May 15, 2018 10:56:22 AM
The city's Planning Commission opted Monday to rezone the former Lee Middle School property from single-family residential (R-1) to neighborhood commercial (C-1), clearing the way for a possible multi-million dollar mixed-use development.
The decision, which was a 5-1 vote, would allow an unnamed development group that purchased an option on the 15-acre site to redevelop the property. The group purchased the option from Columbus Redevelopment Authority, which is marketing the site on behalf of the Columbus Municipal School District.
Last week, CRA released on the development group's behalf an outline of a two-phase plan to build apartments, restaurants and other venues in and around the school building. The developers have not completed the sale, however, pending both the Planning Commission decision and a May 23 decision from Mississippi Department of Archives and History whether to designate Lee Middle, formerly Lee High School, as a Mississippi Landmark.
A MDAH landmark designation would require any development to incorporate and preserve the main structure at the site. The project outline already includes plans to do that and to remove an addition -- built in the 1970s -- that MDAH is not considering for historic value.
While no residents showed up at Monday's meeting to express concerns over the rezoning, adjustments and appeals board member Jason Bigelow voiced his own, citing the lack of information about the developers and the plans for the site.
"My concern is that if this developer backs out, we've already changed the zoning and given somebody else carte blanche to do whatever they want," Bigelow said.
But City Engineer Kevin Stafford, who also sits on the commission, disagreed.
"C-1 neighborhood (commercial) is the most restrictive zoning there is, so I don't think it would be a situation where someone could do anything they wanted, especially if the archives department designates it as a landmark," Stafford said.
C-1 zones allow small businesses for the convenience of neighborhood residents, such as restaurants and small retail stores. The zoning precludes larger businesses and venues such as department stores, convention centers, hotels and motels or bus and train stations.
School board satisfied with plan
Bigelow's was the only vote against the rezoning. Commission member and Realtor Wythe Rhett, who represents the developer, recused himself from the vote.
The developer purchased the option on the site in November and has consistently remained anonymous while completing due diligence. In the same CRA press release which outlined the developers' plans for the site, the developers were only identified as a group with ties to the school and community and who have developed local commercial properties in the past.
CMSD school board president Jason Spears said last week the school board does not know the potential buyers' identities, but he and other members are satisfied with the plans based on the outline released.
The school board will have some say on the property's sale. CRA purchased an option to sell the property and must exercise that option before a sale can commence, which will require school board approval.
"(The board members) seem to be happy with kind of the outline of how things are coming together," Spears said. "One of the things we discussed is we wanted it to be a commercial development, and as the plans were presented to us, it was more of a mixed use."
Spears said the board especially wanted to ensure the apartment residents would be paying full, rather than reduced, rent and that the site would still have more commercial than residential properties in order for the school district to receive the most benefit from ad valorem taxes.
The developers' option is slated to expire May 20, but CRA board chairman John Acker previously told The Dispatch the group is expected to extend the option pending MDAH's decision about designating the school a landmark on May 23.
Built as Lee High School in the 1950s, the campus housed white students in the final years of segregation in Lowndes County. MDAH is considering landmark status for the building as well as the school building used for teaching black students, because of the role the buildings played during segregation.
The campus later became Lee Middle School and closed its doors in 2011 when Columbus Middle School opened. The buildings on the site currently have asbestos, but Acker previously told The Dispatch the developer could take advantage of state reimbursements given to developers who clean up asbestos-filled properties.
The CRA purchased a $1 option on the property from Columbus Municipal School District in July 2016 and renewed it in 2017, which allowed the board to market the property. The asking price for the property is $1.79 million.
The Columbus City Council will vote whether to approve the Planning Commission's decision at Tuesday's city council meeting.