After numerous false starts, the long-awaited Taylor School renovation project is under way, with foundation work moving forward and a promise by the new developer, Renaissance Realty of Chicago, of a 2011 opening.

Davenport elected officials heaped praise on Renaissance and other financial partners at a groundbreaking Tuesday on the steps of the school, which has sat abandoned for nearly two decades. The eyesore near 15th and Warren streets has been a magnet for crime and break-ins and a stark reminder that neighborhoods need strong anchors, said 3rd Ward Alderman Bill Boom. 

“Redeveloping an iconic structure and turning it around can provide the impetus for others to improve their properties,” he said. “This key to keeping the neighborhood moving in a positive direction.”

Renaissance Realty — for whom the Taylor project will be the first outside the city limits of Chicago — stepped in at the 11th hour when a previous developer, the Minnesota-based Gandalf Group, ran into financing difficulties in late 2009. Renaissance will use a construction loan, funds from both the Iowa Finance Authority and National Equity Fund as well as Davenport HOME funds to construct the $11 million project.

Plans call for 41 affordable senior apartments, with 17 in the renovated school building and an additional 24 in a new addition next door that will be historically compatible.

Renaissance didn’t enter the picture until January 2010, when one of its partners from the National Equity Fund contacted Nancy Kapp, president of Renaissance, telling her about a “great opportunity that was all ready to go,” she said. 

The developers closed on the project April 13.

“We’ve been doing historic preservation projects in Chicago for 20 years and we like what we do,” she said, adding that if the Taylor project goes well, Renaissance would love to explore other opportunities in the Quad-City region.

Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba said he is thrilled to see work under way at Taylor, which has been a sore subject for neighborhood activists for years.

“They have been working for years to create a viable redevelopment use for this property and quality senior housing more than fills the bill,” he said. “What is most edifying about this development is that it will preserve the existing landmark structure and build a companion building sensitive in scale and design to the neighborhood and the school.”

Architect Bob Ready said preserving the old structure and mirroring it with the new building is a challenge, but said the bones of the turn-of-the century schoolhouse are good. Although many of the old classrooms will be converted to apartments, the second and third floor open areas will be restored as accurately as possible.

“The two main halls will be preserved with wood wainscotting, the original wood floors and it will look the same walking in as it did in 1900,” he said.

Kapp said the company would begin leasing in the spring of 2011.