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Sunday, March 11, 2001

CLOSED SCHOOLS GET NEW LEASE

Empty classrooms renovated for public use


Staff writer

With the birthrate declining, Tokyo municipalities have found that a growing number of school buildings are not being used. More wards are responding by renovating these vacant classrooms for wider use, ranging from offices to child-care centers.

Leading the way is Arakawa Ward, which is revamping unused classrooms to help revitalize local industry.

In October, the ward will start renting office space from the remodeled classrooms of a junior high school due to close at the end of this month. The offices will mainly serve IT-related venture businesses.

"The project may be the first of its kind in this country," said Yukihisa Kuriyama, of the Arakawa Ward Office's local commerce and industry promotion section.

The Nishi-Nippori Start Up Office will open a building at the municipal Dokanyama Junior High School, which is scheduled to relocate in a merger with another nearby junior high school.

Under the 80 million yen project, the ward plans to have the four-story building, which is a three-minute walk from JR Nishi-Nippori Station, house 20 offices of 30 sq.-meters each with monthly rents of 10,000 yen.

"The rent is about one-tenth of the market price for a business office in a similar condition in the area," Kuriyama said.

"We set the price aiming at encouraging venture businesses which, we hope, will stimulate the local industry by taking root in the area," he said.

Indeed, Nishi-Nippori is known as a hub for the ward's IT-related businesses. Kuriyama expects the project to help local industry widen the network and provide opportunities for information exchanges.

"Already, we have received about 300 inquiries about the project from across the country, far beyond our expectations," he said.

An annual survey conducted by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry shows that the number of public elementary school students decreased more than 20 percent in the last decade from 9.26 million in the 1990 academic year to 7.24 million in the 2000 academic year.

In addition to the declining birthrate, soaring prices of land in central Tokyo in the asset-inflated bubble economy of the late 1980s made many residents leave.

Another survey, by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, shows the number of elementary school pupils in the metropolis dropped by 151,700 over the past 10 years, leaving more public schools either partly or wholly unused.

Public school facilities in Japan have long been designed for exclusively educational use. But given these figures, the government has started encouraging local governments to make wider use of the space.

In a similar recycling of an old school, Chuo Ward has opened a multipurpose complex on the old site of Kyoka Elementary School, which closed eight years ago, close to JR Hatchobori Station and near the busy Ginza district.

Kyoka Square opened in February and includes a center promoting local business, a community center, an employment information office for senior citizens and a branch of Waseda University's extension program center.

"The space and the building in this central part of Tokyo are very valuable property," said Hirofumi Saitoh, director of the commerce and industry section of Chuo Ward Office.

"I really wanted to make use of this chance (to reuse the space) to promote the local industry and to revitalize the area."

The printing industry, which accounts for nearly 80 percent of industry in the ward, has deteriorated amid stiff competition brought on by rapid technological changes in the past decade, Saitoh said.

He said the promotion center, where local workers exchange information on the latest technology, will help revive the industry.

The complex, which offers university programs to local residents and job information to senior citizens, also provides a public space where people -- including many graduates of the former elementary school -- can meet and learn, he said.

"It would be very nice that a vacant school building is given a new life by being used by local adults in this way," Saitoh said.

In Nerima Ward, western Tokyo, two day-care centers for under 2-year-olds, one adjoining Asahigaoka Junior High School's gymnasium and the other in classrooms of Oizumi No. 1 Elementary School, opened in February.

According to the ward office, the centers were opened in response to high demand. Although the ward has 72 day-care centers, which can accommodate 7,400 children, about 500 more applicants were on waiting lists as of January.

"The demand for day nursing services has been growing beyond supply (in the ward)," said Eisaku Kori, chief of the child care section of the Nerima Ward Office.

A total of 58 children will enter the two new nurseries by April. "In this way, we could offer nursery services quicker and spend fewer funds compared with building new facilities," Kori said.

"Also, this project will enable students in the schools to meet younger children in the nurseries and may turn out to be a good educational opportunity for the students," he added.



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