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.”
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.”