Community at crossroads: Park Avenue showing signs of promise for the future

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 22, 2011

By Emily Ford
A perfect storm of city initiatives and private efforts could come together in the next few years to help the Park Avenue neighborhood continue to recover from decline.
From economic development to code enforcement, from crime control to home ownership, pieces of a puzzle that would mean stability and even growth for this fragile neighborhood appear ready to drop into place.
And people with a passion for Park Avenue have pledged to nudge those pieces until they click.
“I look at this neighborhood and it’s kind of rough around the edges, but it just has so much potential,” said Lynn Raker, Salisbury city planner. “This is a neighborhood poised to take off.”
Once home to Salisbury’s elite as well as a large mill village, Park Avenue declined over the decades. Bankers, doctors, merchants and mill supervisors left for trendier developments, and many laborers departed when Spencer Shops closed and later, Cannon Mills Plant 7.
Crime and urban blight moved in. According to the 2000 Census, 30 percent of people in Park Avenue live under the poverty level, and more than three-quarters rent their home.
The neighborhood has the worst crime rate in the city (see accompanying story).
But a string of improvements in the past 10 years have restored hope in Park Avenue, and stakeholders say the historic neighborhood’s future is bright.
“We’ve moved into other distressed neighborhood hoping for change and never saw it,” resident Garth Birdsey said. “It has improved at a rate that has exceeded our expectations.
“By no means do we think it’s done. It has a long way to go, but there has been an improvement.”
Location, location
The attributes that made Park Avenue great in the early 1900s are still the neighborhood’s best assets today, advocates say.
The layout of the neighborhood lends itself to families, and downtown is just a few blocks away. Park Avenue boasts a diverse housing stock, although many properties are in disrepair.
The first time Raker drove through Park Avenue, roughly bound by East Innes Street, I-85, Bringle Ferry Road and Long Street, the neighborhood “immediately grabbed me,” she said.
“The architectural resources were already there but needed help,” said Raker, who has guided many improvement efforts. “I loved the idea that it had a whole block devoted to a park in middle of the neighborhood.”
But the community’s greatest drawing card, Raker said, is its proximity to high-speed rail, which is still on the horizon.
“These are highly sought after neighborhoods in cities like Charlotte and Greensboro, and I think that will happen in Park Avenue,” Raker said. “It’s the perfect location.”
Pioneer spirit
A handful of new homeowners known as the “Park Avenue pioneers” are restoring some of the most elaborate homes in the neighborhood after years of neglect.
Many are working with longtime residents on neighborhood initiatives.
“The spirit of those who are involved in this neighborhood is remarkable,” Raker said. “The creativity they have shown over the years to overcome what others see as obstacles has propelled this neighborhood forward.”
The pioneers live within a few blocks of each other on Park Avenue, at one time the convergence of Salisbury wealth and power, where prosperous businessmen built grand homes for themselves and real estate speculation.
As the homes were abandoned, the area became one of the most notorious in Salisbury, known for prostitution, drugs and murder.
The deaths of B.P. and Ruby Tutterow, beloved elderly residents gunned down in 1992 during a home invasion, “were a huge blow to the neighborhood,” Mayor Susan Kluttz said.
Residents describe Park Avenue as overrun with criminals 20 years ago.
“In the 1990s, it got so bad there was a feeling of hopelessness,” said Birdsey, one of the pioneers. “Some still feel that way.”
Since 1998, the city and Park Avenue Redevelopment Corporation have worked to reclaim the neighborhood, making significant improvements like a community center, two parks, an EMS station and almost 100 new trees.
Private development included Dick Palmore’s renovation of a troubled apartment complex on Park Avenue. The adaptive reuse of the Cheerwine building 327 E. Council St. serves as the gateway into the neighborhood from downtown.
Despite the improvements, crime continued to thrive.
In the past year, however, many note a marked difference in the way Park Avenue feels. It seems safer.
Homeownership has helped make the difference, the pioneers say.
Police often patrol the neighborhood, but criminals scatter, said C.J. Peters, who with his wife Robbie Spears bought the McCubbins-McCanless House at 424 Park Ave. from the Historic Salisbury Foundation, which restored the home in collaboration with The History Channel.
“Having people living in homes, watching the streets and sidewalks and calling police three, four, sometimes five times a day, has made a big difference,” Peters said.
Garth and Belinda Birdsey bought two houses on Park Avenue. When they arrived in 2005, renovations of Cannon Park, the community center and the Tar Branch creek area were complete. But crime continued to nag.
“I couldn’t drive down Shaver Street without someone flagging me down and saying, ‘What do you need?’ ” Garth Birdsey said.
That hasn’t happened lately, he said.
The neighborhood has “done a 180,” said Chris Branham, Salisbury code services manager.
“One of the biggest things seems to be growing more evident. People actually care,” Branham said. “The neighborhood involvement, from what I’ve seen, is one of the neatest things.”
Misty Herington and Bill Woodruff are the newest pioneers, purchasing a one-story bungalow on Park Avenue.
They have been pleasantly surprised, they said.
“We were more afraid of the neighborhood before we moved in,” Herington said. “We are a lot less afraid now that we live here.”
When she visited to consider the purchase, Herington saw the fall festival held in Cannon Park every year by the Park Avenue Redevelopment Corporation, under the leadership of Lou Manning.
People of different races and ages were eating and playing together, Herington said.
She was sold.
Some have accused the pioneers of gentrification. But the new homeowners say they are not trying to displace low-income families by increasing property values.
“This is never going to be the County Club, and frankly we wouldn’t want it that way,” Belinda Birdsey said. “We moved here for diversity, and we like it this way.”
Code enforcement
Ten houses in the neighborhood, most of them vacant, violate the city’s minimum housing standards, said Branham, the code services director who has 130 active cases citywide.
But neighborhood advocates believe many people in Park Avenue live in substandard conditions that haven’t been discovered. Peters and others would like the city to require interim rental inspections, which would require landlords to pass an inspection between tenants.
“It pushes slumlords out and gives people a chance to have a decent life,” Peters said.
The new Better Housing Committee appointed by City Council is studying how to improve housing throughout the city. The committee’s recommendations will play a role in the future of Park Avenue, as will the upcoming Historic Preservation Master Plan.
Branham would like a vacant housing property registry, which would allow property owners to legally declare a property vacant for a certain period of time, as long as they secured the home and maintained the exterior.
Conditions at a controversial disabled veterans boarding house at 432 Park Ave. have improved, neighbors said. The house complies with city code, said Branham, who’s been inside.
The major code enforcement issue in Park Avenue is a mountain of debris remaining from the demolition of Cannon Mills Plant 7, Branham said. (See accompanying story.)
Generally, residents praise the code enforcement effort but want more.
“They are overwhelmed, although they’ve been very responsive,” Peters said. “The codes department used to be part of the problem, and now they’re part of the solution.”
Economic development
Economic development holds a key for Park Avenue, where unemployment is rampant.
Brian Worth moved to Kesler Street last fall from a public housing project on the Westside. He was laid off from a mobile home manufacturer two years ago and attended Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, earning two certifications, until his unemployment benefits ran out.
He likes the quiet street of neat mill houses but said most people are out of work.
“Financially, everybody struggles,” Worth said.
He’s had to seek assistance from Rowan Helping Ministries and continues to look for a job.
“I’m just hoping for a break,” Worth said.
To help lure industry to the nearby North Long Street corridor, City Council approved an incentive program to encourage companies to rehabilitate older, vacant buildings.
The program eventually could mean jobs for Park Avenue residents.
Council also named North Long Street as one of the city’s five proposed Urban Progress Zones, which would mean tax credits for companies that set up shop in the corridor.
North Long Street replaced Park Avenue as an Urban Progress Zone because the demolition of the mill left no viable building in the neighborhood to attract industry.
Mayor Kluttz said jobs are a top priority.
“A lot the problems this neighborhood suffers are because people need work,” she said.
Arlington Street still has capacity for retail development, said Robert Van Geons, executive director for RowanWorks Economic Development. The new Marriott and related development will stand just across from the community on East Innes Street.
“The opportunity is there for new investment and job creation,” Van Geons said. “That also means access to retail goods and services, which is important as well.”
The city could place a corridor overlay on the Long Street area to further encourage redevelopment, Raker said.
The overlay would provide direction for preferred land use, including extra zoning requirements like landscaping, sidewalks and architectural appearance guidelines.
Many opportunities along Long Street, Arlington Street and even the 100 block of East Innes exist for commercial and mixed-use infill, Raker said. A corridor plan would better prescribe how this infill would function and look.
Come a long way
At one time, Kluttz said she thought increasing home ownership was the most important piece of the Park Avenue puzzle.
The Great Recession has changed her mind.
“With what we’ve been through, not everybody can or should own a home,” she said. “But my vision is the same — for a safe, stable neighborhood with affordable, attractive housing, including attractive rental property.”
Continuing Park Avenue’s climb from decline will take many partners, including the Community Development Corporation and Community Appearance Commission, Kluttz said.
“It will take all of us working together,” she said. “It has come a real long way.”
When Craig Allen’s wife became the pastor of Park Avenue United Methodist Church in 2005, he said he was uncertain about the area.
“Coming into a neighborhood like that, you kind of rely on your faith,” Allen said.
But once they got to know people, the Allens were not afraid.
“There are good folks who live in Park Avenue neighborhood, and it really is a good place,” he said. “It’s a better place than its reputation.”
Coming Monday: First-time pastor Annalee Allen has gently led Park Avenue United Methodist Church back into the neighborhood, years after the double murder of two beloved church members.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.