MOUNT VERNON — With little fanfare, the way was cleared for the next chapter to unfold for the former school at 301 N. Mulberry St.
Last week, the Board of Property Maintenance Appeals lifted the condemnation order on the structure. Wednesday, the Board of Zoning Appeals granted a conditional use for zoning and approved variances relating to height, square footage, and parking.
The maintenance appeals board voted to condemn the school in March 2019 and ordered its demolition. Developer Joel Mazza appealed the decision in Knox County Common Pleas Court, and the court put a hold on the order.
Last year, Mazza demolished the back part of the school that was built in 1924. The front section, built in 1939, still stands. Mazza plans to rehab the 1939 section into 48 one- and two-bedroom apartments.
Mazza withdrew his appeal to the condemnation order in January 2021, and the case was returned to the maintenance appeals board. He said that demolition of the unsafe 1924 section put the property in compliance with the board's original decision.
In February 2020, Mazza requested Korda/Nemeth Engineering to inspect the 1939 section. The report found it to be structurally sound and that it would not need significant repairs or reinforcements as part of the rehab project.
At the city's request, engineers from American Structurepoint evaluated the building in November 2020. While they noted issues with the boiler room roof and signs of deterioration elsewhere, they agreed it was structurally sound and could be made habitable through renovation.
City Engineer Brian Ball said that Mazza has attended to several safety hazards identified in the American Structurepoint report.
In voting to lift the condemnation order, Fire Chief Chad Christopher said, “From the state that it was in, it's in far better shape than it ever was before.”
Joining Christopher and the other board members in unanimous agreement, board member Jim Gastin said he was encouraged by Mazza's progress and how clean things seem to be.
Mazza cleared the next hurdle Wednesday night when the Board of Zoning Appeals granted height, square footage, and parking variances along with approving the apartment development as a conditional use under the city's zoning code.
The property is zoned neighborhood commercial. Under NC zoning, residential is compatible as a conditional use. Mazza plans a multi-family residential development with 102 apartment units on the site.
Attorney Rebecca Mott with the Plank Law Firm noted that in addition to being a compatible use, the development serves as a transition between single-family homes on the north and the business- and industry-oriented properties to the south.
The zoning appeals board approved the conditional use.
The 1939 section facing North Mulberry Street that Mazza plans to rehab is 50 feet high and covers 51,000 square feet. City code has a maximum of 30 feet high and 8,000 square feet. Because it is an existing structure being rehabbed, no variances are required for that building.
The board approved height variances of 45 feet for the two garden apartment buildings and 35 feet for the townhomes. Mazza noted that due to the downward slope of the land from east to west, the 45-feet-high garden apartments will be about the same level as the 50-feet-high former school building.
The western garden apartment building features two-bedroom units. The eastern garden apartments will be a mix of one- and two-bedroom units. The townhomes will be two-story units facing Hamtramck Street.
The board approved square footage variances of 25,500 and 8,250 for the garden apartments and townhomes, respectively.
City code calls for two parking spaces per dwelling unit. The board approved a variance for 1.88 spaces per unit.
Mazza previously told Mount Vernon City Council that once the zoning and height, square footage, and parking variances were in place, the next step is to come up with final plans to submit to the state. He anticipates it will take six to eight weeks for approval due to the state's backlog.
“We'd like to begin construction this year, as soon as possible,” he told the Board of Property Maintenance Appeals last week.