Neighborhood held hostage

by Amy Kingsley

To the west, young families, artists, students and others fill the columned bungalows that characterize the Westerwood neighborhood. On the east side, downtown has revitalized into a high-end entertainment destination for area professionals. But in between, the Cedar Street neighborhood is a question mark distinguished by empty lots, traffic and run-down homes.

And it is likely to stay that way for a while longer. Concerns about a proposed $1.65 million land purchase by the city that might alter the neighborhood character and line the pockets of the city’s most notorious landlord have stalled an ambitious development plan. At a Nov. 22 briefing, council members put off a vote on the project, proposed by District 3 representative Robbie Perkins, until Dec. 20. The move ostensibly gives the council more time to gather information, but it also postpones the vote until after Perkins has left the council.

At issue is a parcel of land located at 201 and 211 Cedar St. owned by Bill Agapion. An apartment complex set ablaze by squatters after being condemned by the city currently occupies one address. The other, at the corner of Friendly Avenue and Cedar Street, is a boxy, sea green house.

Perkins wants the city to buy the land from Agapion and combine it with an adjacent parcel on Friendly Avenue before offering it to developers for $1.2 million. That would be $650,000 less than the city’s purchase price plus estimated relocation costs.

‘“It’s really at the entrance to what could be a great Cedar Street project,’” Perkins said. ‘“But it’s been so bad for so long; it’s a cancer on the area.’”

Perkins expressed frustration at other members of the council, whom he accused of being unwilling to take bold steps to save the neighborhood. Many of the older, detached homes have been converted into apartments; several owner-dwellers have left the area, and some of the properties have been allowed to deteriorate, according to a Greensboro neighborhood planning report.

Perkins envisioned a mixed-use development consisting of town homes, condominiums, retail units and office space. The proposed timeline for the project anticipated construction beginning next fall and ending in 2007. Proceeds from neighborhood redevelopment bonds and other sources would cover the city’s loss for the anticipated resale.

District 3 includes Westerwood, the neighborhood adjacent to Cedar Street. Perkins started looking into improvements when Westerwood residents began seeking ways to address problems with their neighbors across the tracks. Although parts of the area have declined, the neighborhood bordered by Friendly Avenue, Battleground Avenue, Eugene Street and the rail line along Prescott Street struck the councilman as a strategic location.

That sense has intensified since First Horizon ballpark landed within the borders of the Cedar Street neighborhood. Developers may be eyeing the area with uncertainty because of the unstable nature of its population, according to a city report.

Opponents of the proposal primarily cite Agapion’s extensive record of housing code violations, but also take issue with the city taking a financial hit for the benefit of eager developers. The Greensboro Housing Coalition, a group that advocates for safe and affordable residences, appeared at the meeting with a flyer outlining their position against the transaction. Among their concerns are the thousands of documented housing code violations and serious fires in at least three properties in the last five years that have drained city resources.

‘“Agapion has held our city hostage and now he expects a ransom,’” said Beth McKee-Huger, executive director of the coalition.

She attached pictures of roach infestations, sewage leaking through ceilings, unsafe steps and rainwater seeping into electrical outlets to the statement. Agapion has been the target of several legal actions, including an attempt in 2002 by District Attorney Stuart Albright to prosecute him for 175 misdemeanor violations leading to 14 years in jail. After the run-in, Agapion came to an agreement with the Housing Department and has improved some properties, assistant city attorney Clyde Albright said.

‘“He has earned such a bad reputation,’” Clyde Albright said, ‘“but he is really trying to make amends.’”

As of last week, Agapion owned 37 condemned properties and 44 that needed repairs to avoid condemnation. A case involving the lead poisoning of a 3-year-old resident of one of his apartments is still working its way through the court system.

The city could gamble on getting a lower price for the property by declaring the area blighted and formulating an urban redevelopment plan, McKee-Huger said. City officials estimated the process for developing a plan and holding meetings would take six months. But once it has been approved, the city can take property under eminent domain and reimburse the property owner a fair amount set by a jury.

The city has taken this route once before to acquire property from Agapion in the Rosewood area in the northeast section of downtown, according to court documents. Agapion fought the eminent domain declaration all the way to the NC Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in favor of the city.

‘“It doesn’t mean that you are going to pay any less for it,’” Perkins said. ‘“If you’re in an area where property values are increasing rapidly, you’re really rolling the dice.’”

Another concern facing both Perkins and opponents of the purchase is the result of redevelopment on neighborhood character and affordability. The neighborhood is one of the cheapest within walking distance to downtown and UNCG. Perkins’ plan seeks to raise the overall tax base in the area, which could price out lower-income residents, McKee-Huger said.

People still occupy the apartments at 211 Cedar St. including elderly inhabitants and children. Agapion improved the house next door at the corner of Friendly and Cedar, which also has residents. Those living in the house and apartment buildings will have to locate other accommodations if the deal goes through.

The councilman counters that doing nothing could jeopardize the stability of the neighborhood, which might see an influx of development not guided by a cohesive plan.

‘“If this area is left alone I think you’re going to see a lot of bulldozers,’” Perkins said. ‘“If the plan had gone through I think you could preserve some of the neighborhood.’”

Andy Scott, the director of neighborhood and community development, said the city would like to preserve the affordability in the face of pressure from developers.

‘“We’re seeing an awful lot of rezoning in that area and an awful lot of those old buildings torn down,’” Scott said.

The Department of Neighborhood and Community Development released its report on Cedar Street in June; it was commissioned by the city council. The report dated some of the oldest houses in the neighborhood to the nineteenth century. During the study period, which included public meetings, an Agapion representative approached the city about the sale of the apartments.

Whether the city buys the property or not, both supporters and opponents of the plan have their eyes on Agapion. Perkins said the landlord is only interested in selling the property to the city, and has already expressed his intention to rebuild the apartments as they were if the deal falls through.

McKee-Huger at the Greensboro Housing Coalition worries that Agapion will spend his profit from the city to acquire more property that he will neglect, thus driving down property taxes which are assessed on structures.

‘“I’d like to see the city not give him money,’” McKee-Huger said. ‘“He has cost our community an untold amount of money. There’s health care for former tenants, the cost of the fire and police departments risking lives, the amount of time code enforcers spend at his properties and the cost of running the tax values down. I would like to see the city measure how much that costs and say, ‘Mr. Agapion, that’s how much you owe us.””

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