Developer requests permission to request rezoning of Margaret Martin school

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, October 15, 2014

NATCHEZ — A developer looking to turn Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center into an apartment complex walked away from the Natchez Board of Aldermen without any clear guidance for his project.

Jeremy Mears, vice president of the Brownstone Group, appeared before the board Tuesday with a request for their permission to approach the Natchez Planning Commission about rezoning the Margaret Martin property.

The Brownstone Group uses state and federal credits to fund the renovation of abandoned or aging properties into affordable, medium-income housing, Mears said.

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“The Margaret Martin School, I think it has a lot of potential,” he said. “It is a beautiful building and frankly I wouldn’t want to change a whole lot about that building and would keep it looking as original as possible.”

Even though the city still owns the building, Mears said it needs to be appropriately zoned for apartments for him to even be able to apply for the credits that would make the project possible.

“Without the zoning in place, you can’t even make the application,” he said.

Mears said he would also like to develop the former General Hospital building — now known as Oak Towers and the one time home of the Guardian Shelter — into senior housing, but that plan wasn’t ultimately part of what he was asking Monday.

He had a similar proposal for General Hospital in 2013, but set the idea aside after area residents raised concerns about population density.

City Development Director James Johnston said the matter was brought to the board by the property owners to get their permission to take the matter to the planning commission.

Granting permission was not the board approving the project itself at this time, he said.

But Alderman Ricky Gray said he was concerned how the commission might interpret the aldermen’s sending it the matter.

“I think that is putting unnecessary pressure on our commissioners because if we sign off on it and if they are against it they might think they can’t be against it because we are for it,” he said.

Alderwoman Sarah Smith said she objected to having such a matter brought to the board that day and asking for approval without the board members feeling prepared to take it up.

Johnston said he sent the board members memos in late September and October and a story about the matter was published in The Natchez Democrat.

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said to her knowledge none of the board members had discussed the matter prior to Monday.

“None of us came together and had a discussion about what we as owners were going to do about that property,” she said. “I am thinking the board needs to have some discussion with (Johnston) before we have anything happen.”

The aldermen also expressed concern the current tenants of the building might not have been fully apprised of the situation.

Gray likewise said he wanted to make sure the gym at the former school building remained available for city programs.

“I think this is a communication problem on the front end,” Gray said. “As an alderman, I represent a group of people and am not going to say I am going to give away Martin gym and not consult the taxpayers. That is not just six or seven people’s property.”

Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said sending the zoning application to the commission did not guarantee the project would move forward.

“Let’s assume (the commission) passes it,” he said. “(The board) still holds the purse strings to this project, and you can decide not to sell (the building). Even with the zoning change, there is nothing automatic about it.”

Alderman Mark Fortenbery made a motion to send the matter to the planning commission, but it died for lack of a second.

After the meeting, board members said they would find out more about the matter and continue the discussion later.