AUBURN — Expect Auburn's former West Middle School to keep much of its look even after its projected conversion into affordable housing within the next two years.

Susan Kimmel said her firm, Two Plus Four Companies, plans to take steps to preserve historic elements while retrofitting 59 apartment units into the former school, which was closed in 2011. Two Plus Four was authorized with a public referendum earlier this year to buy the approximately 77-year-old building from the Auburn Enlarged City School District.

The parties have nearly closed the $1,060,000 sale, said Kimmel, who gave an update during the latest edition of the Cayuga County Wednesday Morning Roundtable at the Auburn Hilton Garden Inn. The project is a partnership between the Syracuse-based Two Plus Four Companies and Unity House, which will reserve 20 housing units for individuals with psychiatric disabilities.

Kimmel said project developers hope to have the 118,112-square-foot building, at 217 Genesee St., ready for occupancy by February 2018. 

That's pending the sale's closure that needs approval by the state's Public Authorities Control Board since the project is using public funding. Kimmel said the state agency cancelled its November meeting; as a result, the closing date is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 10.

Once approved, Two Plus Four — which counts this project as the seventh school conversion the firm has done — will work to convert West Middle School into WMS Apartments.

Two Plus Four Companies will handle the design, construction and management of the property. There will be 38 one-bedroom apartments and 11 two-bedroom spaces. Further, Unity House will have offices for agency administrators as well as on-site staff for the psychiatric care programs.

Kimmel said the project is possible through state funds from the state Office of Mental Health and federal historic tax credits. West Middle School, built in 1939, was designated a historic structure by the National Parks Service to qualify for the tax credits. Kimmel said the funding program requires Two Plus Four to maintain certain aspects of the existing structure.

Wednesday Morning Roundtable 2

Liz Smith, executive director of Unity House, speaks about the future of the former West Middle School on Wednesday at the Auburn Hilton Garden Inn.

For West Middle School, Two Plus Four may keep some of the lockers and chalkboards intact as well as other structural components. The school's interior courtyard will be a green space available for tenants.

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Further, the auditorium will be kept intact, fully separated from the residences and available for community use, while the exterior fields will be maintained as green space, Kimmel said.

"There's a lot of memories here in this building," she said. "So the goal is to keep the building — if you're driving by, it's going to look like West Middle School, but it's going to have a public purpose."

Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo revisited the site's background during Wednesday's presentation, saying Auburn school administrators moved to close West Middle School to help resolve an approximately $6.5-million budget gap five years ago. The district ultimately cut 56 positions — 31 as a direct result of the closure — and used $3 million in reserves to balance that year's budget, while sixth-graders were moved into the elementary schools, according to the superintendent.

When selling the property, the Auburn School District looked into other concepts — like a community building with medical offices, Pirozzolo said — before connecting with Two Plus Four.

Kimmel said a single-bedroom apartment is expected to rent for around $575 per month, which includes heat and hot water.

Prospective tenants must have annual incomes of up to around $26,000 to qualify. Standard tenants, she said, will be responsible for the full amount as there will be no rent subsidies available.

For the Unity House tenants, 15 of the tenants will receive services through the agency's supportive housing service, qualifying them for a stipend to offset 70 percent of the rent costs, said Executive Director Liz Smith. The remaining tenants will also have their rent costs offset in part by the agency's certified program fee, Smith said.

"The most important piece was we wanted to get the building used again, revitalize Auburn, help families in need and actually get it on the tax roll for the first time," Pirozzolo said.

Wednesday Morning Roundtable 3

Jeff Pirozzolo, superintendent of the Auburn Enlarged City School District, speaks at the Auburn Hilton Garden Inn in 2016.

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Staff writer Greg Mason can be reached at (315) 282-2239 or greg.mason@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenMason.