Three decades after students last roamed the halls of the former school on Phelps Road in Madison Heights, a “leap of faith” project to convert the 41,000-square-foot building into apartments was celebrated Thursday as a vision fulfilled.
Waukeshaw Development, the Petersburg company that spent the past two years renovating the structure into 41 apartments, held a grand opening and a tour to showcase the spacious units with high ceilings and chalkboards from former classes. The school closed in 1991 and sat vacant for nearly 30 years while it fell victim to vandalism, attempted arson and theft with deterioration so bad the county’s chief building official declared it a public safety hazard in a 2016 letter to a previous owner.
On Thursday, a few dozen attendees, including Amherst County government and business leaders, marveled at the sights of the new apartments with large windows, new countertops, washers and driers in each unit. Waukeshaw Development, which specializes in adaptive reuse of historic structures, entered into a redevelopment lease with the county in 2017.
Dave McCormack, president of Waukeshaw, said the project is 99% complete and expects to begin leasing units next week. The company in 2020 began construction while using historic tax credits and a state grant from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for environmental remediation work including cleanup and removal of lead and asbestos.
McCormack described the property as one of the more complex projects the company has undertaking considering the building’s layout and its vast number of issues.
“I remember the building when it was an absolute disaster,” McCormack said. “We called it Biosphere 3 in the auditorium, it was so bad, literally plants growing all over the floor and in the building.”
McCormack thanked the Amherst County Board of Supervisors and the Economic Development Authority of Amherst County, referring to county leaders as “visionaries” in helping guide the project through many regulatory issues.
“It really took some super creativity to unwind that and get into this project,” McCormack said. “It’s come together amazingly well.”
The complex showcases a pet-friendly atmosphere including a dog wash area, internal courtyard and plentiful greenspace. Waukeshaw also is working with the county to redevelop a portion of Seminole park behind the building into a dog park serving the entire Amherst community.
Emily Sanfratella, chief operating officer of Waukeshaw, said the project’s opening is exciting while recalling memories of walking through the site when the roof was caved in and youth spray-painting graffiti on the walls were chased out.
“It’s totally transformed,” she said.
Sanfratella said the company has seen a strong demand for pet-friendly units and a major focus is attracting tenants with pets. The facility includes a pet washing station and imagery of dogs adorn some hallways. The units also include features similar to historic properties in downtown Lynchburg within about a mile across the James River.
“We think our property can stand up next to any of those,” Sanfratella said of the quality of the units.
Jennifer Moore, chairperson of the Amherst County’s board of supervisors, attended elementary school in the building and said she is excited for its comeback.
“There are countless memories from the community about what has happened at the location here,” Moore said.
She said when she first joined the board in January 2017 the county’s options were demolishing the building for half a million dollars or taking a chance on a developer, describing the choice as a leap of faith.
“In my mind, saving the historical building, increasing housing options for the community, it was the right decision,” Moore said of the county supporting the project. “I’ve gotten to see life grow back into the walls, the grounds here. It has been a complete transformation. I think about the potential memories for the people to come.”
Moore said new water lines also recently have been put into the neighborhood and the future dog park is an attraction that will draw more people to Madison Heights.
Calvin Kennon, of the Amherst EDA, said prior to Waukeshaw’s involvement the site was studied and prospects for future used seemed hopeless.
“It’s great to see this building come back to life,” Kennon said.
He complimented Waukeshaw and McCormack for seeing the project through.
“I think his work speaks for itself. He’s done it over and over again,” Kennon said. “Instead of having a hopeless situation, we’re going to have a place for families and a place to grow. It’s going to bring jobs, it’s going to bring economic growth to an area that needs it.”
The project is $7 million, according to the company’s website. Waukeshaw also purchased Winton Country Club from the county in early 2019 and operates it as Winton Farm.
The company in 2017 also purchased the former Amherst Milling Co., a historic mill on Union Hill Road in the town of Amherst, and is redeveloping it into a brewery and restaurant called Camp Trapezium. McCormack said the opening of the restored mill is planned for this summer.
County Administrator Dean Rodgers described Waukeshaw as an excellent development partner for the county. The Westie is a first step to bringing a renaissance to Madison Heights, he said.
“The Westie will be a strong tax revenue generator and the fact that we were able to preserve the building is so meaningful to this community,” Rodgers said. “This truly is a win-win.”