Project to convert old school to apartments reaches milestone

The former school on Phelps Road has been vacant for the past 27 years in Madison Heights.

The developer seeking to restore a former school on Phelps Road in Madison Heights into apartments recently met the first milestone in working to secure a historic designation, a necessary component of moving it forward.

Waukeshaw Development, of Petersburg, has been given preliminary historic designation approval by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources Review Board, which makes the project eligible for state historic tax credits, according to a news release from the Amherst County Economic Development Authority.

In June the project will be reviewed for a federal historic designation in order to qualify for historic tax credits, the release states.

Dave McCormack, of Waukeshaw Development, describes the former school, which was shuttered 27 years ago, as a beautiful building that deserves preserving.

“Getting this preliminary designation is a key first step to a full listing, which will ultimately provide the tools that help us save it,” McCormack said in the release. “Historic tax credits are critical to this project and I’m excited to have come this far in such a short amount of time.”

The company plans to invest at least $5 million to redevelop, restore and convert the building into more than 30 market-rate apartments while maintaining its historic character.

The Amherst County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in January to approve the rezoning for the project, with board member David Pugh opposing. A key component of a performance agreement with the company and the county is to acquire a historic designation.

“The project cannot happen without the tax credits,” McCormack said in a phone interview.

McCormack toured the building for the first time within the past few weeks and said the company is working to document its current condition in preparation for the upcoming work.

“It’s in pretty bad condition, but it’s typical for projects like this,” he said.

McCormack’s company has redeveloped multiple properties in Virginia, including the Bedford Lofts and Beale’s Brewery & BBQ in a historic area of the town of Bedford. The company also last year purchased Amherst Milling Company in the town of Amherst and is restoring the structure for an outpost for its Trapezium Brewing Co. in Petersburg, a project on track to open later this year with hopes of becoming the first hydro-powered brewery in the United States.

Victoria Hanson, executive director of the Amherst County Economic Development Authority, said McCormack’s involvement is encouraging for a Madison Heights property that previous owners have not had success in reviving in past years.

“He’s a developer with a lot of experience,” Hanson said.

McCormack said a few years ago someone asked him to come to Amherst County and he envisioned opportunities.

“I feel like it’s really undiscovered and there’s some potential there,” he said.

At the rezoning hearing, some neighbors expressed concern with increased traffic and Pugh mentioned “broken promises” tied with previous failed plans for the property some have described as an eyesore. Prior to the company’s agreement with the county to develop the facility, the county had discussed potentially demolishing it in court documents as part of civil litigation filed against the previous owner, Phelps Road Development LLC.

McCormack said he feels tearing it down, as some have suggested, would leave a hole.

“If you look at the oldest part of that school, it was designed in an interesting way. It’s a really cool building,” he said. “That building tells a story, and I think it’s a story that’s important to the county.”

Built in the 1920s, the building once was known as Madison Heights High School and last operated as Seminole Elementary School prior to the opening of Madison Heights Elementary School in 1991. The first graduating class of Madison Heights High School had 19 students while its last class graduated in 1962, according to the Amherst County Museum and Historical Society.

Sandi Esposito, a local architectural historian and researcher, said she estimates the project has a good likelihood of landing a permanent historic designation due in part to its educational history.

Waukeshaw Development purchased the property from Phelps Road Development LLC for $50,000 in November and deeded the property over to the EDA, in accordance with the agreement with the county.

The company is in a position to walk away from the project if certain project milestones aren’t met and in such a scenario the company would be reimbursed and the county would in turn reimburse the authority, County Administrator Dean Rodgers has said. The project must be finished within three years, Rodgers said in January.

McCormack said the site’s close proximity to a bustling downtown Lynchburg just across the James River and its presence in a lively section of U.S. 29 Business in Madison Heights are positives for the project and marketing the housing units.

“It’s going to be a really good asset for the community once it’s redeveloped,” McCormack said.

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