River Mall?

Indian River Mall [File 2018]

Does it make any sense to attempt to convert vacant retail space at the languishing Indian River Mall into apartments for teachers?

That’s one possibility being considered by the Indian River County School Board, which believes creating more affordable housing in Vero Beach would help the district recruit new teachers and retain current instructors.

The board recently agreed to form a committee, which will include board members, teachers and community representatives, to explore different affordable housing options – including building apartments in the former department store buildings vacated, or soon to be vacated, by Sears and Macy’s.

“Finding affordable housing in Vero Beach can be very difficult, especially for someone on a teacher’s salary,” said board member Teri Barenborg, who proposed the idea during the board’s Feb. 11 work session. “Many teachers can’t afford to live and work here.”

Liz Cannon, president of the districts’ teachers union, could not be reached for comment.

Superintendent David Moore, who expressed support for the idea, said the issue of affordable housing for teachers is one many districts are facing. Moore said his previous employer, Miami-Dade School District, created housing for teachers that has been very successful.

“This could be a unique way to attract new, young individuals who will invest in the community,” Moore told the board.

The idea of creating teacher housing is growing more popular across the country as districts located where housing is pricey struggle to attract and retain teachers, Moore and Barenborg said.

Only a handful of districts in Florida already have some sort of teacher housing, but in other parts of the country, the strategy is common and has worked well.

Moore and the board noted that creating apartments at the Indian River Mall isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. The Sears store is now closed, and Macy’s is in the final days of a going-out-of-business sale, and board members say the massive spaces could be renovated and turned into apartments.

Each store is around 140,000 square feet in size, and could conceivably be redeveloped to include two levels, which would double the square footage.

And it is not an untested idea. In Rhode Island, a developer revamped shopping center space into “a complex of micro apartments so popular that 4,000 people are on the waiting list to move in,” according to Businessinsider.com.

Moore and board members said they have not yet discussed their idea with the owners of the empty department stores, and mall officials could not be reached for comment.

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