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Work is underway transforming the former Bel Air Academy on East Gordon Street in Bel Air into several luxury apartments.
Work is underway transforming the former Bel Air Academy on East Gordon Street in Bel Air into several luxury apartments. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Nearly five years after he bought the property, developer John Zoulis is beginning to see his vision for the former Bel Air Academy school building take shape.

Ground was broken ceremoniously Tuesday for the $4.5 million eight-apartment and 12-townhome development at 45 E. Gordon St., a site that includes a building that was the first brick elementary school building in Bel Air.

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It also served as Harford County Public Schools headquarters until it moved into its new building on Hickory Avenue in 2006.

“It’s very exciting, to get something four years in the works, to see something that’s really starting up right now, and moving forward to create something nice for the community and for ourselves, too,” Zoulis said.

Zoulis bought the one-acre property at auction from the county for $101,000 in 2006, with the stipulation that building could not be demolished unless it were a safety concern.

Ground is broken Tuesday for the Bel Air Academy, a $4.5 million project to renovate an historic school building into eight apartments and build 12 townhouses on Gordon Street in Bel Air.
Ground is broken Tuesday for the Bel Air Academy, a $4.5 million project to renovate an historic school building into eight apartments and build 12 townhouses on Gordon Street in Bel Air. (Erika Butler)

Plans for the property have been through several incarnations — including a four-story apartment building with a walkway connecting to the existing building — and a zoning dispute.

“It took hard work, strong dedication and coordination by many people to find the right fit,” Zoulis said. “We tried not to alter the community structure, we try to complement it.”

The project is the right fit for the community, he said.

“At the same time we’re preserving such a historic real estate piece that’s been closed for years. We’re bringing it to life, it makes us feel much better because we’re achieving our goal,” Zoulis said.

The $4.5 million project includes renovation of the former Bel Air Academy, which dates to the 1880s, he said. Renovation of that building is $1.6 million.

Other than the shell of the building, the only thing that will remain is the staircase inside, Zoulis said. Everything else will be brand new.

This is the first historic renovation for Zoulis Properties.

“We like to retrofit old buildings, bring them back to life. This one is a unique one, it’s the first brick school building in Bel Air, and that’s a lot to say there,” Zoulis said.

Work will be done on the townhouses and apartments at the same time and are expected to be finished by May, weather permitting, he said.

The project is “perfect” for Bel Air, the town’s planning director Kevin Small said.

A member of the state Sustainable Growth Commission, Small said the regulations are tough for adaptive reuse of buildings.

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“We want to make it as easy as possible, as least expensive as possible, to reuse an existing building, whether it’s historic or not,” Small said.

He hopes the Bel Air Academy will be an example for other projects in the town and the state.

Paul Thompson, president of Architectural Design Works, said that as president of the town’s Economic Development Commission, he’s been encouraging dense infill residential growth for decades, and it’s “nice to finally see it come to fruition.”

As the designer of the project, Thompson said he’s been “humbled” to be part of the rich history of the academy building.

Zoulis said he’s looking forward to building not just apartments and townhouses, but relationships.

“We are working together to make this a better place, as everybody else is working hard to do,” Zoulis said.

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