Council shows keen interest in pilot project for neighborhood revitalization

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 18, 2014

SALISBURY — Salisbury City Council members voiced strong support today for an aggressive, two-pronged approach toward neighborhood revitalization.
One focus would aim at removing blighted properties across multiple Salisbury neighborhoods.
The other would zero in on a specific area for a pilot project, patterned after the successful Cooke Street Development in Raleigh.
Salisbury City Council began its annual two-day retreat this morning.
In Raleigh, the city assembled land in roughly a two-block area, established a master plan for it, set down rules for design and materials and sold lots to developers, who offered market-rate homes for mixed-income levels.
The neighborhood chosen here, as in Raleigh, has to be a stable, transitional area with strong market potential, Salisbury Planning Director Janet Gapen stressed. It should be walkable, have access to city services and be relatively close in to the central core.
The popularity of Cooke Street triggered redevelopment interest in adjacent blocks, Gapen said.
By providing a desirable product, she said, the pilot neighborhood could retain and attract the people the city is losing: young families, professionals and older people downsizing.
At the same time, the city must address boarded up, deteriorating structures and vacant lots across Salisbury.
Code Services Division Manager Chris Branham showed council members 118 “blue-dot” properties on a map of the city. The blue dots represented properties with boarded-up structures, as of a month ago.
The city has an additional 750 vacant properties in need of attention.
All of these neglected properties tend to attract crime, are a source of decline for a neighborhood and represent a drain on city resources, Branham said.
That drain usually includes unpaid city taxes, mowing liens, frequent police and code enforcement responses and no active water-sewer or Fibrant utility accounts.
Tuesday’s presenters said blight removal has to occur by either demolition or rehabilitation. In demolition cases, the city could bid multiple structures in bulk to get a better rate, rather than seek contractors one by one for each house, Branham suggested.
The city could then sell the vacant lots.
In the stabilization approach, the city could rehabilitate a structure, then sell to a home buyer, work out a lease/purchase agreement or rent the home, with the Salisbury Housing Authority providing the property management.
Branham showed council members examples of boarded-up homes on Grady, Short, Craige, Lee, Clay and Knox streets.
Since 1997, the Salisbury Community Development Corp. has experience in revitalizing properties in the Park Avenue, Jersey City and West End neighborhoods. But efforts have always been limited somewhat by the small pool of Community Development Block Grant monies Salisbury has at its disposal.
CDC Executive Director Chanaka Yatawara showed council how redevelopment of properties in Jersey City increased the tax values dramatically and why it can be a good investment.
For 10 rejuvenated properties along West Cemetery, Best and Craige streets, the total tax value went from $195,292 to $870,779.
The same kind of results occurred in Park Avenue, where nine properties went from a tax value of almost $85,000 to more than $725,000.
“We’ve seen it work in our community already,” Yatawara said.
In the pilot project, Gapen said, the city goes in and absorbs the initial losses, but “over time we gain that back.”
The anticipated results include the retaining and preserving of existing housing, strengthening neighborhoods, adding to the tax base, improving community appearance, reducing crime, instilling confidence among private investors, building a market base for the downtown and stabilizing income levels near the city’s core.
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell, who said this kind of pilot program could be called the Beacon Project, stressed the importance of the two-pronged approach.
Neighborhoods such as Green Hills have to be stabilized first so they some day could be Beacon Project-ready, she said.
“I love this model, and it will turn around our city,” Blackwell added.
Councilman Brian Miller said he thinks the pilot project would work because the city would take on much of the initial risk, which builds investor confidence.
Gapen said the pilot would be looking to offer homes in the $120,000 to $150,000 range.
“That price point is in demand,” Miller said. “… The challenge will be to make a big impact, but in a very focused area.”
Councilwoman Karen Alexander mentioned Chestnut Hill as a possible pilot area. It’s a transitional neighborhood between the West Square Historic District and Fulton Heights, she noted, and the stakeholders in Chestnut Hill already have some momentum and strategies under way.