Plans moving forward on old middle school site

Pulaski Town Council heard Tuesday night that a developer is looking to turn the old Pulaski Middle School building into high density housing the likes of which today’s up and coming young professionals crave.

Janet Jonas, Manager of Special Projects for Pulaski County, addressed council on the possible adaptive re-use of the old middle school.

“Generally, when I am speaking in front of you, I’m talking about low to moderate income housing,” Jonas told council. “That is not the case for this project.”

Jonas reported that according to the Regional Housing Study released earlier this year by the New River Valley Regional Commission, “we have a real need for housing in Pulaski County and across the entire region.”

“There are a lot of pressures in the housing market right now – ever since 2017 when the study’s data was collected – to now. Even before and after COVID,” Jonas continued.

She said there is pressure in the market because there is a lack of the type housing people are seeking along with a rise in demand because of an expanding economy.

“We know our economic development folks are telling us that we’re losing businesses because we can’t provide suitable housing stock for our potential investors,” Jonas noted.

She said the housing study showed that across the valley, and in the Town of Pulaski in particular, the condition of the housing stock is aging with older homes and high-density low-income housing that is also aging.

The study found a need for more housing options.

“We have an aging population, but we also want to attract a younger population and they’re looking for maybe not the big ol’ houses that need to be rehabilitated. Maybe not stairs and maybe not an assisted facility because that’s the only way they can live on one level,” Jonas said.

“So, we know we need a wider variety of housing options in the county and particularly in the town. We just have a decrease in supply and an increase in demand.”

“Enter Pulaski Middle School,” she exclaimed.

Jonas said with the opening of the new Pulaski County Middle School, the county has been left with two old middle schools in Pulaski and Dublin that, she said, are in “fairly decent shape.”

She said now would be a “really great time” to attract a developer for the properties “before they start to decay because of dis-use and dis-repair and lack of maintenance.”

Jonas said the Pulaski Middle site includes approximately 117,000 square feet on more than 13 acres.

“The potential adaptive re-use we are discussing with the developer includes housing, retail and office space along with community facilities,” Jonas described.

Jonas said the developer looking at the property is Edwin Gaskin with Echelon Resources.

According to published reports, Echelon Resources focuses on redevelopment of historic buildings and has earned multiple project awards for its work.

Jonas said Echelon has done about 20 adaptive re-use projects since 2005, including a number of school re-uses, and a number of old factory warehouse conversions into housing.

Former school projects undertaken by Echelon include Chatham Lofts in Pittsylvania County, Halifax Lofts, Cape Charles Lofts in Northampton County and Woodstock Lofts in Shenandoah County.

Jonas said the Pulaski Middle School property would present a much larger project for Echelon than they’ve undertaken from a school standpoint.

“They’ve done projects this size with old factories,” Jonas noted. “The peanut warehouses in Suffolk comes to mind – they have a three-phase project going on down there that is on par with this project.”

Typical projects for Echelon are 5 to 30 units including studios, one- and two-bedroom apartments from 600 to 1,200 square feet.

Jonas said the market rate rents for these apartments run from $1,000 to $1,600 per month.

“On larger spaces they do have some rents that go into the $2,000’s. That range is from the Chatham Lofts. I wanted to mention something that is more rural like we are to compare us to. There, the rents go up to about $1,400 per month,” Jonas said.

Jonas told council the median rent in Pulaski – as of 2017 – was $657 per month and $857 per month regionally.

She added the median household income in 2021 in Pulaski County had grown to the “incredible” figure of $65,800.

“Pulaski County has gained over $5,000 in median household income between last year to this year and by $10,000 over the past five years,” Jonas said.

Moderate incomes, which Jonas described as those who make up 80 to 100 percent of the median now range from $52,640 to $78,960 and include “young professionals such as teachers, nurses, professionals and those in the trades.”

She said such growth is good for the county because it means people are earning more and households are becoming more stable.

Jonas said the minimum household income needed to pay $1,800 per month in rent, utilities and insurance is $61,700.

Jonas told council she mentions that because “I want to demonstrate to you these (higher priced housing) would not really be low-income houses or affordable or reachable for low-income families whatsoever. These are targeted more for people with large houses who want to downsize and a looking for something simpler with lots less maintenance and for young professionals.”

Councilman Jamie Radcliffe commented that the old middle school “is situated in one of the most beautiful places we’ll see.”

He added the town doesn’t need more low-income housing right now.

“But we’re begging for housing for Mack, Volvo and Virginia Tech employees,” he said.

“You put your house on the market today, you better have a plan B, because it’s going to be gone fast,” Radcliffe said.

“This would be what Pulaski needs,” he said. “We need that money here.”

Radcliffe said, in reference to the rents such a development at PMS would include, he doubted anyone would ever pay $600, $700 or $800 per month for the apartments downtown.

“But they’re rented,” he stated.

Councilman Brooks Dawson asked Jonas about a timeline for the PMS project.

Jonas said local officials currently are helping Gaskins find some funding resources to “do the initial take off.”

She noted the county has found actual scaled drawings of the buildings on the property and now the developer is trying to figure out how many units could be constructed and a possible layout.

Jonas said the county is helping him in his effort to obtain an Historic Designation for the property so he can use historic tax credits to help fund the project.

They are also trying to come up with a plan for the old school’s gym and auditorium – neither of which can be broken up or modified substantially for housing units.

Plus, there is the need for asbestos removal.

Jonas said the county is developing a planning grant application to do a countywide housing study related to the PMS project and others on the drawing board in the county which will include other things such as buying up blighted properties – renovating them or tearing them down to build new homes for first time homebuyers.

Jonas noted there are several housing projects in the works in the county, including the Shah Development projects near the new middle school and along Route 100 in Dublin, plus the just approved project near Herrons Landing in Fairlawn.

Jonas said the need for “upper level” housing is creating another problem in that people who wanted to buy homes in the $200,000 to $300,000 range are having to settle on homes in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.

She said that means people who could afford to buy the $100,000 to $200,000 homes are being pushed out of the market altogether.

“People are either under-buying or way over-buying,” she said.

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot