From the ground up The downtown experience from street level to high-rise

by Brian Clarey

The cold front broke on Tuesday last week, busted by a potent, shining sun that would no longer be denied, affecting the city of Greensboro the way a nice, warm bath affects a worn-down soul at the end of a busy day.

Wednesday on Elm Street the downtown district of brick, steel and concrete absorbs the heat from above, and the sidewalks regain their circulation like tingling limbs emerging from atrophy.

It’s like 70 degrees out here today, giving much conversational fodder to those who like to discuss the weather over coffees and beers and cocktails that come in fragile glassware. Could be winter’s last gasp, the one the old man has been mocking us with since that unseasonable December bloom teased our gardens and lawns into fruitfulness. Or it could be a false spring, a few delicious days’ worth of bright skies and lightness before a late February slam turns everything to ice.

Either way, it’s warm outside right now and the consensus among the residents of downtown Greensboro seems to be to get outside and soak it up while it lasts. Beat feet on the sidewalk. Eat lunch on the patio at M’Coul’s or at one of the umbrella tables in front of Fincastle’s. Get some face time at the bars or the coffee shops or right there on the street where the action and nitty gritty flow fast and loose, especially when the weather’s like this.

It’s more of a balmy breeze than a frigid wind that rolls down Elm Street today, riffling hairdos and billowing loose jackets, sweeping into the alcove in front of the Green Bean and setting the flyers pinned to the bulletin board there aflutter. Lectures and rock shows and “Stop The War Now!” and, up near the top, an 8-1/2 by 11 advert.

“Smothers Place Lofts” it says. “Unique Luxury Condo” it says. “Two Bedrooms,” “10ft ceilings,” “Balcony off of Master Bedroom.” “1200/month” it says.

And there it is… in living ink-jet color… an invitation to join the party that’s been raging down here since they broke ground on the corner of North Church and East Friendly in 2002 for Governor’s Court, the 42-unit project at the vanguard of the apartment and condominium boom sparked by downtown revitalization and a renewed interest in the city’s urban center.

Afterwards came Smothers Place, of course, and now Arbor House is going up over by the YMCA, one of a double handful of projects planned for all corners of the downtown district, including the high-rise Center Pointe, being built atop the bones of the old Wachovia Building which sat dormant for 16 years before Roy Carroll got his hands on it with designs to turn it into the gem of Elm Street.

But there have been apartments in downtown Greensboro since 1903, when there were actual elms on Elm Street and the hotel named for them housed travelers who walked over from the train depot. And in the ensuing hundred or so years more living spaces were carved above storefronts and in the slim, tall buildings that grew to line the street even after the elms themselves were removed at the turn of the 20th century.

Evan Olson lives in one of these pre-war domiciles on the third floor of the Vernon Building, a simple shotgun flat he picked up after separating from his wife last year.

“I didn’t know what I was gonna do,” he says. “It worked out that a friend of mine who was living here, he only had like a month left on his lease. It was really a pleasant coincidence. At the time it seemed like something I would enjoy.” He pauses. “And I am enjoying it.”

What’s not to like? From his window he looks down on the pedestrian-heavy corner of Elm and Washington; within a few first downs from the door to his building are restaurants, bars, curiosity shops and artistic concerns. His own music studio, where he crafts original recordings for films and television, is across the street. And when he has a downtown gig he can sling his guitar over his shoulder and walk it.

It’s all white walls and hardwood up there, 12-foot ceilings with a cross of glass bricks embedded in one vertical surface. Coloring-book pages and rudimentary drawings hang on the fridge of the open kitchen from when his kids stay over; there’s a big flat-screen in the corner for when they don’t. There’s 1.5 bathrooms. A washer/dryer. A long hallway for pacing or racing.

“It’s perfect for one person,” he says. “It gets a little tight when the kids are over.”

And it’s affordable. At $725 a month he doesn’t sweat the rent and the utilities are just a hiccup in the cash flow.

Plus… it’s downtown. The lights…. The energy…. The action…. He’s all over it.

“I figure I gotta get it out of my system,” he says. “I figure a year will do it. Then I want to get a house.”

Scott Gardner has a house. A couple of them, in fact.

“I’ve been investing in real estate for a while now,” he says. “Some investment and rental properties. Some stuff on the coast.”

He’s a few degrees shy of middle age, with big deltoid muscles bunching up underneath a sweater the color of a nice merlot and a pair of well-kept jeans. He’s leaning against the granite countertops in the kitchen of his Smothers Place condo, the one he’s been advertising on the Green Bean’s bulletin board since the two grad students he’d been renting to moved out a few months ago.

He bought it pre-construction in 1995 for roughly $140,000, maybe 1,000 square feet of beige carpets and oyster-colored walls that would go in New York City for half a million bucks.

“I saw a good potential for gain in the downtown area,” Gardner says. “It seemed like a good place to put some money. The stock market has done nothing for me in the last ten years.”

But most would agree that the bottom hit more than five years ago, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell harder than the Twin Towers. It didn’t regain its losses until 2004, scaring off more cautious investors and, after consorting with a steep reduction in interest rates by the Federal Reserve, creating a real estate boom that spawned a nationwide interest in investment property. The first few years of this decade saw private funds that once went into stocks and bonds diverted into duplexes, beachfront condos and single-family units that could be fixed up and flipped for profit. And pre-construction sales on proposed multi-unit dwellings rose on the monies of guys like Gardner, who hoped to get quick returns.

It worked out great for him. The condo he bought in 2005 for $140,000, he says, has been recently appraised at more than $200,000.

“But I’ll probably keep it for a while,” he says. “It’s good to have a place downtown.”

Anne Schroth and her husband Pete put their nest egg to work early.

“We bought this building instead of a house when we got married,” Anne says from the spacious studio above the Green Bean coffee shop. Down on the first floor she and Pete have formed a public gathering spot for downtown residents of every stripe. But up here they made a family home. They lived in this apartment for the first few years of their marriage, designed and decorated it with the help of their artistic friends, brought their first child here directly from the hospital and made plans for the second one in the spacious greatroom.

The open kitchen has an elongated countertop of poured concrete; wooden shelving runs along a wall of the greatroom up front, lit by two large picture windows that look down on the busy corner formed by Elm and McGee streets. A front bedroom is partitioned off by sheetrock walls and the hallway to the master suite in back is cast at a 6-degree angle to make it more private. The walls are raw brick and mortar, the floors a delectable hardwood that Pete used to navigate by razor scooter. The current residents work at Chakras Day Spa just down the street and they’ve put in a barber chair by a wall in the greatroom.

It’s big – 2,500 square feet – and the rent, which the Schroths have set at a modest $1,585, would make an apartment seeker in, say, San Francisco, go frothy and wild-eyed.

Anne believes it’s fair market value.

“It’s scary,” she says, “because there’s so many condos going up.”

They’ve got a couple more places down the street and across the tracks at 506 S. Elm St., one-bedroom jobs with similar decorous sensibilities. Apartment 2B is the pick of the lot: two floors and 1,100 square feet of brick and hardwood with big, wide windows and roof access via a steel ladder bolted to the wall. The current resident, a downtown artist who has a shop and studio just across the street, pays $850 a month for the pleasure of living there.

Population estimates of the downtown district, bordered by Fisher Avenue, Lee Street, Spring Street and Murrow Boulevard, vary according to Ray Gibbs, president of Downtown Greensboro, Inc., the non-profit organization leading downtown development.

“It’s a real hard number for us to come up with,” he says. “Census data will put it at about 1,500, but we’ve added about 250 units in the last five years. You’re generally looking at about 1.6 people per unit.”

The number bandied about at Elm Street gathering spots is 2,000 residents.

“That’s probably about right,” Gibbs says, “but there are 475 units under construction today and another 600 or so that people are contemplating.”

That’s not including the proposed Bellemeade Village, the six-acre residential/commercial project which was to take shape across from First Horizon Park but was shelved in December, reportedly due to lagging pre-sales and a rise in construction costs.

But the question remains: Are there enough people who want to live downtown to make it the thriving district the urban planners are creating and selling?

“Not everybody’s going to want to live downtown,” Gibbs says. “In fact it’s a very small percentage – most people want to live in a single-family house. The national average [of a city’s population] is 3 to 5 percent who want to live in an urban setting. My goal has been 2 percent of the Greensboro population – 98 percent of the people aren’t going to want to live downtown.”

If he gets his way, the gathering downtown community will eventually swell to about 4,500 people, a group Gibbs says is as hard to pin down as their numbers.

“It’s people from eighteen to eighty. They are single, they are married, divorced, widowed. They are black, brown, white and yellow. Students and artists to stockbrokers, attorneys and accountants. So they’re across all lines. If you did a Myers Briggs, you’d probably find a lot of similarities, but really I think it’s somebody who enjoys diversity, enjoys being active, you’d probably see a higher level of appreciation for the arts but primarily there’s going to be that sense of diversity and activity.”

Among them are empty-nesters, moneyed hipsters, first-time jobbers, early retirees and the newly single who count on their downtown digs to invigorate their social lives.

Cindy Stelmach is one of those.

She moved to a small apartment above Blumenthal’s after her divorce four years ago and upgraded to a unit down the hall a couple years later. The choice of locale was instinctual.

“I’m just a downtown person,” she says, snuggling up on her corner couch that was once prime seating in the Blue Hour, a club that was all the rage in downtown Greensboro for a hot minute around the turn of the century but has since gone the way of McAdoo’s and SkyBar.

“[The neighborhood]’s got all the amenities I need – the coffee shop, the art store and bars and restaurants to feed me,” she says. “It’s very convenient and lively.”

She’s got a little bit of an Ann Margaret thing going on, all blond and barefoot with a pert nose and alert eyes. By day she works as an occupational therapist for Guilford County Schools and she got a second degree in August for interior design from UNCG. Her apartment became her homework and the walls wear shades of bright color that give the L-shaped space a dreamy, ethereal feel – persimmon in the greatroom, celery in the kitchen, banana yellow in the studio and electric lime in the bedroom.

She glances out the window as a freight train rumbles and whines across Elm Street and the light plays off her delicate features.

“It’s got the best view for St. Patrick’s Day,” she says. “You can see M’Coul’s patio from here.”

Down the block Bill Cox admires nature’s unseasonable beauty from windows three stories tall, the light so bright and clear it’s almost white.

“It’s unbelievable how pretty it is today,” he says.

He’s new to the neighborhood, having purchased the loft about three months ago after flipping the condo he owned off of Wendover Avenue in the western end of town. He says he paid $286,000 for the two-bedroom unit above Winterfire Craft Gallery on the 200 block of South Elm, and he has big plans for the space.

A stained-glass window will replace the tall, clear pane in the first-floor master bedroom, he says, and the second floor will be enclosed once he makes the two upmost-level loft spaces into a third floor.

“I’m adding square footage; I just haven’t drawn it out. I’m not sure exactly what I’m gonna do. I got to get rid of that chandelier up there,” he says, gesturing to the brass and wooden monstrosity that hangs from the ceiling three stories up. “I don’t even know how to change the light bulbs in that thing.”

But for now he’s just enjoying the scene, enjoying the bars, people and culture after he punches out from his job at Furnitureland South.

“I really like it. I like all the action, the urban… you know,” he says. “I can’t wait ’til the summer. I can have the windows open. I’ve got some barstools on order….”

His looks out the magnificent windows again to the scene on Elm Street two floors below.

It’s gonna be awesome.

Tom Lee takes in the view from his third-floor digs at Governor’s Court, a long living space that is actually two apartments fused into one, with two master suites at opposite ends, each with its own walk-in closet and each filled to brimming with the massive wardrobe of Tom Lee.

The Long Island native has been in Greensboro since 1993, when he moved from Boston to start a national commercial cleaning service. After his divorce in 2003 he believes he became the very first buyer at this condominium development.

“I knew all the associates involved in the project,” he says. “They all partnered on this, all of the heavy hitters of downtown, and I knew their past successes.”

He’s talking about John S. Clark Co., the construction company that drove the project; Maxwell & Associates, the real estate company that owned the land; and Greensboro architectural firm Price Newman Payne.

And by getting in early, Tom says, he was able to customize his condo to his liking.

He had the half bathroom modified to a full one with a steam shower and top hat commode.

“It’s got it’s own engine,” Tom says of the toilet, which does look a little bit like a top hat. “You can flush a small animal.”

He had a support column in the center of the space turned into a fishtank complete with copper plumbing – “so I don’t have to schlep water” – and painted the kitchen black because “it makes the cabinets look like they’re floating.”

He bumped the walls in the main master suite out about a foot and insisted on pocket doors to save space. The walk-in closet in this room has an upper tier of hanging racks that drop down and the corner mirror swivels to reveal tiny shelves perfect for charging electronic devices.

“Everything is hidden to save space,” he says. “I was in here for two or three years before I started decorating – I just wasn’t used to this kind of living. When I got used to it I got really into decorating it.”

His balcony overlooks Friendly Avenue and runs the length of the condo, maybe 30 yards. He’s put in flower boxes where ivy grows and some giant red bean bag cushions and a chaise.

“My balcony is the biggest in the building,” he says.

He walks to the east end and leans out, peering across the way.

“You can see where I’m moving,” he says, gesturing to the skeletal structure down on Elm that will eventually become Center Pointe, the most ambitious downtown development project yet.

He’s already purchased a corner space in the high-rise overlooking First Horizon Park and the Lincoln Financial Building, and he’ll move in as soon as it’s ready, maybe 2008.

He plans to keep the Governor’s Court place as an investment property; he figures he can rent it out for maybe $2,200 a month.

High above Elm Street the wind bellows through the open girders at the top of the old Wachovia tower. It’s the 16th floor, where Center Pointe developer Roy Carroll will make his home after the project’s completion. The view is astounding, capturing vistas of the ballpark and Greensboro College to the west, extending way past NC A&T to the east, showing the bountiful greenery that hides the Fisher and Irving park neighborhoods to the north and the upper floors of the Lincoln Financial Building to the south. You can see the tops of buildings and houses all over Greensboro, steeples poking out from the trees and silent traffic moving like columns of industrious ants. You can see High Point from up here, and maybe the foothills if the day were more clear. You can see… everything, it seems.

“It’s a little intoxicating,” Carroll admits.

It’s a long way up figuratively, as well, for Carroll, who came from modest means in the southeast part of the city and started a construction business with his father after college didn’t work out.

This project is the first high-rise for the company and its most ambitious endeavor to date.

“I was looking for a place to possibly move my family downtown,” he says. “One of the first plans was to buy a small building or build a two- or three-story new one.”

He told his idea to Robbie Perkins, former Greensboro city council member and president of Maxwell & Associates.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you buy the Wachovia Building?'” Carroll remembers. “I didn’t think he was serious, but after a while it started to make sense.”

After stripping the building down to its bones, Carroll will build a restaurant in what used to be the lobby, some office space on the lower floors and more than a hundred luxury residences above it, including Tom Lee’s corner unit and his own massive top-floor spread.

It’s bigger by three times than the space above the Green Bean, and its value has been estimated at $8 million. But right now it’s just a wind-blown slab of concrete way up in the sky.

The rest of the units, he says, are selling ahead of his projections.

“Initially I thought most of our buyers would be young professionals,” he says. “I was surprised that most of the people coming in were empty-nester, move-down buyers, a lot of people who have lived in Greensboro most of their lives who wanted to be a part of what’s going on downtown.”

Carroll, in a pristine white hardhat with the Center Pointe logo in front, pauses near the precipice and surveys the vastness before him, all of Elm Street laid out like a toy racetrack and the miles of Greensboro environs that surround it. He makes a slight grin and nods.

“This is where I’m going to live,” he says.

Down on the ground the warm stretch continues for at least a few more days, enough to coax the people of downtown Greensboro out on the sidewalks to linger a bit longer than has been usual since the first frost set in. These are the kind of days filled with promise and bloom, the kind that the downtown folk think of when they proclaim their love for their neighborhood. The unseasonable warmth lasts into the evening, a few hours past dark, and the forecast, at least according to the weathermen and the barroom prognosticators who know about such things, bodes well. Ten days out, they say, and the sun will still be shining.

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