MOUNT VERNON – After 90 minutes of questioning, public skepticism and Board of Zoning Appeals deliberations, Joel Mazza got what he wanted last Wednesday.
Mazza came to the board meeting as a potential buyer of the old Mount Vernon Middle School property at 301 N. Mulberry St. He was represented by Plank Law Firm, which made several requests to the board on behalf of Mulberry MV LLC, which currently owns the property. Mazza has a purchase agreement for the property, he told the board, which would hinge first and foremost on whether or not the BZA approved the requests.
Those requests – which included a conditional use permit and three variances, stretching the limits of the city code in terms of building height, square footage and parking-spaces-per-dwelling-unit – were approved, but not without healthy skepticism from the board and compromise from both sides.
“I think it was very fair,” Mazza said afterwards. “We’re excited to move forward with the project.”
MAZZA’S PLAN: Pending Mazza’s purchase of the property, he plans to demolish the old middle school by Dec. 31. He plans to build in its place an “affordable, high quality and attractive housing option for renters in the city.”
This would include two two-story town homes facing North Mulberry Street; two two-to-three-story town homes or flats facing West Burgess Street and West Hamtramck Street, respectively; and a three-to-four story apartment complex on the back end of the property, near Sandusky Street.
There would be a maximum of 84 dwelling units on the property, with parking confined to the center. It would be located less than half a mile from downtown Mount Vernon.
“The property’s location offers excellent walkability to nearby retail stores and offices, to enhance the resident’s and guests convenience and quality of life,” Plank attorney Rebecca Mott told the BZA.
There would be one entrance and exit to the complex, located on West Hamtramck Street, across the street from the Mulberry Street United Methodist Church parking lot. Because West Hamtramck is a one-way street down to Sandusky, attorney Don Plank said the idea is for outgoing traffic (particularly during work commute hours) to be funneled out onto Sandusky, which is a busier road that can handle larger volumes of traffic.
There would also be a pedestrian entrance to the development, splitting the two town homes on Mulberry Street.
The development would be surrounded by vegetation, according to preliminary drawings. Mazza plans to preserve the existing wall and “as much of the vegetation and trees to the rear of the property as possible.” Although the apartment building on the west end of the property could potentially be four stories tall, it would also be built on a downward slope.
Mazza told the board that the development would be aimed toward a younger crowd, although the population would likely be diverse due to Knox County’s aging population.
“I think it’s going to be a mix. But we’re hoping that it’ll primarily be a younger [crowd], 20-something and above. Young families, people that want to live close to the downtown Central Business District, that like to bike and walk,” Mazza said. “We’ve got new restaurants, we’ve got new brewpubs... there’s a life. There’s been life injected into the downtown Central Business District and people want to start to live closer.”
Mazza would not disclose what rent might cost for those living in the complex. He said most units would hover around the 1,500-square-foot mark, although the town homes would be bigger than the apartments.
Mott said the development would align with the 2018 Knox County Comprehensive Plan, which says “affordability, changes in household size, an aging population and a preference for walkability will all continue to reshape Knox County’s residential development patterns moving forward. An attractive, high quality and safe housing stock is important for retaining and attracting residents.”
ZONING APPROVALS: The BZA unanimously approved a conditional use permit to change the property’s zoning from neighborhood commercial to residential. The neighborhood is a “true mixed-use neighborhood,” Plank argued, as there are single-family residential properties to the north, offices to the east, a mixture of properties to the south and manufacturing to the west.
The BZA then grappled with three variance requests:
- To allow for a maximum building height of 50 feet (city code allows 30 feet);
- To allow for a maximum building square footage of 36,000 square feet for the section of two buildings facing West Hamtramck Street, a maximum building square footage of 30,000 square feet for the section of two buildings facing West Burgess Street, and a maximum building square footage of 60,000 square feet for the apartment building near Sandusky Street (city code allows 8,000 square feet);
- To allow for a minimum of 1.5 parking spaces per dwelling unit (city code allows 2 spaces per dwelling unit)
When it came to the issue of building height, the BZA decided to split the variance up by building. The front two buildings, facing Mulberry Street, would not need a variance, as they would be 26 feet high. The board approved the variance for 36 feet on the side buildings.
Conflict emerged when the board discussed whether or not to allow 50 feet for the apartments near Sandusky Street. Board member Don Carr argued that the Grand Hotel is approximately 50 feet tall, and while Carr never said directly why he objected to the proposed height, most of the concerns with the development leading up to this point had dealt with population density.
Several members of the public, including two Mount Vernon city council members, raised concerns about parking and traffic in the cozy neighborhood just north of downtown.
A taller building, coupled with additional square footage, would allow more residents to fill the property.
BZA member Phil Herald posited that the development would be “a huge benefit for Mount Vernon” and that the apartment building’s height shouldn’t be an aesthetic concern because it would be positioned on a slope, tucked behind trees.
Population density concerns, particularly as they pertained to parking, would be put aside until later in the meeting. The board voted 4-1 in favor of the height variance; Carr voted no.
When it came to the issue of square footage, the majority of the discussion once again centered around the apartment building. The board did not need to approve a variance for the front set of town homes, and variances for the two side sets passed easily. But the variance request for the apartment building – not to exceed 60,000 square feet – drew skepticism from the board.
Plank agreed to lower the request to a maximum of 44,000 square feet, which would still make for a four-story building, but would shrink the footprint of the property. However, if market factors (such as an industry coming into the old Siemens property next door) were to align during the construction process, Plank said “we may be back before this board asking for more.”
“But if we can get to the 44,000 square feet, then at least we know, we’ve done that project in Columbus and that can fit as a site,” Plank said.
By reducing the maximum square footage of the apartment building from 60,000 square feet to 44,000 square feet, Plank said the development would be losing approximately 10 units. Mazza came into the meeting hoping for a maximum of 94 units total; now, that number would be lowered to 84.
Plank argued it would be important to keep the fourth floor, given how the developer would already be paying for an elevator and “elevators aren’t cheap.”
The board voted 4-1 to approve the amended square footage variance request; Carr still voted no.
Plank’s compromise on the square footage variance paid off when it came to the final variance request of the day: parking spaces per unit.
With the maximum number of units reduced from 94 to 84, the minimum number of parking spaces per unit on the property rose from 1.5 to 1.7. This would still be below the city code of 2, and this drew the ire of many who spoke last week.
City council member Mike Hillier said that some of the development’s residents would likely have significant others, and that almost all of the residents would need vehicles to get to work. He poked holes in the idea that people living in the complex would simply walk or bike to work every day.
“We’re not on Town Street. We don’t have the walkability that Columbus has,” Hillier said. “The grand plan is, we’re going to have all these jobs downtown. But in the meantime, there’s going to be parking issues if these people don’t have enough places to park.
“Not everybody’s going to walk downtown to work. We only have so many jobs.”
Hillier wondered if there would need to be overflow parking, but he didn’t know where that could be located. Parking is limited in that neighborhood, he noted, especially with one-way streets running on either side of the property.
Plank responded by saying 1.5 parking spaces per unit is the “Columbus standard… it’s a suburban requirement that the city has on the suburban process.” He said such a plan would encourage neighborhood walkability, which is the goal (and which echoes the county’s Comprehensive Plan).
Plank added that if all 84 units are not filled, there would be closer (or more than) two spaces per unit on the property. There would also be residents, especially in the single-room apartment complex, who would only have one vehicle, and would therefore only require one parking space. This would even things out, Plank said.
Plank added that, if market factors indicate they need more parking, they would find a way to make that work. “Our experience in Columbus is that people want to park in their development. They don’t want to park on public streets, especially if they’re parking overnight,” he said.
If the development becomes successful enough that it would need additional parking, Plank implied they could make that happen – as long as they had the variance from the city to do so.
“Obviously a development of this scope, financially, is a commitment,” BZA chair Michael Percy added. “They don’t want people not happy to live there because there’s not enough parking spaces. If it becomes a problem, I bet they’ll figure out a way to get it, because they want all these units rented.”
While Carr still questioned whether or not parking would become an issue, fellow board member Phil Herald said that “there was a compromise here” when Plank and Mazza agreed to less square footage for the apartment building, implying the board should consider leniency on the parking space variance.
The BZA ultimately passed the variance for 1.7 spaces per unit 4-1; Carr voted no.
Concerns about traffic flow, building safety (especially in emergency situations), trash pick-up and property oversight would need to be addressed during the development phase, Percy said.
Mazza will need to get approval from the city engineering department, the fire department and the state on things of that nature before construction begins. The BZA, he clarified, only handles specific zoning issues.
WHAT’S NEXT: Given the BZA’s approval, Mazza hopes to move quickly into the demolition process.
According to city law director Rob Broeren, Mazza has an agreement with the city to put up a $500,000 performance bond within “a short period of time” following last week’s meeting. This will provide the city with the money to demolish the old middle school, if Mazza purchases the building but does not follow through.
In an interview with Knox Pages last week, Mazza termed the Dec. 31 demolition deadline a “drop-dead date,” adding that he planned to acquire demolition permits immediately following the BZA’s approval.
“They’ve actually been waiting for the last six months,” Mazza said of his demolition crew. “Our team’s lined up and we’re ready to go, and we’re excited about the project. We would like to get this underway as soon as we get approval.”
Despite the building’s age, Mazza said he did not have any health-related concerns about demolishing the old school. At past meetings about the property, nearby residents have shared concerns about asbestos arising during the demolition process.
“We don’t have any concerns,” Mazza said. “We have a qualified demolition contractor who’s able to handle that.”
Along with a demolition permit, Mazza will also be seeking designation of that property as a Community Reinvestment Area. According to city safety service director Joel Daniels, this designation, granted by city council, would provide a tax abatement on any improvements to that property.
“After he tears down the building, then any building that goes on there would have a tax abatement for a certain period of time, at a certain percentage,” Daniels said, “and that is yet to be determined.”
Mazza confirmed this, adding that he hoped to expand the CRA beyond his property.
“We look at this site as not just an individual site, but this is an opportunity for what we’re calling the Mulberry-Sandusky corridor to benefit,” Mazza said. “Because if we expand the Community Reinvestment Area outside just our property, it’ll give those other properties that we kind of consider blighted an opportunity to benefit from investing money into those properties, which will have synergy for the community.”
Mazza has met with Daniels, Mayor Richard Mavis and other city officials in recent months, fleshing out his plan and mustering up support for the project at 301 N. Mulberry. Daniels said he’s all in.
“To say that this site has been a nuisance in our community for many years would be an understatement,” Daniels said. “We believe that this is a reasonable request and has our support.”
The skepticism at Wednesday’s board meeting was healthy, however, given the building’s history. The property has been vacant since Mount Vernon City Schools sold it in 1998. The structure is worn down and notorious for housing the area’s homeless, which has led to multiple fires.
Several contractors have wrestled with the property over the years, sometimes putting in new windows or roofing, although none have followed through with fully redeveloping the building.
Those who live in the community – at least those present Wednesday – seemed to treat the project proposal with weary optimism. It’s past time for the property to bring value to the community again, they said – but is this the project that will do it?
“We have dealt with this eyesore for so many years, we’re sick of it. We read about it in the paper, but we drive by it every day. And it’s awful for the people that live around it,” said Mary Schlairet, representing Mulberry Street United Methodist Church at last week’s meeting.
“I am in favor of getting it demolished and getting something done that’s going to be attractive and good for the neighborhood.”