Proposed student apartments have College Hill on edge

by Jordan Green

Residents of College Hill have waged a battle against blight and neglect for the past three decades, gradually establishing an anchor of owner-occupied houses, rehabilitating Victorians and Craftsman bungalows through sweat equity, federal grants and redevelopment bond money, and attaining historical district status to preserve the value of their homes.

Now, many fear the neighborhood’s gains could be erased with the sale of Newman Machine Co. to an Ohio company that plans to build Colonial-style student apartments across 10.5 acres of land on the southern flank of the neighborhood.

Situated between the western edge of downtown and UNCG, College Hill has long been home to a large number of students and post-collegiate renters, but members of the College Hill Neighborhood Association view their community’s demographic makeup as a delicate ecosystem.

“The neighborhood itself probably has more students than owner-occupiers,” said Ron Walters, captain of the community watch for the neighborhood and a leader in the fight to block the student apartments. “At what point does it become a tipping point? The neighborhood has been able to grow and thrive as it is. With these student apartments, if that happens, that would be the tipping point. Then it would go back into slum.”

Edwards Companies plans to build about nine apartment buildings on a site that sweeps through a tract between Spring Garden Street and the Norfolk-Southern Railroad and straddles Fulton Street west of Freeman Mill Road. Steve Simonetti, vice president of land acquisition and development for the Edwards Communities Development Corp., said his company has agreed to limit buildings to one story in most areas adjacent to existing single-family owneroccupied houses, and then to gradually increase to two and three stories as the building moves away from neighboring residents. In only one instance, a wall facing the low-lying Fulton Street, would any of the buildings reach four stories, he said. Simonetti said the company has whittled the number of students it plans to house down to 725 to try to allay the concerns of opponents.

The request is scheduled to come before the Greensboro Rezoning Commission on Dec. 14.

The past of the 1970s to which the residents fear returning is richly described in a 2006 Greensboro Department of Housing & Community Development report: “The public image of the neighborhood was at an all-time low. Violent crimes were not uncommon, and the shopping district on Tate Street had become notorious as a regional center for the 1960s counter-culture movement.” The report continues by noting that homeless squatters occupied abandoned industrial property.

City leaders have recognized the value of the neighborhood, and have backed residents who wanted to pull College Hill back from the brink.

“College Hill is a neighborhood with a turn-of-the-century appearance, a pedestrian place with the amenities of convenience, architectural charm, human scale and a sense of character,” reads the College Hill Concept Plan, approved by the Greensboro City Council in 1978. “A residential pocket tucked in between downtown and UNCG, it retains a quiet sense of undiscovered potential. But the seeds of eventual loss are also there — a gradual erosion around the edges and their replacement with low-grade apartments and parking lots.”

Overthe past three decades, about $14 million in public funds has beeninvested in the neighborhood, the city reports, resulting in thesubstantial rehabilitation of about 100 houses and the addition of 150new housing units. Illustrating the return on the city’s investment,the Housing & Community Development Department reports that $1.8million of combined federal Community Development Block Grant funds andvoter-approved Neighborhood Renewal Bond bunds, matched by $500,000 inprivate funds, were poured into the rehabilitation of 27 substandardhouses with a payoff of $5.5 million in tax value today.

The2006 report anticipates the Edwards Companies’ interest in the land:“While College Hill has improved dramatically since the beginning ofthe Target Area program, current residents should take nothing forgranted. College Hill is a small neighborhood located side-by-side witha large state university. A small but growing private college islocated within the boundary of the neighborhood. There is bound to bepressure for change in the neighborhood from these two sources in thefuture. The restoration of historic homes has slowed noticeably inrecent years and the level of homeownership is still quite low. Itwould be na’ve to consider the problems addressed in the Concept Planas solved ‘once and for all.’ Rather they should be considered ‘undercontrol.’” Students and post-collegiate renters have long been asignificant part of the mix in College Hill. A block east of the TateStreet commercial strip, the intersection of Spring Garden and SouthMendenhall streets accommodates a lively scene several nights a week.Young people throng College Hill Sundries, which occupies a late- 19 thcentury Italianate brick structure that has previously served as agrocery store and pharmacy. The student and hipster patrons line up infront of a hotdog stand that does late-night business and buy beeracross the street at the University General Store, a building that oncehoused a fire station.

Formany of the homeowners living near the intersection, the noise fromCollege Hill Sundries is occasionally an annoyance, but at least theycan talk directly to the bar’s local owners the next morning. In fact,College Hill Sundries has agreed to hold a benefit to raise money forthe campaign to defeat the rezoning, said Melanie Bassett, an artistwho lives adjacent to the Newman Machine property. In contrast, theresidents fear that the Edwards Companies will be an unaccountable andunresponsive neighbor.

“Iused to complain about the noise, but it turned out that it was my sonplaying,” joked Shirley Horth, who lives less than a block away fromCollege Hill Sundries and within eyesight of the proposed studentapartments. Horth’s son, Marcus, plays in the popular Greensboro jamband the Mantras.

“Wecertainly believe our project is something that can significantlybenefit College Hill,” Simonetti said. “By offering students analternative to the singlefamily rented units currently in College Hill,which are arguably 60 to 70 percent of the neighborhood, if they havean alternative, we think it will benefit the neighborhood because thestudents will come to our apartments and those houses that aresingle-family can be cleaned up and sold to owner-occupiers.

TheEdwards Companies has picked up a powerful ally in Bill Burckley, apolitical consultant who helped Bill Knight win his recent mayoralelection. Burckley moved into the neighborhood from Glenwood with hiswife in 1983, and he soon became the president of the College HillNeighborhood Association. He was elected to the first of two terms oncity council in 1987.

Throughouthis tenure with the neighborhood association, Burckley built politicalcapital and acquired rental properties in College Hill. On Sundayafternoon, he sat on the porch of the Nathaniel HD Wilson House, amajestic residence built before the Civil War that Burckley bought inthe mid-1980s. All told, Burckley said he and his wife have invested$1.5 million in the block of West Market Street between Mendenhall andTate streets.

“My wife and I, as far as anyone living in the neighborhood, we have the biggest investment,” he said.

The Burckleys also own two residential properties that lie within a city block of the proposed apartments. They plan to invest $250,000 in one of the properties.

“I would be crazy to invest that kind of money if I didn’t think I was going to get it back,” Bill Burckley said.

He acknowledged that he is being compensated for his consulting services, but declined to say how much he is receiving.

“If I’m not going to fight the rezoning, you want me to assist — hell yeah,” he said with a laugh.

Burckleyis urging the opponents to negotiate with the Edwards Companies,arguing that if the multi-family rezoning doesn’t go through, theproperty will likely wind up in the hands of the university, whichmight obtain institutional zoning with no minimum parking or setbackrequirements.

“Iworked between the devil and the deep blue sea on this,” Burckley said.“If I had my druthers I would not have the Edwards Companies here. Butyou’ve got this 800-pound gorilla with UNCG.”

MikeByers, UNCG’s associate vice chancellor for business affairs, said thestate property office in Raleigh offered to pay Newman Machinery $3million to acquire the property for the university in April. NewmanMachinery turned down the offer, which was the state’s appraised value,and ended up entertaining a more lucrative offer from the EdwardsCompanies.

“Ifit were back on the market, we might make an offer,” Byers said. “It’scrazy for an institution that’s going to be here for centuries to notpay attention to something like that.

Byerssaid that if the university was to acquire the Newman Machineryproperty, it would probably demolish the buildings right away, but itcould be years before any redevelopment took place. He said the tractwould not accommodate enough beds to be a practical site for anon-campus dorm, but the university has “a desperate need” foradministrative space and recreation fields.

Bassettand her fellow opponents view the prospect of UNCG taking over theproperty as a scare tactic, and they contend both the neighborhood andthe city’s long-term investment would be better served with asmaller-scale, mixed-use development in the new urbanist style, alongthe lines of the award-winning Southside project, which was subsidizedby $6.3 million in voter-approved bonds. An alternative developmentcould also incorporate some of the Newman Machinery buildings, whichwere built in 1906, in much the same way that Revolution Mill has beenadapted to office space, they say.

PreservationGreensboro has taken up the rezoning opponents’ cause, and ExecutiveDirector Benjamin Briggs argued on the nonprofit’s blog that Southsideand Revolution Mill “typify the dynamic redevelopment potential of theNewman site as an economic asset that would continue redevelopmentinitiatives witnessed in College Hill over the past 30 years.”

Briggssaid he has talked to a couple developers with experience inpreservation projects that are potentially interested in the NewmanMachinery property.

“This is a beautiful tract of land,” Bassett said. “It has a great view of downtown. I can’t see developers not wanting to buy it. It is College Hill.

College Hill residents Shirley Horth, AnnCurtis, Ron Walters and Melanie Bassett (l-r) oppose a plan by theEdwards Companies to build a student apartment complex at the NewmanMachine Co. site. (photo by Jordan Green).