A Roanoke developer has taken the first steps towards transforming the former John Redd Smith Elementary School building into apartments for middle-income workers.
James Cherney, a managing partner of JRS Realty Partners, LLC, recently signed a letter of intent to purchase the property from Henry County for $10 and invest an estimated $3.1 million in its redevelopment. The developers plan to contract with Frith Construction to convert the existing space into about 32 apartments.
The school closed after the 2017-18 school year, when the newly constructed Meadowview Elementary School opened. Earlier this year, Henry County issued a request for proposals to turn the school into a mixed-use development with apartments to address a shortage of new rental housing in the area.
“We intend to repurpose the school and the school athletic field for multi-family, ‘work force’ housing,” Cherney wrote in the letter. “Housing to accommodate hourly paid industrial workers, teachers, hospital service staff and mid-level municipal employees.”
Cherney, owner of Cherney Development Company, is described in the letter as a “multifamily developer, historic preservationist and HUD certified property developer/property manager.” Joining him on the project are engineer John Garland and architect Lora Katz, both of Roanoke.
The developers will draw up architectural and engineering plans showing the conversion of “kitchens, cafeterias, mechanical rooms, classrooms and administration areas” into one-bedroom apartments, according to the letter of intent. Part of the gym will be converted into up to two apartments, with most of the space “retained for common usage.”
The project also “creates the opportunity for us to develop additional single-family dwelling units on school excess land (ball field) thereby efficiently increasing county property tax base,” the letter states. “Under the purchase terms, the land will need to be rezoned for housing.”
The redevelopment of the school is still early in the process, officials said. The next steps will be executing a memorandum of understanding and purchase contract, Henry County Administrator Tim Hall said, so there “probably won’t be any dirt turning until after the first of the year.”
The timing also is prescient. Just this past week the Martinsville City Council received a consultant's report about the dire need for housing -- particularly rental housing -- in Martinsville, Henry County and the surrounding area. The supply has been depleted, and much of the existing stock is aging. There is a need, the report said, for developers to invest in the market.
“John Redd Smith School holds so many memories and wonderful stories,” Deputy County Administrator Dale Wagoner. “Converting the school to apartments will breathe new life into the structure that has so much meaning in the community.”
Meanwhile, the developers are finishing up the application process for adding the school to the historic register so it will be eligible for state and federal tax credits. The building was built in 1952, with annexes built in 1961, according to school board documents.
COVID-19 has slowed some of that process down, but “we’re probably 90% there,” said
Housing and Revitalization Coordinator Jeff Sadler, who has been working with the county and developers on the project.
Sadler was hired last year by the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corporation to help address the shortage of suitable housing in the area.
“The historic tax credits are really what make the deal work,” he said. “The most difficult part is finding a developer who’s familiar with the process, and we’ve found that through Cherney Development. They know what to do, and they know what to look for.”
Rent amounts have not been set, but the new apartments will be targeted to workers earning between 80% and 150% of the area’s median income, Sadler said. That amount is $36,683 a year, according to the most recent figures for Henry County from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“When people hear the term ‘affordable housing,’ they tend to think low-income and subsidized, and while that’s super important for the area, that’s not what we’re working on here,” Sadler said.
In this case, “affordable” rent for the John Redd Smith apartments will be based on people who make “$14 or $15 an hour to the $25 an hour range,” he said. “There is very strong demand, and that demand should continue for the next five years.”
Sadler pointed to a housing study of Martinsville and Henry County, published in July, that shows the need for about 931 housing units over the next five years. Much of this demand will be “for housing for those in management positions,” the study states.
“The big picture is, there is not very much new construction or newly rehabbed apartments or rental properties. That’s where the demand is — this mid-market,” Sadler said.
Much of the area’s existing properties are older, the study shows. About two-thirds of the housing stock in Martinsville and Henry County was built before 1980, and almost 50% dates to before 1970.
New development and redevelopment projects, like this one, could tap into the market of people who work in the area but don’t live here — yet.
“According to the U.S.Census, there are roughly 10,000 people who drive into the MHC area every day to go to work,” Sadler said. “There’s got to be some portion of those who would prefer to live near where they work.”
He added that there is a similar number of people who live in the area and commute elsewhere. “We would like them to stay while we attract other people,” he said.
Schools are different
Redeveloping an older school building has pros and cons, Sadler said.
“The biggest issue with a school is that you have a lot of unrentable space,” such as hallways that tend to be very wide, he said.
On the plus side, Sadler added, “it’s a super sturdy building. That always makes it easier when you don’t have to do a lot of structural work. A lot of your walls are already built, a lot of ductwork is already in place.”
The fact that the school has only been vacant for two years is another positive, he said.
“Often when you take on a school project, the building has been vacant for a long time and not maintained. But this one was in good shape when they closed it, and they’ve kept it in good shape,” Sadler said.
In order to use historic tax credits, “there are certain elements of the building you have to preserve,” he said.
According to the letter of intent, the redevelopment project will maintain the original stairways, the “existing glazed wall tile” and refinish some of the “terrazzo flooring” in parts of the building.
The portion of the gym that is not turned into apartments “could be used as a community meeting hall, or they could set it up as a lounge,” Sadler said.
Although acknowledging “I am not an architect,” he said there is a bit of nostalgia with the design of John Redd Smith school and others built in the same era.
“I think a lot of people went to schools built like that, and there’s a little bit of sentiment that goes along with it,” Sadler said.
Meanwhile, the boiler system, which was one of the problem areas school officials cited several years ago in deciding to close the building, will be removed.
Apartments will be outfitted with stainless steel appliances. Existing tile and carpet floors will be demoed down to the concrete slab, then replaced with linoleum. All new lighting wiring will be installed throughout the building, along with new automatic fire alarm systems.
There will also be a security system with camera coverage at each entry door, inside and out, and coverage over parking lots.
According to the letter of intent, the three developers named in the project have completed dozens of historic rehabilitation projects. For example, Garland and Katz recently did $6 million codevelopment and rehabilitation of the George Wythe School in Hampton into 40 apartments.
This year, Cherney and Katz completed a renovation and repurposing project of a historic four-story office building in downtown Roanoke into 18 apartments, a 2,500-square-foot restaurant and retail live/work space. The letter also noted that Cherney “has developed 12 multi-family apartment communities; acquired two additional communities and renovated them to HUD223(f) standards,” as well as developed more than 3,000 dwelling units in North Carolina.
Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.
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