RALEIGH — The old Stone’s Warehouse building on the edge of downtown can best be described as a hollowed-out shell, a symbol of urban blight in an aging center-city neighborhood.
But to Vann Joines, the brick structure and its adjoining block hold potential to become an unlikely engine for Raleigh’s arts and cultural scene.
Joines and a Winston-Salem firm that specializes in rehabbing old buildings have teamed on an ambitious concept to transform the city-owned block into 61 apartments, each with studios geared toward low- to middle-income artists and entrepreneurs.
Joines, 28, a Chatham County native, began his career with a nonprofit housing agency based in the Appalachian mountains. He later went to New Orleans to work on redevelopment efforts for neighborhoods ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Now he’s turned his sights to central Raleigh.
In a presentation to a City Council committee last week, Joines recounted a conversation with a high school classmate who earned a design degree from N.C. State University and moved to New York to pursue her career aspirations.
“That struck a chord with me,” he said. “If we want to keep and retain the talent that we educated and invested in, we need to figure out new ways in which young, creative folks can see a prosperous future here in Raleigh.”
Council members were intrigued by plans for what Joines and his partner on the project, The Landmark Group, call the Raleigh Arts Village. But the $7.5 million concept faces plenty of questions and skepticism from neighborhood leaders.
Topping the list is what the project will mean for the South Park-East Raleigh neighborhood. The proposal needs to be vetted by neighbors, said longtime community activist Danny Coleman.
“There has to be some kind of community engagement process,” Coleman said. “Would you allow this to breeze through Wade or Hillsborough (citizens advisory councils)?”
Affordable housing component
Unlike a typical residential development, the complex will provide living, working and community space for tenants. The units will be open to people who qualify based on income.
The developers laid out an aggressive timeline that requires cooperation from the city. To compete for low-income housing tax credits in the 2013 funding round, an application is due by Jan. 25.
Joines said the team hopes to start construction in the spring of 2014 and be ready for a grand opening in spring 2015.
The developers propose acquiring the property from the city for $350,000, below the appraised value of $2.4 million. The project will not be financially feasible unless the city is willing to transfer the property for below market value, Landmark Group president Richard Angino wrote in a letter.
Even if the city agrees to a deal, the developers could face a difficult road in trying to win financing from the state Housing Finance Agency, said Michelle Grant, the city’s affordable housing director.
“They typically have not favored redevelopment-type projects,” Grant said.
The city has owned Stone’s Warehouse, a former auto repair shop, since 2001. It has stood empty for several years.
In 2008, the city asked developers to submit proposals for rehabbing the site, but the request generated little interest.
More options proposed
The city should open the property to a new round of competition – rather than committing to one developer’s concept, said Gregg Warren, president of the Downtown Housing Improvement Corp.
Warren worked with the city and other groups on Carlton Place, a development at Davie and East streets that includes 64 affordable apartments for low-income residents.
Warren said he’s interested in competing for the Stone’s Warehouse project. Allowing a new set of proposals, instead of choosing the concept from Joines and Landmark, would mean a year of delay.
“We’re concerned about the integrity of the process,” Warren said. “The development community ought to be given the opportunity to present proposals. One more year might yield a process that respects your tradition and yields the best possible proposal.”
Seize the opportunity?
The current proposal fits with the city’s goal of encouraging more affordable housing close to downtown, said David Diaz, CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.
“This area has been blighted for a long, long time,” Diaz said. “We’ve got developers interested in investing in it. That’s a good thing. To me, it’s really an ideal use for this site.”
Councilman Randy Stagner said he needs assurances that a Rex Healthcare senior health clinic, considered a key amenity for the neighborhood, will be allowed to remain in its rented facility next to Stone’s Warehouse.
Rushed decisions often lead to problems, Stagner said. “My experience has been when you do that, you wind up with results you weren’t expecting,” he said.
McFarlane said the city needs to consider seizing the opportunity. She cited the closings of two Kroger grocery stores as evidence that the housing market in East Raleigh needs reinvestment.
Otherwise, it will be hard to attract business and commerce.
“Until we take that step and make sure that happens, we’re going to continue to lose resources,” she said. “And it just becomes a downward spiral.”