The Depression-era building at the southwest corner of South Elm and Washington streets is by no means the oldest or grandest on the block; many of the two-story buildings on the 300 block of South Elm date back to the turn of the century and feature decorative cornices, arched windows and other architectural flourishes.
The entry of Glitters, a novelty story stuffed with concrete busts and gargoyles, Disney figurines and board games recesses from the corner of the downtown Greensboro building. The brown paper that once covered the glass storefront of the building’s left bay has come down, replaced by a “coming soon” poster announcing Glam N Glitz Fashion. The uneven brickwork above the plate-glass windows fronting the city’s main street shows the trace of a long-past retired awning. Above, on the second floor and false third floor, the windows are covered with Hardieplank, a fiber cement siding product that is hardier and more protective than plywood. The 135-foot length of the building running along Washington Street back to the alley presents an expanse of unbroken barrenness.
A sign posted on the Washington Street side explains the tentative, provisional state of the building: “Available for development by lease, joint venture or offer to purchase.” And in quotes: “The right place — the right time.”
There are other buildings on the 300 block of South Elm Street with vacant storefronts — all of them, incidentally, on the same side of the street — but 300 S. Elm, owned by Sidney and Ricki Gray, has become a focal point for frustrations about blight and real-estate speculation. With 14,000 square feet, according to local tax records, it’s among the largest on the block. And more importantly, the building occupies a key location — almost at the midpoint of the crucial South Elm Street corridor from Center City Park to the north to Gate City Boulevard on the south end that functions as the heart of downtown Greensboro. And holding down a corner of the intersection, future investment in the building could potentially help downtown bust out of its current linear orientation by providing a vital pedestrian conduit to connect Melvin Municipal Office Building, the Carolina Theatre, the Biltmore hotel and the Depot on Washington Street.
The other dormant properties on the block, if anything, only make 300 S. Elm St.’s deficiencies stand out more. Charlie Grocery, a narrow bodega-style store occupies half of 306 S. Elm St., but the plate glass in the building’s adjacent bay is cracked and no one can quite remember the last time the business advertised as Computer & Electronic Services was open. The glass window in the building next door — occupied by Da Beat CD store circa 2009 — is clean and displays an “open” sign, but the space is empty and the door is locked. The historic Newell Building still bears the signage of the long-closed Miller Furniture Co.; gadfly entrepreneur and unsuccessful political candidate Tigress McDaniel made a short-lived effort to operate an art gallery and performance space out of one of its bays around 2012. The storefront next door, at 318 S. Elm St. — also owned by the Grays — has been vacant since Blu Martini closed about six months ago after a multi-year run.
The vacancies are a source of aggravation for Brian Lampkin, co-owner of Scuppernong Books, which is sandwiched between the Grays’ building at the corner of Washington and Elm and the defunct Computer & Electronic Services storefront. Lampkin took his concerns public with an op-ed in the News & Record last month in which he named “the continued presence of vacant storefronts on Elm Street” as “the biggest obstacle to the reality of a thriving city center.”
Sitting down at a table near the front of his store on a recent Friday, Lampkin laid out his case in the earnest manner of someone wary of antagonizing a neighbor yet also adamant about speaking his convictions. To illustrate the challenge posed by 300 S. Elm St. and the other vacant and partially vacant storefronts on the block, Lampkin mentioned a phone call fielded from a customer the day before.
“She told me: ‘I don’t walk down your side of the street,’” Lampkin recounted. “That’s ridiculous. The empty storefronts make people feel ill at ease. I want to be dismissive, and yet I can’t deny that reality. These are my customers.”
Hopping up from his chair, he led a brief tour down the block, pointing out the derelict storefronts, all of which have been vacant with the exception of the former Blu Martini since before Scuppernong Books opened in December 2013. Waiting until he’d passed one of the empty arcades Lampkin jerked his head sharply in its direction, making it clear he wanted to focus attention on the entire block rather than a specific property, he said, “One morning I came by and saw a guy s***ing in a bucket in that entryway.”
Code compliance officers with the city of Greensboro have made similar observations. In August 2015, the owner of the Newell Building was cited when a homeless person’s belongings accumulated in the entrance.
Lampkin said he doesn’t want to demonize investors who let their properties languish, but at the same time he believes they should recognize that the vitality of the larger community is at stake.
“I know it’s not an easy thing to turn around an old building,” he said. “I do see a responsibility. I don’t want to oversimplify it. I don’t want to create a sense of evil, but it needs to be addressed. After 10 to 20 years it’s time to put some pressure on.”
Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Zack Matheny said he shares Lampkin’s concern about vacancies on the 300 block of South Elm Street.
“Why should commercial real estate be treated any different than residential?” he asked in an interview. “For your house, if you’re not maintaining your house in an orderly fashion, if your yard is overgrown, if there’s mold in the house — any situations that would be deemed inappropriate, the thought process is that you would be required to take care of it.”
Highlighting the importance of the 300 block, Matheny rattled off a list of businesses owners that have made significant investments or worked hard to create thriving concerns, including the recent expansion by Cheesecakes by Alex, the opening of the 1618 Downtown restaurant in 2014 and façade improvements by Natty Greene’s brewpub in the JW Jones Building.
“Do those who have invested so much into buildings on South Elm feel used by those owners who sit back and take advantage of the hard work of others?” Lampkin wrote in his News & Record op-ed. “How about a fund that the owners of vacant storefronts would pay into to support the businesses and buildings that are making their properties more valuable?”
Lampkin described the idea as “Swiftian” in an interview, acknowledging that it’s not fully fleshed out.
“Think about all they’re getting for doing nothing,” he said. “There are so many people trying to re-create downtown. I know it’s improving their property values.”
It’s an unavoidable fact that Lampkin’s landlord is Nancy Hoffmann, a Greensboro City Council representative who purchased the building in 2012. Her investment resulted in an increase of valuation from $247,700 to $495,800 between 2014 and 2015.
One of the important factors in a business’ ability to succeed is its landlord, Lampkin said.
“What are they willing to invest?” he asked. “Clearly, Nancy is committed to our business. I hope that doesn’t sound like a political endorsement. But it’s true. It’s a two-way street. Instead of just throwing whatever will make the most money in the shortest amount of time, a partnership is the best way to go.”