Columbus Redevelopment Authority on Wednesday released possible future plans for the Lee Middle School property.
An anonymous developer who purchased an option on the 15-acre site in November plans to preserve most of the school building, adapting it to house a mixture of apartment and commercial retail space, according to a CRA press release. The project outline currently includes two phases, the first of which involves the reuse of the existing building, “with the enhancement of Lee High School in mind,” the press release said. The second phase includes the construction of new buildings, making up a mixture of commercial retail and apartments.
Adapting the building for commercial property will require a rezoning of the site. The city Planning Commission will consider on Monday the CRA’s request to change the property’s zoning from R-1 single-family residential to C-1 neighborhood commercial. The following day the decision will go before the Columbus City Council for approval.
Jeff Turnage, CRA board attorney who also represents the city, said the development group plans to remain anonymous unless and until it exercises the option.
CRA board chairman John Acker said the board is excited at the prospects of the sale after months of studying and evaluating the property.
Acker stressed the developer has not completed the sale of the property yet.
“The developer has not exercised the option at this time, and there are a lot of moving parts to this transaction,” he said in the press release.
While the developer has consistently remained anonymous throughout the due diligence process, the press release said the “principals of the investment group” involved are members of the community, have ties to the school and have developed local commercial properties in the past.
Acker said the board had been worried the main building at the site would have to be demolished to make room for the development.
“This developer came in with a great plan to utilize the school,” he said. “That’s kind of a win-win.”
During Phase 1, which is estimated to cost between $3 and 5 million, developers plan to put a 16,000 square-foot restaurant or banquet space in what is currently the cafeteria; a 24,000 square foot multi-use venue/community center in the auditorium; and a 22,000 square foot free-standing retail space in the gymnasium. The plan also includes putting approximately 24 1- and 2-bedroom, upscale, loft apartments in the two-story classroom wing of the building. Phase 1 is expected to be completed January 2020.
Phase 2 would see a 4,000 square-foot restaurant on what is currently the front lawn and gym parking lot and a mixed use commercial space, between 90,000-100,000 square feet, that includes retail, restaurant and approximately 20 upscale, loft apartments. That phase is expected to cost $10 million.
The plan will supply 50 to 100 construction jobs, and create up to 70 restaurant jobs, 40 to 80 free-standing retail space jobs, five to eight venue and apartment management jobs and 25 to 30 part-time venue event jobs.
The developer also plans to demolish a back wing of the school that was added in the 1970s.
Historic Preservation issue
The developer may also have to plan for a pending decision by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which may designate the site as a Mississippi Landmark on May 23. The developer’s option on the property expires May 20, but Acker said the developer will ask the CRA to extend the option deadline for several weeks so the developer can adjust plans if necessary, based on MDAH’s decision.
Built as Lee High School in the 1950s, the campus housed white students in the final years of segregation in Lowndes County. MDAH also is considering Hunt High, which housed black students before integration, for landmark designation.
Lee Middle School, formerly Lee High School, closed its doors in 2011 after 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.