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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

308 S. Elm St. is divided into two bays, including the defunct Computer & Electronic Services store. (photo by Jordan Green)

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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.”

Contacted for this story, Sidney Gray offered to field questions by email but said he was out of town and was unlikely to respond before he returns to Greensboro later this month.

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The Grays’ building at Elm and Washington has nearly tripled in value since 2003, from $102,600 to $393,700, while two buildings acquired by developer Dawn Chaney in the past two years housing 1618 and soon Jerusalem Market have respectively appreciated by 907 percent and 503 percent over the same period. Even the value of the dormant Newell Building has leapt dramatically from $91,300 to $571,800. As an indicator of the block’s increasing desirability, the two-story building built at 324 S. Elm St. in 2011 that houses the W on Elm is valued at $2.8 million.

The Newell Building has appreciate handsomely despite an uneven record of occupancy. (photo by Jordan Green)

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Two buildings owned by Chestnut Associates Inc. — the one with the defunct Computer & Electronic Services and its neighbor, which formerly housed Da Beat — have doubled in value.

What sets the Grays’ building at Elm and Washington and the two buildings owned by Chestnut Associates apart from the others on the west side of the 300 block of South Elm Street is that they’re the only ones where the buildings are worth less than the land they sit on.

Vacant properties have long been recognized as an urban challenge.

As David T. Kraut wrote in a 1999 New York University Law Review article, “Every day, in urban communities across the country, vacant buildings haunt neighborhoods, blighting the city landscape, lowering surrounding property values, increasing crime and the risk of fire, and posing hazards to children. Often, owners hold these buildings for speculative purposes, ignoring maintenance with the hope that property values in the surrounding community will rise. While cities can use their tax authority to seize abandoned buildings because of tax delinquency, cities have no such financial claim on vacant buildings and thus cannot intervene until the property poses a health or safety threat to the community.”

Matheny, who meets periodically with the Grays and their sons — he describes them as “great, solid people, nice people” — said he doesn’t think they’re inclined to sell the building at Elm and Washington, notwithstanding the offer of availability “to purchase” posted on the wall. But speaking generally about the inordinate number of vacant properties on the 300 block of South Elm Street, Matheny pointed to a mismatch between property owners’ expectations and the realities of the market.

“I know what it is,” he said. “I think for property owners throughout Greensboro and particularly in downtown — does anyone really understand what their buildings are worth, what is the true value and what can actually happen there? I still dabble in real estate, and valuations and what is reality are often different.”

As to the property at Elm and Washington, Matheny said there was a period “that Sidney was considering going in with partners, with someone who is a distant cousin, and potentially doing something with the building.”

Sidney Gray is distantly related to the Samet family, whose Greensboro general contracting company was recently ranked by Triad Business Journal as the second largest in the Triad. Members of the Samet family have given a total of $2,000 to Greensboro City Council candidates in the most recent election cycle — a relatively insignificant amount compared to large-scale donors such as developer Marty Kotis.

Adding to the complicated set of family relationships surrounding property ownership on the block, Sidney Gray is the uncle of George Scheer III, executive director of Elsewhere artist collaborative down the street on South Elm. Scheer and Elsewhere have made a pronounced impact on activating the arts and community development in downtown over the past 10 years.

In the meantime, Matheny said he’s concerned by rumors that Glitters — the only tenant of the Elm and Washington building — might be moving to a new location; owner Gary Barskey declined to comment on the matter. Barskey, who has rented the outside bay on the first floor since around 1990, said 2 Art Chicks was looking at the adjacent bay for about a year. The studio and gallery eventually opened further down South Elm Street but then closed when that space was turned over to Mellow Mushroom.

Ben Saperstein, an artist and printer, later approached Gray about renting the rear section behind the vacant storefront to operate a small letterpress and potentially expand into a small gallery. Negotiations between the two parties fell through after about two months.

“The condition of the section I wanted to rent was definitely in disrepair,” Saperstein said in an email. “It would have needed a lot of work, all of which I was willing to do either myself or coordinate with the building owner to get done. The amount of the rent seemed expensive but we negotiated over a two-month period. It lasted that long because of the building owner posturing about being ‘pro arts’ while refusing to settle on an actual monthly rental agreement.”

In contrast, Saperstein said, “The storefront it was directly behind looked like it had been renovated and was in great shape, including a huge, clean basement.”

Saperstein ended up moving his letterpress into a different space further down South Elm Street and later out to Oakland, Calif., where he now lives and works as an artist and furniture maker. He said his frustrated effort to rent space in the Elm and Washington building was contributing factor to his decision to leave Greensboro.

While the future of the Elm and Washington building and other properties like it remains uncertain or the closely guarded secret of their owners, Matheny is working on some stop-gap measures to at least improve their appearance in the immediate future.

“With the computer store with the dilapidated awning, that was condemned at one point,” Matheny said. “That’s not fair to the adjacent property owners. Just like a house — if you were taking care of a house, you wouldn’t just let it rot.”

He’d like to see the façade fixed on the derelict computer store, but has had difficulty tracking down the owner. The last annual report filed by the ownership entity, Chestnut Associates, with the state Corporations Division in 1993 names the company’s president as Lee D. Andrews. The company receives its mail through a Greensboro post-office box.

Matheny said he thinks some pop-up retail could help at the Newell Building — short-term leases with relatively inexpensive rent that would require minimal space and create activity in the storefronts.

“I’m talking to a person right now that wants to do a temporary, higher-end women’s consignment shop who’s looking at some property that’s been vacant for some time,” Matheny said. “That’s the kind of thing that could work in a place like that.”

Matheny said the biggest challenge with the Elm and Washington building is the second floor.

“Sidney and I have had conversations about the windows on the second floor that are boarded up,” Matheny said. “The reason he did that is he’s protecting actual windows that have some historical value. He’s agreed to allow us to cover the boards with artwork.”

The Grays’ building has racked up two violations of the city’s Good Repair Ordinance since 2013.

The first case was opened by Inspector Ron Fields in November 2013, and civil penalties escalated from $100 to $500 from early April of the next year through May. Then, in late May, Fields wrote in his remarks: “Case on hold as per [Planning Director] Sue Schwartz and [Zoning Administrator] Mike Kirkman in discussion with owner.”

Two weeks later, Fields noted that Sidney Gray was speaking with the planning director and staff about the ordinance, adding, “Will hold off on civil penalties to further notice working on plan of action.”

And then on June 23: “Case on hold per Planning Director Sue Schwartz.”

And July 7: “Waiting on planning director to resume civil penalties.”

Finally, on Aug. 25, Fields wrote that he was closing the case “until notified by planning zoning administrator to open and resume any civil penalties. Work has been completed on front of building. Do not know what is to be done on Washington Street.”

A second case was opened in July 2015 when the building was found to be violation for boarded windows on the second story, and again Fields received the assignment.

Following an Aug. 23 inspection, Fields wrote that he was waiting on a decision from Schwartz and Kirkman. In early September his notes indicated that Kirkman told him the department was waiting on a response from City Attorney Tom Carruthers. In early October, the situation was much the same, with Fields noting that he spoke with Kirkman, and enforcement was still on hold until Schwartz made a decision. Then, in November, Fields wrote that he was closing the case until the ordinance was revised “or someone makes an interpretation on windows being covered for protection.”

The Good Repair Ordinance is fairly explicit on the matter of boarded-up windows: “A structure shall not have windows or doors with glass that is broken, missing or covered.”

But in an email responding to Triad City Beat’s inquiry into the compliance history on the property, Assistant City Attorney Terri Jones pointed to a loophole tucked into the city’s building regulations, allowing property owners to request something called a “Type 1 modification”. Elsewhere in the city’s Land Development Ordinance, another provision sets forth that “final decision-making authority on Type 1 modifications rests with the department director” while noting that “Type 1 modifications involve modifications to regulations and standards that are very minor in nature.”

Jones said the wooden window frames in the building are considered historic features, and the Grays are covering them with Hardieplank “until such time as a historic renovation of the building can be completed.”

Jones said the city was also concerned with deteriorating awning poles, which the Grays addressed.

“Because these windows are not on the first story and the city’s objective is encouraging historic preservation, the city decided not to pursue further enforcement at this time,” she wrote. “Should the Good Repair Ordinance be amended in the future, the zoning administrator will revisit the enforcement determination at that time.”

Jones went on to say the purpose of the Type 1 modification “is to provide equal or better performance in furtherance of the purposes of the [Land Development Ordinance] through use of means other than those specified in the LDO. Therefore, it was within the planning director’s authority to close the enforcement case given the potentially competing city interests in the Good Repair Ordinance and historic preservation.”

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Matheny said Councilman Justin Outling has been working on a draft revision of the city’s Good Repair Ordinance. Matheny said he thinks the ordinance needs to be strengthened, adding that commercial properties are held to a lower standard than residential properties. He said he’s encouraged Outling to engage the Grays on the front end of the drafting process this time.

Outling confirmed that the draft revision is still in the early stages, adding that he thinks it’s important to get input from stakeholders on the front end.

As with revisions to the city’s Minimum Housing Standards Ordinance that were approved by city council last year, Outling said he envisions making the enforcement mechanism in a non-residential building ordinance less cumbersome. Instead of the city taking property owners to court to collect fines that because of a quirk in state law are required to be turned over to the local school system, Outling said under the new system the city would have the authority to make repairs and then place liens on derelict properties.

“We protect our investment because we’ll be the priority lienholder,” Outling said. “It’s a win-win-win because we also repair the property and improve the building stock.”

Matheny was serving on city council at the time the current Good Repair Ordinance was enacted, and he said he and his colleagues could have done a better job.

“The Good Repair Ordinance that was created ultimately got watered down and it may have been too far-reaching,” he said. “The goal this year is to come up with something more effective.”

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