Mount Vernon Middle School

The old Mount Vernon Middle School property, located at 301 N. Mulberry St., has been vacant since 1998.

MOUNT VERNON — On Friday, Safety-service Director Joel Daniels told Knox Pages that developer Joel Mazza is pulling out of an agreement to redevelop 301 N. Mulberry St. The development agreement hinged on several conditions, one of which is council creating a Community Reinvestment Area for the neighborhood including and surrounding the site of the former middle school.

“His attorney contacted us on Tuesday [Oct. 15],” said Daniels. “I think [Mr. Mazza] correctly sensed that council wasn't going to cooperate with the development agreement or the CRA. He is no longer pursuing a development agreement or the CRA with the city at this point.

“They weren't thinking of the greater good, in my opinion,” he continued, referring to council's comments during an Oct. 14 Planning and Zoning Committee meeting. “I am disappointed that we weren't able to get this middle school property taken care of.”

Mazza, however, said the agreement is not dead and that he still plans to move forward with the project.

“Both Jeff Harris and I agree on the fact that a CRA is going to be an intricate part of the redevelopment of that property,” he told Knox Pages on Tuesday. “We are hoping we can circle back with the city and work with them on a development agreement. We have had no success at this point, but we are open to coming back to the table.”

Harris is the president of the Area Development Foundation and counsel to the Knox County Land Bank.

Mazza said that the city gave him assurances about the timeline for demolition providing Mazza put up a $500,000 performance bond.

“We did that in good faith because we wanted to redevelop the site with an apartment complex that was previously approved and that we really think adds a nice area for student housing,” he said.

Pointing out there was a CRA in place under a previous owner for 301 N. Mulberry St., Mazza said council members should not focus on one site but consider the entire area.

“This area has been blighted more than 25 years,” he said. “The site was vacant and in dire need. That entire neighborhood needs to be regentrified.”

Mazza wants a 15-year, 100% abatement. Council members have expressed a preference for a 10-year, declining percentage abatement.

“A 15-year abatement is the reason why the Short North [in Columbus] has been one of the most successful regentrified projects in the country,” said Mazza. “[Council] already knows what's going to be there, the number of buildings, density, the height requirements. We've already spent tens of thousands of dollars on site development and feasibility appropriateness. Now the final part of this is a CRA.”

At the Oct. 14 committee meeting, Jeff Gottke, president of the Knox County Land Bank, offered council an alternative to the draft agreement with Mazza. He said the land bank could acquire 301 N. Mulberry St. through foreclosure, demolish the school, and market the property for sale.

Gottke said foreclosure is still valid because the Knox County Treasurer rejected Mazza's payment of outstanding taxes earlier this year. Payment was rejected because the building was in violation of health, safety, and building codes, including a condemnation order issued by the Property Maintenance Appeals Board.

Asked whether he would pursue purchase from the land bank if the land bank acquired the property through foreclosure, Mazza said he has receipts showing the back taxes were paid and accepted by the Clerk of Courts prior to the property being condemned. Payment was made Feb. 27; the condemnation order was handed down Feb. 28. The county treasurer sent the money back to Mazza, but Mazza never cashed the checks.

“We feel very comfortable that we are going to prevail,” he said.

“It's odd that the land bank is trying to step in front of a willing buyer,” he added. “That's what Mayor Mavis and Joel Daniels tried to clarify.”

Mazza is hopeful that he and the city can yet come to an agreement.

“I am excited about redeveloping this project,” he said. “I think it will be an amazing complex and an essential asset to the business district. I hope we can get back to the table and get together with the city and especially with council. I think that we are close.”

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