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.

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