Meeting to discuss the progress of the Blount St. Commons AND New Church Development

Post date: Aug 20, 2010 4:28:35 PM

Synopsis of meeting with LNR and the Church By Matthew Brown

August 19th, 2010
By Matthew Brown
Historic Oakwood Neighborhood Resident
Mordecai CAC Neighborhood Liaison 
Dear neighbors,
There was a small meeting yesterday evening to discuss the progress of the Blount St. redevelopment. In attendance were David Welch and Freddy Johnson of LNR; Peter Rumsey and Hilary Stokes of York Simpson Underwood; Russ Stephenson of the Raleigh City Council; Barry Kitchener, Ray Stephens and I from Oakwood; Reid Serozi and Philip Bernard from the Mordecai CAC, John Brooks from Blount St.; and John Kane and John Wood from Holy Trinity Anglican Church.
David Welch of LNR, the master developer of the Blount St. project, informed us that despite the rumors, LNR is healthy and will not go bankrupt. They have taken on new equity partners and decreased their debt from $1 billion to $440 million. Furthermore, the Blount St. project was a cash deal, so it cannot be foreclosed on.
Vanguard Homes, which built the 8 brick townhouse units, did go bankrupt, but a local firm will betaking over that project. 6 of the 8 units have sold, so we should see construction begin on the next building in 30 or 60 days.
None of the carriage homes, across the alley from the townhomes, have sold, so LNR is re-thinking that product.
The lot on the corner of Peace St. and N. Person St. has been sold to Legacy Construction, owned by the Blankinship family. Legacy bought the Bailey-Gallant House on Blount St. and restored it, and is using it as its office. Legacy also developed the Pilot Mill development on the north end of Blount St. Mark Blankinship lives there. Legacy also built four houses on Pace St. behind the Kitcheners. Matt Blankinship lives in one of them. The lot on Peace and Person is still slated to be developed as commercial with residential above it. Legacy is evidently waiting until demand picks up. The building may be scaled back somewhat from the original plan, which called for a three- and four-story building.
The Cowper House on the northwest corner of N. Blount and Polk is soon to be put under contract to an investor who plans to restore it and sell it.
The N.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has a contract on the triangle ofland between Peace St., the old N. Wilmington St. and the current N. Wilmington St. They intend to build their headquarters there, of a very modern design by Frank Harmon. More info here
Holy Trinity Anglican Church has a contract to buy the Jordan House, the blue house on the corner of Peace St. and Blount St., and also the empty lot facing Peace St. between the Jordan House and N. Wilmington St. They plan to build their church on the empty lot, and restore the Jordan House for use as parish offices. They also plan to build another building later as a parish hall. Holy Trinity is mostly an offshoot of Christ Episcopal Church, and has been holding services for the past six years in the chapel at St. David’s School on Lassiter Mill Road. They plan to provide the minimum parking required by code in and around their sanctuary, and down the alley that will run down the middle of the block, but also plan to share parking with AIA, and hopefully Peace College. There will also hopefully be some on-street parking on Wilmington St. and Blount St. on weekends. The church will probably have two services on Sundays and will gradually introduce various activities during the week. Here is their web site: The church member leading this this project is John Kane, who developed the new North Hills complex.
Russ Stephenson and others in City government talked a few years ago about making improvements in the N. Blount – N. Person St. area to help businesses, specifically making those two streets two-way. But the City has been occupied with improvements to Fayetteville St. and then Hillsborough St. Now the City’s priorities are the changes to the railroad to accommodate the new high-speed rail, and the Capital Blvd. corridor study. So any changes to Blount and Person will have to wait a while.
Due to the economy, the state has extended the contract with LNR on the southern half of the project, everything south of Polk St., also known as Phases 3 and 4 of the project. Phase 4, between Person and Blount and Polk and Lane, will be the last phase to be developed; LNR can wait as long 2014 to purchase it.
Several Mordecai Citizen Advisory Council residents have expressed concern that the church is being built where the original plan called for commercial/residential development, and will not attract the same amount of activity. My own opinion is that we have to adjust our expectations to conform to the changes in the economy and real estate market. Yes, we expected the Blount St. development to be a big beehive of activity, with nearly 500 new residential units. But since then the demand for both residential and commercial space has shrunk dramatically. Big condo projects including Hue, the Bloomsbury, and West, are mostly empty. Others, including two residential projects planned for the Seaboard area, have been put on hold, probably for a very long time. Without all these new residents, there will not be much demand for neighborhood businesses in that area. There are also many empty new storefronts in the downtown area and elsewhere.
The church will bring some activity, and will certainly be a great improvement over the empty lot and empty house. The church leaders say they want to become part of the community, and hope some neighbors will join the church and/or take part in the various activities. Perhaps they will have a good pre-school, as many churches do.
Another concern is that churches tend eventually to tear down nearby houses for parking and new buildings. Holy Trinity is limited here somewhat because the houses nearby are in a historic district. But historic district status cannot prevent demolition, it can only delay it by 365 days. I am examining the deed restrictions; they do not seem to forbid demolition, but may make it impractical.
My biggest worry is that economic conditions may induce LNR to sacrifice the original intent of the project, which was to restore N. Blount St. to its historic role as a grand avenue of homes. I understand that the two houses on the corners of Peace St. may not be desirable as homes. Some also argue that some of the historic houses are too large to be practical as homes, although a few years ago new homes of the same size were being built in other parts of Raleigh. And three other houses on the 500 block are already offices. If too many houses on Blount St. are made into offices, we will pass a “tipping point” and nobody will want to live there amid the offices. If that happens, would we not consider the project a failure? We must do what we can to ensure that this does not happen.
The project cannot include over 90,000 square feet of commercial space, per LNR’s agreement with the state. But as commercial space is deleted from where it was originally planned, it can be added elsewhere, so I don’t know how effective this limit is.
All that said, I am glad that the project is moving forward, even at its current slow pace. Each restoration and each new building will add momentum and attract wonderful new people to our community. The current economy does not change the facts that the Blount St. development has a superb location and gorgeous architecture, and in the long run will be a great place to be.

Mordecai CAC Co-Chair and Traffic Chair Response / Meeting Notes

In addition to Mathew Brown’s excellent synopsis of the meeting with LNR and the chrurch, Reid Serozi, MCAC Co-Chair and Philip Bernard, Traffic Committee Chair attended the meeting at LNR on behalf of the Mordecai CAC. These are our additional notes from that meeting:

As stated in earlier reports, the church’s designation as an “institution” is allowed under current zoning even though it differs from the Master Plan’s original depiction of the property’s re-development. After conferring with senior members of the Planning Department, Mayor Meeker, Council member Stephenson, and the City attorney - - all have advised that this move by LNR and the church is legal and permitted under the current zoning. Reid spoke by phone with the Mayor who encouraged our CAC to work directly with the church in addressing any concerns about how they and their project might “fit in” more effectively to the overall scheme of the neighborhood. Philip contacted Council member Stephenson who suggested that LNR meet with members of planning staff and revisit the Master Plan. These things said, Reid and Philip suggested a meeting with LNR, the church, and other “stakeholders” in the area to discuss our concerns. We also invited Coucil member Stephenson.

During this meeting with LNR and the church, neighbors from Mordecai CAC and Historic Oakwood asked questions and made comments about the churches inclusion in the development. As mentioned in Matthew’s report, concerns addressed adequate parking, traffic on church days, and adequate relocation of the commercial element displaced by the church to other viable tracts within the development. A major concern raised was LNR’s change in the vision of its Master Plan to accommodate the church, and how future changes to the master plan might be monitored. This prompted Councilmember Stephenson to ask David Welch and LNR to participate in a review of the master plan with city staff. With the economic downturn, we believe that it is important to our area of downtown to protect the integrity of the original master plan as much as possible.

Another important issue discussed in the meeting was our CAC’s hope that the commercial element along Peace Street in Blount Street Commons would act as a catalyst for rejuvenation of the Person Street Business district. In losing a portion of the commercial element along Peace Street, we took this as an opportunity to invite all parties or “stakeholders” in this meeting to support and advocate for the proposed Person/ Blount Street and Wake Forest Road corridor study to proceed as soon as possible. This study would also include changes to the Person Street Business district where a visioning charrette has already been conducted.

It was generally acknowledged at the close of the meeting that the church project will proceed as planned. Reid invited members of the church to attend our regular CAC meetings in the near future. Reid encouraged church members to take advantage of the downtown Raleigh opportunities. For example, reach out by opening your doors to the community and providing space for art shows and concerts. It's important to the neighborhood to be a vibrant contributor.

By Philip Bernard