Opponents regroup when developer purchases land for student housing

by Jordan Green

Arezoning request to clear a path for developer Robert Wooten to build eight apartment buildings for student housing on six acres just north of Wake Forest University had already gone through two hearings by the City-County Planning Board. It had already been continued once by the Winston-Salem City Council, and opponents were gearing up for a final decision.

Then Councilwoman Denise D. Adams, who would ordinarily take the lead on the case considering that the site is in her ward, recused herself by citing a financial conflict of interest in the matter. The case was tossed over to Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, who represents the neighboring Northwest Ward. Adding to the uncertainty, the opponents learned that Wooten’s company, Deacon Rental Properties, had purchased the property from First Assembly of God. That meant that the opponents would have to recalibrate their strategy.

Merschel figured it was time for a reboot, and moved a continuance to Feb. 4. The seven members eligible to vote unanimously approved the decision.

As one of the opponents, Robert Sappington, recalled, Merschel told him: “We can’t go fighting a ghost.”

The fact that Deacon Rental Properties had already closed on the property and a bulldozer was clearing the site signaled to the opponents that Wooten would be building whether he received approval for the rezoning or not. As Wooten would later acknowledge to Merschel and a reporter, a petition containing the signatures of 40 property owners in the neighborhood had been premised on the assumption that if the rezoning was denied the project would be shelved. Now that it was clear that the houses would go up, the neighbors wanted to cut the best deal they could.

Merschel conferred with the opposing parties, and they agreed to meet at the site of the proposed student housing project as a first step towards resolving outstanding points of contention. If the case proceeds as expected, Merschel will broker an agreement that all parties can more or less live with, and she will move for approval in February with unanimous support from her fellow council members.

For her part, Adams declined to discuss her specific conflict of interest when reached by phone by YES! Weekly, as did City Attorney Angela Carmon, who nonetheless volunteered that Adams was not an investor in the project. Adams did not comment on whether her recusal has anything to do with the fact that she lives about half a mile from the site of the planned development.

State law holds that a city council member “shall not vote on any zoning map or text amendment where the outcome of the matter being considered is reasonably likely to have a direct, substantial and readily identifiable impact on the member.” The law also prohibits a council member from being excused from voting “except upon matters involving the consideration of the member’s financial interest or official conduct.”

Sappington lives two blocks away from the planned development with his wife in a house on Brookwood Road that has been in his family’s name since 1952. His wife previously lived across the street, and when they moved in together they started renting out her old house. Sappington said many of the old families in the neighborhood have moved away and started renting their houses to students. Like many neighborhoods adjacent to college campuses, more than two-thirds of the housing is occupied by renters.

“There’s not enough renters to fill the houses we have now,” Sappington said, explaining his objections to Wooten’s project. “But can you fault a man for building a better mousetrap? I told him: ‘I expect you’re going to get your renters. But if this neighborhood is a co-op then it’s a bad business plan because you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.’” Sappington pointed to two residential halls under construction on the north end of campus that are projected to add 480 beds next fall, along with a new requirement that students live on campus for at least three years scheduled to take effect simultaneously. Sappington pointed to two houses on Palm Drive that have become newly vacant on nearby Palm Drive to support his contention that increased market competition without sufficient demand could lead to deterioration in the neighborhood. He said he also worries that if Wooten’s rezoning goes through it will set off a domino effect in which every two-acre parcel in the neighborhood will eventually convert to multi-family housing.

Meanwhile, several handsome if aesthetically uniform yellow, twostory houses have cropped up near the intersection of Palm Drive and Ewing Street in recent years, courtesy of Deacon Rental Properties. Designed to look like single-family homes from the outside, the houses are actually split up to house four students, with an additional bedroom placed in what would otherwise be a family dining room. Four buildings raised by Deacon Rental Properties on Ewing Street already house four people each. The current zoning prevents the owners from adding another dozen tenants in their basements.

On a gray Thursday afternoon, the councilwoman, developer and opponents convened at a graveled pull-off on the sixacre parcel to go over the plans.

“If too many more people come, I’m setting up chairs,” Merschel said.

Wooten unfurled a professional site plan over the hood of his truck and pulled out two smaller sketches to illustrate his options. Wooten told Merschel and the opponents that if the zoning remains single-family, as it is currently, he’ll build single-family houses along the length of Ewing, each with a dedicated driveway on the narrow lane, and he will not be required to add curb, gutter and sidewalk. Adding the acreage beyond the street front, Wooten said he’s likely to build 92 new bedrooms on the site if the zoning change he has requested is not approved.

But if council approves his request, Wooten said he’ll build eight multi-family buildings on the street. The buildings will have a single-story appearance from the street with four units abreast, but due to the slope of the land, an additional four units will face away from the street at the basement level. A parking lot in back of the buildings will have one entrance and one exit. Wooten said he also plans to make an additional investment in bulk trash pickup to address a common complaint of more established residents about student tenants leaving roll-away carts on the curb after pickup or, worse, excess trash accumulating outside of the carts after weekend parties. If the rezoning request is approved, the eight buildings would house a total of 64 people, and four buildings already erected at the southern end of the street would increase from four to seven units.

“What you see walking down the street is the same, minus the cars,” Wooten said of his preferred plan. “I’m going to hide the cars.”

Wooten added that he wants to coordinate landscaping for the neighborhood to bring aesthetic improvements across the board.

During the roadside meeting Sappington asked Wooten how he would address the impact of Wake Forest’s construction of new residence halls and new three-year residency requirements.

Wooten responded that his company has reviewed student demographic data from the past 30 years. He sketched a bar graph for the neighborhood leaders gathered around his truck, showing a diagonal line to represent increasing enrollment, and a stair-step line below it for new on-campus housing coming online every five years or so.

Sappington seemed unconvinced, but Wooten forged ahead.

“In a competitive sense, you have an advantage,” he said, “because all you have to do is rehab your houses to bring them up the standards that my houses are at.”

Sappington rejoined, “That’s a good theory, but I know three people who can’t rent their houses. Before, they were renting them for $2,000, but now they can’t find anybody who will pay $1,500.”

Three out of four calls received by one landlord, Sappington added, came from people with Section 8 vouchers who receive housing subsidies from the federal government. Some did not speak English.

At the end of the roadside confab, Merschel extracted an agreement from neighborhood leaders to allow Wooten to speak to the next meeting of the University Area Neighborhood Association in January. The association’s bylaws restrict membership to owner-occupants. Wooten said he would like to an invitation to regularly attend the association’s meetings, even if he isn’t given voting status.

The neighborhood association has clout, if not bargaining power, considering the circumstances.

Robert Vorsteg, a retired Davidson County Community College professor who lives on the same block as Councilwoman Adams, serves as community liaison and parliamentarian for the University Area Neighborhood Association.

He also holds a position on the board of the citywide Winston-Salem Neighborhood Alliance, and informed the planning board in September that the alliance was unanimously opposed to the rezoning.

But opposition to the rezoning is not monolithic among residents of the neighborhood, and at least one resident has already taken both positions.

Frankie Bodenheimer Spry, a 35-year resident, signed the petition opposing the rezoning, but has also taken the opposing stance.

“When my husband and I first moved here we had a problem with Ewing St.,” she wrote. “It had no street lights and was used very often with cars parked at night on it…. I am very happy that Robert Wooten is developing this area. I feel that I will have a much greater feeling of safety. I and most of my neighbors are all senior citizens and the developing of Ewing St. and up will make all of us much safer.”