Commentary

Christensen: NC Lt. Gov. Dan Forest champions Raleigh's Blount Street

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMarch 18, 2014 

LTGOV3.111912.TI

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com

During the early 1970s when the state had plans to build a north-south freeway through the center of Raleigh, state government began buying up dilapidated mansions and old houses in the Blount Street area.

“They bought these properties on Blount and Person to demolish them,” said Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina. “The highway was going to go through Oakwood, and there was going to be a big interchange that fed right into a state government parking lot. These houses were marked for demolition.”

But the freeway, which would have run along the East Street and Bloodworth Street corridor, was opposed by neighborhood activists such as the Rev. Thomas Bashford. Raleigh officials soon began rethinking whether it was worth sacrificing older, declining neighborhoods such as Oakwood and Mordecai in order to save suburban commuters a few minutes. The strategy paid off with the revival of the historic districts.

But now the state of North Carolina is landlord to many houses in the Blount Street Historic District, the area between Oakwood and the state government complex. The state does not have the money or the political will to fix up the Victorian ladies, and they have, with a few exceptions, languished for decades.

Now there is renewed conversation about restoring those houses – by returning them to the private market with historic restrictions.

A key figure in the conversation is Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who has a natural interest in the subject. He is a Raleigh architect, and his lieutenant governor’s office is in the restored Hawkins-Hartness House on Blount Street.

“There are multiple ways we can slice this up,” Forest said. “From a political standpoint, we need to be good stewards of what the state owns. I think as citizens, we need to be good stewards of our history and make sure we are taking care of those facilities.”

The legislature gave approval to the state property office to sell off several blocks of old houses. The state sold the property to LNR Southeast Investments in 2007, but the timing could not have been worse. The Great Recession hit, and construction came to a halt. The state took back control of the property in 2012.

Now the state must decide what to do next.

Forest said that there is probably no one answer for all the state-owned properties and that changes should fit it into a larger plan.

Forest said the houses north of North Street, nearest Oakwood, should be sold as private residences, while other houses on Blount Street might be sold as private offices. Others south of North Street might be used for state offices, since the McCrory administration has expressed interest in them.

Forest has also floated the idea of a Consulate Row, similar to Washington’s Embassy Row, for countries with consulates in North Carolina, such as Mexico and Canada.

Having grown up in Charlotte’s Fourth Ward, Forest saw its development become a catalyst for other residential growth in central Charlotte. He said the development of the Blount Street Historic District could have a similar effect on Raleigh. But beyond that, Forest said, something needs to be done.

“If we don’t do something with some of these (houses), they are going to fall apart,” Forest said. “If you look at the Heck-Andrews House, which is directly across the street from our office, that was purchased under the Martin administration with every good intent of fixing it up for offices. Here we are a couple of decades later, and nothing has been done with that house.

“We either need to do something with these facilities as a state – to put our money where our mouth is on this issue – or we need to turn them over to private hands and let somebody do something with them.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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