MOUNT VERNON — A lengthy and candid special city council meeting Monday night ended with council members and Joel Mazza agreeing to “hold both of our feet to the fire” regarding the future of the former school at 301 N. Mulberry St.
As Mazza unveiled his current plans, lack of trust and communication were recurring themes voiced by council members.
Mazza, who finalized purchasing the property in January, wants to develop the site into a 102-unit housing complex. Over the past 22 months, his plans changed as he worked toward development.
In February 2019, the Property Maintenance Appeals Board held off condemning the long-vacant building and gave owners Larry and Jason Gunsorek a 30-day extension. The extension allowed Mazza, a potential buyer at the time, time to test for asbestos, research zoning, and plan demolition.
At the time, Mazza said he had no interest in using the existing building and planned to demolish it.
At the March meeting of the appeals board, Mazza said that if the parcel was rezoned, his preference was to demolish the school and build new a 65-unit development. If rezoning did not go through, with the property being in an opportunity reinvestment zone and the availability of historical tax credits, the structure could be redeveloped as senior housing or apartment units.
The board voted to condemn the structure with demolition in 180 days. City Engineer Brian Ball said the 180 days gives the owners time to see what work they can get done. Mazza appealed the condemnation order in Knox County Common Pleas Court and the order was put on hold. He withdrew his appeal last month.
In August 2019, the Board of Zoning Appeals granted the Gunsoreks a conditional use permit, changing the parcel's zoning from neighborhood commercial to residential, and variances on building height, parking, and square footage. Mazza's purchase of the property hinged on those approvals.
Mazza's plan included 84 units, a mix of town homes, flats, and an apartment complex. He planned to complete demolition of the school by a “drop-dead date” of Dec. 31, 2019.
In October 2019, then Safety-service Director Joel Daniels told Knox Pages that Mazza was pulling out of a development agreement because city council did not grant Mazza's requirements for a CRA (Community Reinvestment Area) for the property. Mazza wanted the CRA in addition to the rezoning and variances. Mazza said he was still hopeful a deal could be reached on the CRA.
The city issued Mazza a six-month demolition permit on Dec. 5, 2019, with a start date of Dec. 15. Mazza notified Ball in March 2020 that demolition was delayed; it began on June 19, halted, and then resumed in August. The city granted a six-month extension, which expired Dec. 15 of this year.
In October, Mazza surprised council with the news that he now plans to save the front part of the school and incorporate it into his housing plans. He cited a public outcry against demolition, an engineering report that found that portion of the school was structurally sound, and the historical significance of the building as the reasons for the change in plans.
The city's condemnation order still stands.
Mazza's current plans call for 102 units:
- The 1939 portion facing Mulberry will contain 48 one- and two-bedroom apartments.
- The western garden apartments will be a three-story structure with eight two-bedroom units per floor.
- The eastern garden apartments will be a three-story structure with eight units per floor and a mix of two- and one-bedroom units.
- Townhomes will be six two-story units, each having its own garage and parking space.
Access will be via Hamtramck Street, roughly where the current access is, and on Burgess Street, about where the existing staircase is. There will be parking in front on the Mulberry Street side, but the majority of parking will be in the back of the complex.
The previous height and square footage variances are still in effect for the townhomes and garden apartments. Mazza will have to request height and square footage variances on the school building portion, however, because that structure was not included in the original request.
Mazza's timeline to begin construction is mid-year 2021. To proceed, he has to do several things:
- Secure the site against vandalism
- Request the Property Maintenance Board of Appeals to revoke the condemnation order
- Reapply for another conditional use permit because the previous one expired before construction started
- Get a new demolition permit because the previous one expired before regrading, debris removal, and other site cleanup was completed
- Submit plans to the state
“The renovation of the front building … is what we are planning coming online first,” Mazza said. “We still have to go through the state to get approval for the construction, plumbing, HVAC, and sprinkler system.”
He said it will take six to eight weeks to get state approval because of a backlog.
When asked who will live in the complex, Mazza said it will be a mix of young and old.
“We're doing a feasibility study, calling all apartment complexes to see who has a wait list,” he said. “There is a wait list in Mount Vernon and most every complex in Knox County. This coming online of 48 units, if we can work together and get it done, in 2021, I think we're going to have people standing in line.
“I think the community will tell us who will live there.”
Once the front 48 units are leased, construction will begin on the other buildings. Mazza did not think it would take long to fill up the units.
“Right now there's a real shortage of housing, and we think we can get the front part of this building renovated and underway as soon as we get our approvals,” he said. “If we just get the people on the current wait list, we've got that facility leased,” he said.
Council members expressed appreciation to Mazza for attending the meeting, but as they questioned Mazza about his new plans and next steps, they repeatedly touched on lack of communication, numerous changes, and lack of trust.
Noting that Mazza told council on Oct. 14 that he would have preliminary design plans in November but did not have them until last night, Councilman Tanner Salyers said that example underlines the feeling he keeps having.
“It's a trust issue,” he told Mazza. “We keep having these issues, and these timelines come up. They come and go and seem to be relatively flippant.”
“The fact is we've owned this building since January 2020. This property has been vacant 25 years. In less than 11 months, I've been up there and my crew's been up there virtually every day working,” Mazza responded. “We have cleaned up the site, we kept it mowed, we cleared the sidewalk down along Sandusky Street, and we've done all of this all in good faith. We didn't have approval before we closed [on the property]. We have spent money and time. … We've accomplished a lot in 11 months.
“We can say a lot has not happened over the last 20 years, but I've only owned this building and been involved with this building for 11 months,” he continued. “I feel like our team keeps getting the negativity of the previous developers over the last 20-some years. If we're judged on the last 11 months, we've made a tremendous amount of progress.”
Mazza said he tries to communicate and that he has been in touch with Ball, Safety-service Director Richard Dzik, and Mayor Matt Starr about the process.
“So it's not something that we're springing on anyone,” he said.
“We are seven representatives of the people of Mount Vernon. I've personally never been communicated with, so maybe shoot me an email and include the other six as well,” responded Salyers. “Sunshine cleans up a lot of things, and that is where the trust thing comes in.”
Mazza promised to add Salyers and the other council members to his distribution list for emails and communications.
Acknowledging that Mazza has made “far more progress” than any other owner, Council member Samantha Scoles asked, “What kind of assurances can you give us that we are going to see continued work?”
“The assurances are the past history since we've owned the property this short period of time,” said Bob Erlanger, describing himself as a “member of the North Mulberry group” with Mazza. “All through this, we've given a great deal of time and resources to this.”
Citing Mazza's property at 218 W. High St. “that still has boarded up windows and is painted over to appease the city,” Scoles said, “That property has not yet been finished. I think you will understand our hesitation to want to buy into what you are selling us tonight.”
“We are in compliance with everything,” said Mazza of the West High Street property.
When asked if the city was going to have two projects that remain unfinished, Mazza replied, “No. The priority is the school building.”
Councilman John Francis disagreed with Mazza's comment about being on-site every day.
“I drive by it every day, so when I hear you say you're on-site every day, I know that you have not been. For me to trust you, you are going to have to prove yourself, and you have not done so,” he told Mazza. “I am still looking at an eyesore on West High Street. You just said your priority is on Mulberry Street. … Where's that leave West High Street?
“It's all up to you, Joel. You have to prove to us. I have not seen it one bit. ... I wish I could. I would love to see [the school] restored, but do I have the confidence in you? I don't know.”
Regarding West High Street, Mazza said, “the community is going to be really excited with what's happening” with the property.
Regarding North Mulberry, Mazza is ready to move forward.
“We have plans, an excellent set of plans, to redevelop the site. We are trying to earn your trust,” he said.
When asked again about the timeline for completing the housing development, Erlanger said he could not give a definite time frame because it depended on how long it will take to remove the building's condemnation order or receive council's approval.
“What we've done is put all of the pieces in place,” he said. “We have every piece of our team assembled to put this together. The question now is how long it will take to get through the approval process.”
Mayor Matt Starr said preliminary results from the city's strategic planning group has listed housing as a critical need. He noted that the city has limited real estate within the city to infill with development, but one spot is on North Mulberry.
“Regardless whether you like [Mazza] or don't, he is a developer and he's putting forth a plan that will provide 102 units for us,” Starr said. “We want to infill and develop within the city limits, not gobble up cornfield after cornfield.”
Council President Bruce Hawkins said that better communication is a good place to begin.
“We need to get this trust level back up,” he told Mazza. “I appreciate your willingness to communicate ideas to city council. City council has looked bad in this whole thing. People in the community expect us to know of things and act on things, and we are not getting it done.”
Hawkins proposed that Mazza create a timeline to get things through the zoning appeals board and what his next steps are so that council can communicate that information to the public.
“Then hold our feet to the fire to meet those timelines, so we are working together,” he said. “If we can't meet those timelines, we need to explain to the public why they can't be met.”
He asked that Mazza also explain why or when he cannot meet his timelines.
“We need to be honest with the public. We need to hold both of our feet to the fire to make sure we are all working together, because that makes us all look good,” Hawkins said.
Current site status
The new demolition permit comes under the city's revised demolition guidelines passed Nov. 23, which include posting a $500,000 bond and erecting secure fencing.
“Mr. Mazza submitted the bond and we have allowed him to proceed verbally because we have not had time to create new forms for him to file,” City Engineer Ball said.
Demolition of the back portion of the school building is complete, and crews are working on pulling out the foundation. Mazza said the demolition is a “green demo,” and involves crushing material on-site for re-use.
“The fill on-site right now is in the process of being put through the aggregate as we speak. That aggregate is going to be able to be utilized in our parking areas,” he explained. “So we're not going to put any more stress on the sidewalks or the curbs because the building that's down is going to stay on-site. The site will utilize 100 percent of the fill.”
Structural deterioration and a collapsed roof were two of the reasons the appeals board condemned the school.
An engineering study that Mazza requested showed the front portion, built in 1939, to be structurally sound. A study the city commissioned last month from a Cleveland-based firm agreed.
“They feel it's in reasonably good condition,” Ball said. “It seems that most of the things in the report can be easily addressed as [Mazza] is going through the renovation.
“The part [of the roof] that remains standing does not have a problem with that collapsed roof, and it appears it is water-tight,” he added.
“If it's a structurally sound building, I have a hard time ordering to demolish it,” Dzik said. “I think we'd like to look at the legal process of going back through the Board of Property Maintenance Appeals and getting their opinion combined with the structural engineering report.”
He also has asked the Area Development Foundation to put together a presentation on CRAs.
“I've met with a number of developers. Construction is expensive, which makes it challenging to undertake projects. I also know we are probably sitting on a relatively large boon in remote work, and keep in mind we severely lack housing,” he said.