Aldermen to review proposals for repurposing of Margaret Martin, General Hospital

Published 12:13 am Tuesday, October 28, 2014

NATCHEZThe possible sale and renovation of two historic city-owned buildings could take the first step today in a long process of reviews and approvals.

During a work session Monday afternoon, the Natchez Board of Aldermen heard a presentation from Community Development Director James Johnston on the proposed repurposing of the former Margaret Martin School and Natchez General Hospital.

The potential developer, the Brownstone Group, is known for using state and federal credits to fund the renovation of abandoned or aging properties into affordable, medium-income housing, Johnston said.

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For Margaret Martin, Johnston said the group plans a family development encompassing the building that was once a school, as well as the construction of two new buildings in the rear that would each contain roughly 18 units.

The majority of the units, Johnston said, would be one- and two-bedroom units with only 20 percent of total units being three bedroom units.

Johnston said amenities for tenants are expected to include washer and dryers in each unit, theater, fitness and business center, clubhouse and playground, among other things.

The group estimates construction costs to be between $5 and $6 million, which does not include the costs of appliances and furniture, among other things.

But before the group can even continue planning for the project, the property must be rezoned from a special use district (SUD) to an R4 multi-family residential.

Johnston said he would ask the board’s approval today to take the matter before the Natchez Preservation Commission.

“The assumption is if you’re wanting to rezone, you’re wanting to move forward with Brownstone,” Johnston said. “If they don’t buy it, you can rezone it back.

“We have to start somewhere, and they’re interested right now.”

Members of the board agreed the project could benefit the city by bringing in a large development project, but they also asked if those who are housed at Margaret Martin now — mainly the Natchez Festival of Music — had provided any input.

Johnston said NFM Artistic Director Jay Dean sent an email to him and Mayor Butch Brown Thursday saying he wanted to see the city have the opportunity to move forward with the development, but was concerned about the fate of the organization without Margaret Martin as its home.

Natchez resident and attorney Paul Benoist, who attended the meeting with five other members of the public, said he thought the future of the festival should not rest on the fate of that building.

“I’m in favor of anything that breaks the antidevelopment mentality of this town,” Benoist said. “I think we need a performing arts center that’s state of the art for a town this scale.”

Bob Adams, who is on the NFM board of directors, said he didn’t think the repurposing and construction of Margaret Martin outweighed the cost of the organization’s potential demise from having nowhere to practice and host its performances.

“It’s a cost benefit analysis,” Adams said. “What does (Margaret Martin) cost the city, and what will it cost the city if the festival goes away?”

Brown said he was confident the organization could find another location for its events and specifically mentioned the Natchez City Auditorium and auditoriums at several schools within the Natchez-Adams School District that could be considered options.

“What do you want to do with the building if you don’t sell it?” Brown asked board members. “This is a good thing for the city.”

The development at the former Natchez General Hospital building doesn’t need to be rezoned, but Johnston still provided information on the proposed project to board members.

The Brownstone Group is proposing a senior development at the former hospital for residents ages 55 and over.

The group estimates placing 15 one-bedroom units in the existing building, and plans to construct one new building to the left of the existing build that will contain 15 units.

All units at the hospital building will be one- and two-bedroom units.

The group estimates construction costs to be between $3.5 and $4 million.

Johnston said amenities are expected to include washer and dryer in each unit, a fitness center, business center, security, perimeter fence and clubhouse, among other things.

Johnson said if the project were funded, the site plan review committee and Natchez Preservation Commission would still need to approve the project.

Both proposed developments are Section 42 developments and require tenants to meet certain income requirements. The projects are not Section 8 developments, which is a government-subsidized rental program.

If one or both developments are funded, Johnston said construction is not expected to begin until March 2016 and would take nearly a year to complete.

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, who represents the ward in which the hospital building is located, said she urged Johnston to host a public hearing soon to allow residents around the property to get more information about the proposed development. Johnston said the requirements for the development did not require a public hearing, but said one could be hosted anyway.

The Brownstone Group had a similar proposal for the building in 2013 that received numerous complaints from area residents and was ultimately canceled.