How repurposing a vacant school is helping tackle Mount Vernon's housing shortage
The bricks of Adams School on the south side of Youngstown are falling down.
Some of the windows are broken.
Inside, paint flakes from the walls as water drips from rusty stairwells.
“It needs to be torn down,” said Ken Stanislaw. His backyard juts up against the deteriorating building, which has sat vacant for nearly fifteen years.
Too expensive to continue operating, these schools close — sitting empty for years, sometimes even decades because districts don’t have the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to either renovate them or tear them down.
This was the scene 50 miles northeast of Columbus at Mount Vernon’s old middle school.
It's been vacant since the late '90s.
“I was one of the last classes to leave this building,” said Brian Ball. He’s now the city engineer. “When we were here, the steps were crumbling. The last year they ran the heat, it was like, the electric bill was $9,000 a month.”
Ball said the city turned off the heat a couple years later, and it’s been pretty much empty since then.
The building that remains is a shadow of its former self — the granite stairs are uneven, its terrazzo floors covered in dust, and the three grand arched doors in the entryway are missing window panes.
But that won’t be the case for long.
Developer Joel Mazza, another Mount Vernon middle school alum, has taken the renovations on. He has deep ties to the school.
“My father graduated from here in 1955,” he said. “All my brothers and sisters, all five of us went to middle school here.”
Now, he’s transforming their old school into an apartment complex.
“This will take a lot to visualize here,” he said, on a tour through the school-turned-construction zone. “But that’s what we’ll restore as the old gymnasium. This is the old [counter] where you would buy your tickets for the basketball games.”
The old gym will be a common area. The old classrooms will be one- or two-bedroom units.
When the renovations are complete, the entryway will showcase vintage trophies. Some of the walls will be papered in old yearbook photos.
“A lot of people had a lot of neat memorabilia that's been sitting in the back of their garage or their shed,” Mazza said. “And now it's an opportunity to show it off because of what we're doing here on this corner and preserving the history of this building.”
It’s taken years to get to this point, but by next spring Mazza expects all 38 of the building’s units will be occupied.
That’s because the need for housing here is really high.
Ball says waiting lists for apartments in the area are over a year long — and they’re getting longer as businesses pop up to support the new Intel plant in neighboring Licking County.
“We have lost employees because we have folks that are right out of law school who come to work for our legal offices and they can't find a place to stay,” he said.
But even with the high demand for housing, Mazza says renovating an old building like this almost isn’t worth the cost.
In this case, he said it’s only financially possible because the school is located in an opportunity zone.
“Every community has their west side or their blighted area,” he said. “And this particular side of town, the Sandusky Street corridor was that area. So, the opportunity zone was a tax program that was rolled out to spark investment in these areas to help the housing shortage.”
It might not be feasible for schools in other parts of the state to be repurposed in the same way.
Even Mazza originally intended to raze the school entirely.
“But once we came in, we sat around joking about how we hung out in seventh grade in the gymnasium,” he said. “It was like the nostalgia unfortunately took hold of me and we decided to keep it.”
It’s been a challenge, he said, but he’s hopeful the renovated building will be a boon to the community, much like it was a quarter century ago.