by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

City planners and active members of the College Hill Neighborhood Association won accolades from the Greensboro Planning Board this past week after scaling back language in a comprehensive neighborhood plan that sought to promote owner-occupied housing in the densely populated neighborhood situated between Spring Street and UNCG.

The planning board unanimously recommended to city council that they approve the College Hill Neighborhood Plan. Greensboro’s City Council will hold a second public hearing on the plan at its Feb. 17 meeting. The plan is the culmination of a three-year process during which a reinvigorated neighborhood association worked with the city’s planning department to address nuisances such as traffic hazards and substandard housing, while laying the groundwork to resolve future quality of life challenges.

The planning board delayed considering the plan at its July meeting after opponents raised concerns about gentrification and language that seemed to indicate that homeowners wanted to squeeze out rental units in the 163 acres of College Hill.

College Hill has a low rate of owner-occupied housing, with rental units making up 67 percent of the housing in the area, compared to 23 percent owner-occupied.

The rental statistics are down three percent compared to numbers from 2000, with most of that difference going into the vacancy category, up to 9.8 percent in 2010. Although property values in the district dropped significantly more than other areas of Greensboro following the 2008 market crash, the area’s appeal to young professionals and historic preservationists keep those values on average at a higher rate than the rest of the city. Median home value in College Hill is $145,000, which is $40,000 higher than the city-wide average.

The area was long a haven for artists, writers and young professors but fell into steep decline in the 1970s with absentee landlords letting rental units fall into disrepair. The city responded in 1980 by designating College Hill as the first historic district in Greensboro. A neighborhood plan was in place, but rarely followed by city staff or a neighborhood association that fell into dysfunction over the years.

Things changed about three years ago when a group of residents brought new energy into the College Hill Neighborhood Association. Made up of recent and long-time homeowners, the group wanted to address the changing nature of the area “” mostly due to the growth of UNCG’s student population “” and the aging infrastructure.

James Keith, current president of the College Hill Neighborhood Association, bought a home in the area back in 2006. He described the house as “beaten up” when he bought it, but he put in $250,000 in remodeling because he adored both the home and the neighborhood. Keith told the planning board that the College Hill process took much longer than normal because of a delay when the Province Apartments were built. Some residents opposed the construction of 700 new student apartments at the edge of the historic district on Spring Garden Street. Communication between the neighborhood association and the city broke down a bit after the apartments were approved.

College Hill neighborhood map.

Neighbors regrouped, though, once the apartments were up and traffic became a major problem. Students began taking Fulton Street and then Walker Avenue or West McGee Street into College Hill to look for on-street parking. Traffic on Mendenhall Street quickly outpaced its design with speed becoming a nuisance. A poorly designed intersection with a four-way stop sign is dangerous, neighbors claim, as traffic on Mendenhall Street often fails to stop.

The plan contains a proposed Future Land Use Map that will serve as a guide for deciding how specific properties should be used. While it is not a zoning classification, and does not preclude any future use, proponents of the plan say it is a necessary tool. Properties identified on the Potential Reinvestment Strategies and Opportunities Map were picked because they have the potential to impact the character of the neighborhood due to their strategic position at entry points. Most of the five identified areas are not currently being used to the neighborhood’s advantage, city staffers wrote in a memo.

But it was language that focused on owner-occupied, single-family housing as the plan’s goal that brought out opposition this past summer. Three residents spoke up at the July planning board meeting to express concern that forcing out renters would change the character of the neighborhood, which has always included a mix of students and artists. Others criticized the planning board’s notification process, saying it contained very little usable information.

City staff held a series of additional outreach meetings, including drop-in sessions at Tate Street Coffee and a booth at the Tate Street Festival, to get new input from area residents.

Due to those new voices, the plan’s focus was changed, according to neighborhood association president Keith, who presented the new plan to the board at its Jan. 21 meeting. The first plan emphasized converting informal apartment houses back into single family dwellings. This was changed to encouraging “appropriate maintenance of residential structures” to ensure health and safety.

Emphasis two was originally to promote owner-occupancy over rental housing. After the criticism of such gentrification, this was changed to promoting a variety of housing at affordable prices for a wide range of income levels.

A long line of residents spoke in favor of the plan, with retired city staffer Dan Curry threading together the qualities of the neighborhood, both when he moved there in 1973 and moving forward. Curry worked on the original College Hill Neighborhood Plan in 1978 and said both plans recognize the diversity of the area and the multiple property uses that “were all strengths then and are still the strengths today.”

Curry said that public-private investment was the key to the area’s redevelopment and that once the plan is adopted the neighborhood is prepared to work with the city on pedestrian street improvements, signage and to improve housing conditions.

Tate Street resident David Little spoke against the plan, as he did in July. He noted that this version was friendlier than the earlier draft, but that he still opposes the notion of remaking College Hill into a “finely manicured, premiere neighborhood.”

Little said that the beauty of the neighborhood has always been its diversity.

“There seems to be less interest in getting along with others than there used to be,” Little said. “There is more of an interest in remaking the neighborhood with one vision.”

Little said he didn’t share that vision, and that while most of the residents who spoke at the planning board were easy to work with, he’d heard a lot of disdainful comments recently about renters and others claiming victory each time a rental is converted. Little said the plan needed more language to guarantee future generations the right to live in rental housing.

“Greensboro has many nice neighborhoods but only one College Hill, which is vibrant,” Little said. “If anything mutes that culture, Greensboro will not gain, it will lose.” !