MOUNT VERNON — Construction has officially begun on the old Mount Vernon Middle School property.
Developer Joel Mazza filed a “notice of commencement” with the Knox County Recorder’s Office on June 5, signaling the formal beginning of construction on the property at 301 N. Mulberry St.
The old middle school property has sat vacant since 1998, when the Mount Vernon Board of Education sold it after the middle school moved to its current location.
Mazza, who purchased the property in January 2020, plans to renovate the front portion of the former school and turn the entire 4.1-acre property into a 102-unit apartment community, targeted toward a diverse audience of renters and located less than a half-mile from downtown Mount Vernon.
“I’m pretty proud and pretty happy because this project started in early 2018, and it’s finally coming to fruition,” Mazza told Knox Pages on Thursday (he had an option on the property for two years before closing on it in 2020).
“The wheels of real estate move very slowly, between the state permitting process, rezoning the property, and the acquisition of the property itself. It takes several years.
“I’m very excited and also very proud because we’ve had an overwhelming response – a very positive response – from neighbors and community members since December, once we started putting in new windows and prepping (the property) for this commencement date.”
What is a notice of commencement, and why does it matter?
Developers in Ohio are required to file a notice of commencement (NOC) with the local county recorder’s office before beginning a private construction project, the Ohio Revised Code states (this requirement does not apply to home improvement projects).
A NOC is a public document that lists who is involved with the project (including the owner, general contractor, and any lending partners), where the project will take place, and what the project will entail. It serves as a public declaration of the beginning of the project, as a copy of the NOC must be posted on the job site, as well as recorded with the county.
A NOC is also a tool to hold developers accountable. Once a NOC is filed for a project, subcontractors will be able to use the information in it to assert their lien rights, if needed.
“When you file this document, you are officially putting a start date on a project. So you’ve been seeing activity take place over there (on North Mulberry Street), but now the clock starts, and that’s from a construction and a financial perspective,” Knox County Recorder Tanner Salyers explained.
“So if you’re a subcontractor or a general contractor working with a developer, now that you have a notice of commencement and another document called a notice of furnishing, you can file a mechanics lien if you don’t get paid. …
“That’s the significance of a notice of commencement – you take on that fiduciary liability to say, ‘I’m going to file this because I’m confident I have the financing ready to see the project through.’ If you’re willing to do that, other contractors will then say, ‘OK, we’re willing to work with you and stick our necks out there as well.'”
Salyers said filing a notice of commencement “benefits everybody” involved with a project. He said it’s a tell-tale sign that a project is likely to happen.
“This is a good thing. This is what gets a project moving forward. …” Salyers said. “As much as Joel’s been doing it piece-by-piece, that’s slow-going. Now you can finance big projects and those contractors are willing to do more because they know they have legal recourse to hold the developer to it, which is why it’s required by law. …
“Normally, when somebody files a notice of commencement on a property, that means they’re ready to roll and they’re ready to pull the trigger on the project. And it’s not just piece-mealing, doing little things here and there – they’re ready to execute.”
Five developers have owned the old middle school property since 1998, according to records from the Knox County Auditor’s Office. Mazza is the first to file a notice of commencement for a project on it, according to records from the Knox County Recorder’s Office.
Jeff Gottke, president of the Area Development Foundation (ADF), said the move signifies a step forward for the property, which has been described by city officials in years past as a “cancer” to the community.
“It’s a positive thing. …” said Gottke, noting that city and state construction permits will also play a role in moving the project along. “All of that together shows progress on the property. I think neighbors specifically, and the rest of the town generally, are glad to see things happening over there.
“When it’s done, it’ll be an asset to the community through creative redevelopment of previously unwanted spaces. It sounds like there’s still a long way to go, but this is one step in the journey.”
City Safety-Service Director Richard Dzik and City Engineer Brian Ball both echoed similar sentiments. Ball, who Mazza personally thanked for his collaboration and support over the last three-and-a-half years, called this week’s filing “great news.”
“This means the project is started and old middld/high school is finally going to be used for a great purpose,” Ball said in an email.
“(The) ADF and the city administration spend a good amount of time talking about our housing shortage. Having this school converted to 38 housing units is a very good thing. … The conversion of this site is inline with the ADF and city master plans. …
“It is important to note that the reuse of a site that has streets, sidewalks, water, sewer and stormwater is a significant saving and will help to make the city more sustainable in the future and reduce urban sprawl.”
Dzik said Mazza was in City Hall on Wednesday, sharing his construction plans for the summer and asking for temporary traffic changes around the job site, in an effort to protect his workers.
The city announced Thursday that it would be modifying the traffic pattern on West Hamtramck Street, between North Mulberry and North Sandusky streets, from June 15 to September 13, to “allow for the safe operation of construction vehicles working on the site at 301 N. Mulberry St.”
“I really think this is the kickoff many of us have been waiting for,” Dzik said.
Mazza is listed on the NOC as the acting general contractor and developer for the project. A Columbus branch of WesBanco Bank is listed as the lender.
While Mazza could not say how many subcontractors he has lined up for the project, he did say “it’s a lot.”
“We had 30-something people here just today,” Mazza said Thursday.
The Mount Vernon native and current Worthington resident said he plans to be on the job site every workday for the foreseeable future.
“I wanted to thank the City of Mount Vernon for working with me on this, because I think it’s an opportunity to really give back and clean up something that was an eyesore here for over 25 years,” Mazza said.
“I think in just a couple of years, we’ve demonstrated our willingness to work with the city, give back to the community and clean up this property, and also provide much needed housing.”
What will the construction process entail?
Since acquiring the property three-and-a-half years ago, Mazza has worked with contractors and city officials to prepare it for this moment.
Contractors have razed the rear section of the school building (built in 1924), and replaced 177 windows on the front section (built in 1939). They’ve preserved “the vast majority” of the building’s brick and sandstone, Mazza said, and they’ve added new flooring inside.
They’ve also installed new sidewalk along the front of the building and added utilities.
“That’s not to mention all the work we did before basically anything started to become visible from the outside. There’s a lot of legwork involved in a project this big,” Mazza said.
“But we currently have 13 units on the third floor that are already steel-studded and framed. We have units on the second floor that are are already framed up or are being framed up. We’re getting work done on the wooden doors that we’re using in the restoration process. There’s still just a lot of surface that we haven’t touched yet in that building.”
Mazza filed his first notice of commencement on the property last September, so he could work with a contractor to “pull out all the footers and complete the final leg of demolition in preparing for this,” he said. The one he filed Monday will pertain to the project itself.
“It’s been a lot of work just getting to the start date, scheduling this out and lining up contractors. … But now we’re starting,” Mazza said Thursday. “We should see a lot of progress over the summer and fall.”
The project will be broken up into two phases, Mazza said.
The first phase will include converting the 1939 addition into a 38-unit apartment building. The 51,000-square-foot complex will feature 800-square-foot one-bedroom apartments and 1,400-square-foot two-bedroom apartments – each with walk-in closets, suite-style bedrooms with private, full bathrooms attached, and 11-and-a-half foot ceilings.
Original plans called for 45-52 units in the former school. Mazza said he chose to reduce that number in an effort to make the units “larger and more spacious.”
“These units are much larger than your typical one- and two-bedroom units. …” Mazza said. “It’s gonna be a really nice project.”
The vast majority of the building’s old facade has been preserved, Mazza said, and a portion of the old gym will be turned into a common area/meeting space. Mazza said he hopes to return as much period memorabilia to the former school as possible, in an effort to preserve, recognize and repurpose a historical fixture in the community.
“It’s going to be a beautiful structure,” Mazza said. “To put it into summary, this really went from a development to a development-and-renovation project, just to preserve the history of the building and keep this in the community.”
The first phase will also include building parking lots to support the complex. One will be located along the front of the old school, facing North Mulberry Street, while the others will be located behind it, placed strategically throughout the property. There will be two access points off of North Mulberry Street, one off of West Burgess Street and one off of West Hamtramck Street.
The site’s electric, plumbing, HVAC, fire suppression/sprinklers and utility taps will be updated during the first phase as well.
The second phase will include the construction of a new, three-story complex on the northwest corner of the property, near the North Sandusky Street/West Burgess Street intersection. The facility will contain 64 loft-style apartment units, Mazza said, with nine-to-10-foot ceilings and a common area.
Accompanying parking lots, utilities and greenery will be built in the second phase as well.
Both buildings will include elevators, Mazza said, making them “fully handicap-accessible.” He believes this – combined with the development’s close proximity to downtown Mount Vernon and Heartland Commerce Park (the old Siemens campus) – will make the housing community desirable for tenants of all ages.
“We’re excited about what’s going on across the street at the industrial park, with new tenants moving in. And about the close proximity to Mount Vernon’s library, the YMCA, and really the walkability of our location to the downtown central business district … I think our property and our development is going to complement all of those key areas,” Mazza said.
“I think our target market is young professionals, students and/or retirees. I think it’s going to be a really nice mix of tenants, because the type of units we’re going to be providing are one- and two-bedroom flats that have elevator access and super adequate on-site parking. We’re going to be providing high-security, keyless entry, and on-site security cameras.
“We’re really excited about this project and the location.”
Mazza could not say Thursday what prospective rent ranges might look like for the complex, citing market volatility and other unknown economic variables. For those same reasons, he also declined to comment on what the project’s total cost might look like.
Mazza hopes to begin marketing the first-phase facility this fall, with the goal of achieving occupancy by the first quarter of 2024. He hopes to achieve occupancy in the second-phase facility by the first quarter of 2025.
And the construction process has already begun. Mazza said Thursday that site work began last week, and his team plans to start carving out parking lots and installing HVAC this week.
“We’re starting to put in underground drainage, our front parking lot, and cutting the hill for the rear parking lot, as well as putting in new water and sewer lines. …” Mazza said.
“You’re going to start seeing larger contractors come in there, and more activity over the next few months.”
If all goes according to plan, Gottke believes Mazza’s new development could benefit the community in several ways. It could help address Knox County’s housing shortage – adding rental opportunities near Mount Vernon’s downtown core – while also preserving a piece of the community’s history.
“I’m particularly excited about this project for two big reasons,” Gottke said. “One is that it’s a creative reuse of a historic property. This city takes pride in its historic properties and wants to see them saved, and this is one step on the way to doing that.
“This project also adds dense, attainable housing right next to Heartland Commerce Park, which could provide hundreds of jobs for people that live in that building and that neighborhood.”
Gottke said the potential rebirth of the old Mount Vernon Middle School property aligns, in many ways, with the recent rebirth of the community at-large.
“I think it’s just kind of symbolic of the development and growth of the city,” Gottke said. “That’s been a difficult property for decades, and now this is one more step on the way to it becoming an asset for the community.”