A former Lebanon school building is getting a new life as a commercial and office space in the northwest quadrant of the city.
Project developer Aaron Camara said people familiar with the former Northwest Elementary School won’t recognize it once the reconstruction project is done.
“It will absolutely be different. Night and day,” said Camara, a majority partner in the development firm Quartz Creek Holdings LLC, based in Rapho Township, Lancaster County, said. “They won’t even recognize that it was a former school.”
The project will inject $7-9 million into revitalizing the structure, in addition to an undisclosed purchase price for the structure and surrounding land.
The building at 900 Maple Street, between 9th & 10th streets, offers 60,460 square feet of commercial office, medical and professional space. The property also will include a secure underground parking lot and a two-story parking garage beside the building.
Camara said it will be the first parking deck in the city.
A deal for the purchase of the property has been struck, he said; he declined to reveal the price, which he said was up to school officials to announce.
District superintendent Arthur Abrom said in an email Wednesday morning that the building was last used as a school in 2018; students began attending the new Northwest Elementary in July of that year, he said.
“Though we are under contract at this time, it will ultimately require court approval as we work through the due diligence period before final settlement,” Abrom noted. Until the process is concluded, he said, it “would not be prudent for me to comment on the sale price at this time.”
However, he added, “I believe that the reuse of that property is of benefit to our community as it will bring more commercial and residential options and opportunities for our families in Lebanon.”
Camara said it’s a continuation of his efforts to boost property values in that part of the city.
“I’ve been investing in the north side of Lebanon for the last eight years,” he said. “I have multiple other projects in the area, and this project matched with our ultimate goal of bringing the north side of Lebanon back up, creating living wage jobs and raising property values.”
The former school, which was built some 45 years ago, is a “difficult site” to work with, he admitted.
“What makes it good is the bones of the building,” he said. “The structure was very well made. It gave us a platform to really design a concept and idea. We know at the end of the project we’ll have a great building.”
The “bones” are the best part of the existing structure, Camara said; otherwise, there’s a lot of work to be done.
“What we’ve found is, a lot of the windows and the exterior skin of the structure is going to have to completely come off,” he explained. “We have to start fresh from the structural steel. We had to figure out how to do that cost-effectively.”
Fortunately, he said, the interior was designed with flexibility in mind.
“The interior of the building was designed in the 1970s, and they had an open classroom concept, with collapsible walls you can roll out of the way,” Camara said. “So the inside is almost completely open space, once we removed those walls. We had an almost blank slate to work with.”
That leaves plenty of room for builders to install a couple of elevators, some core bathroom facilities, new lobby spaces and security desk, he said. Otherwise, the interior is being left open until the needs of the tenants have been determined.
“It could potentially be a single tenant who takes the whole building, or we could accommodate up to 10 tenants,” Camara said.
Although they are not yet signing up tenants, Camara said “there’s a good buzz going” and they already “have a lot of interest” in the space.
The use is allowed under existing zoning, so the project has no more hoops to jump through for the city, he said. There are still a few steps to take with PennDOT, however, and final project approvals to obtain.
“If the stars align, we’d love to start work in the fourth quarter of this year and be ready [for occupancy] by the third quarter of 2021,” he said.
Camara said city officials are “very excited” about the project.
“We’ve held several meetings, with several different concepts, and they’re very excited with the repurposing of that building,” he said. “They think it will be a great addition to the city.”
City Mayor Sherry L. Capello agreed, noting city officials are “extremely pleased” to support the project.
“The modernization of the building and the safety improvements proposed at the site would continue the good work occurring in this neighborhood,” she said.
She mentioned recent revitalization projects in the same neighborhood, including the bridge crossings over the Norfolk Southern Railway project, Kreider Commons and the Partridge Street redevelopment project (Shoppes at the Bridges). With the proposed renovations, Capello said, the former school site will be “very attractive for development.”
“Just as important,” she added, “the proposal will change a non-taxable parcel to taxable,” which is an “added bonus” for the city.
The building will have a “modern professional look … but still something that fits in the community,” Camara said. He hopes it will become something of a north-end gateway into the city.
“Property values are really going up,” he said.
In a press release on the redevelopment project, Camara noted the former school is at the crossroads of the downtown Lebanon market and is within a 5- to 10-minute drive of the county courthouse, county offices and Good Samaritan Hospital. Lebanon Valley College and access to Routes 76 and 81 are within a 20-minute drive.
The property is only two miles from Lebanon Valley Mall, which offers more than 390,000 square feet of retail space.
Within a 10-mile radius of the site, the release states, there are 139,085 residents living in 55,233 homes, with a labor force of 111,256 and an average household income of $74,549.
The area has added 12,178 new homes — a 16 percent growth rate — since 2000, the release states.
Camara’s partner in the project is John Joseph, with whom Camara and Bob Nelson own Lebanon Building Supply.
Camara also is a partner in Monarch Development, the group behind the Shoppes at the Bridges retail development in Lebanon. The former school is being marketed for use by York-based real estate firm Bennett Williams Commercial.
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This article was updated with comment from Lebanon School District.