Project aims to help Lenoir make better first impression

Aug. 03, 2014 @ 01:43 PM

You’re driving into Lenoir for the first time, heading south on U.S. 321 for a job interview, excited, anxious, worrying about the interview and wondering what the city is like.

Your GPS brings you into town through Main Street, turning south by an abandoned, boarded-up supermarket, you pass a dilapidated, albeit once very nice home, then a crumbling factory with broken windows and graffiti, and on up the hill a row of old houses with peeling paint and sagging roofs and porches behind cracked sidewalks.

After you crest the hill, you come across a cluster of restored historic homes, then downtown Lenoir with its buried power lines, manicured sidewalks, park-like town square and historic buildings.

But by then the chance for a positive first impression has passed.

A group of local residents and city officials are taking the first steps to try to fix that. The goal is to create a gateway to downtown Lenoir that puts the city’s best foot forward, improving the appearance and creating a safe, walkable area that makes a good first impression, said Sherry Hicks, pastor at New Passion Church at the corner of Finley and Main and an active participant in the community discussions.

“This side of Main does not look prosperous and people are attracted to prosperity,” Hicks said. “If you want the city to portray prosperity, you’ve got to fix Main Street.”

Streetscape, beautification, land use, design standards, historic preservation, property maintenance, code enforcement, recreation, branding, signage and public art are all on the to-do list.

Community meetings have conjured ideas such as extending curbs and sidewalks, adding grass areas and sculptures, improving the J.E. Broyhill Park and “daylighting,” or bringing above ground, a stream now buried in pipes under most of the park.

But the rundown buildings and houses along Main Street are the biggest concerns.

“I think there’s definitely a difference of opinion in how various people that see an old house,” Lenoir Planning Director Jenny Wheelock said. “Some think get rid of it, some think preserve it.”

The trick is finding the balance between the two, she said, identifying the historically significant homes and getting behind them, while finding out which properties are dangerous and beyond saving.

This is a conundrum Joel Kincaid knows personally. Twenty years ago Kincaid bought a house in the 500 block of North Main that was built in 1924. Restoring that house and enhancing the landscape was just the start.

Kincaid said when he first bought the house and set his sites on helping the whole area improve, it seemed like “putting the cart before the horse,” since efforts to revitalize the downtown area hadn’t even begun. The houses on Kincaid’s block were “very rundown.”

One of those was a Dutch colonial next door, which he later learned had been built in 1905 by a prominent local builder named Edgar Allan Poe. Kincaid took it upon himself to restore it, a project he calls “the pivotal point for the block.”

“It was a three-year project with a great deal of community interest and encouragement,” he said.

The city council and staff got on board with the preservation efforts, creating a new mixed-use zoning in April 2001 that would help to preserve the historic houses, which instilled confidence in people who purchased homes on the block. The zoning makes sure any new development fits with the neighborhood’s historical character, and allows more uses to the large, old houses on the block, such as small-scale retail businesses or a law office.

Now, he said, “we have a small community of neighbors who are making great efforts to preserve and protect their investments.”

Up the street, at the corner of Finley and North Main, Hicks’ church demolished a rundown building next door to the church and has bought an old house behind it, with plans to expand.

And though Kincaid is a preservationist, he bought and tore down another rundown house, built in the 1800s, and is turning the property into an arboretum.

“It’s been an uphill climb, but we are very pleased with the progresses our block has made,” he said. “Where empty and crumbling houses stood, there are now families giving great care to their restored homes. And there is the beginning of the feeling of ‘neighborhood.’”

Extending the mixed-use zoning north along Main Street is under consideration so that if any of the old houses there are too far gone to be saved, anything new that is built would have an appearance that wouldn’t clash too much with the remaining houses.

One of the dilapidated, boarded-up homes that the city has its eye on saving is a large yellow house across from Ebony Funeral Home.

“It’s mostly having to do with what’s around it,” Wheelock said. “Preserving that house preserves more of an intact block.”

But it’s going to take someone like Kincaid to step up and save it. The next step, Wheelock said, is reaching out to groups such as Preservation North Carolina, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving historic sites in the state.

The abandoned box factory at 705 Main St. NW is another top-of-the-list property. Its site is already zoned for residential use, and the building is falling apart.

“Ultimately that structure is going to have to be demolished,” Wheelock said.

A more sensitive issue will be what to do about houses that are being lived in but fall so far below city codes that they are deemed unsafe and unfit for habitation. Wheelock said the city will work with the property owners, but the owners may be reluctant to make repairs where that would cost more than the house is worth, making them candidates for demolition.

In those cases, the city needs to be sure no one is being turned out of a house with no place to go, said Linda Minton, Hicks’ fellow pastor at New Passion Church.

“I’d like to see the historical houses restored, and if not, tear them down and put something people can live in,” she said, mentioning Habitat for Humanity houses or other options that could still liven the street up, but supply affordable housing to the current residents of the neighborhood.

Hicks said she thinks residents in many houses would prefer to fix up the houses.

“I think we need some money down here,” Hicks said. “(Residents) lack the resources needed to do what they would love to do.”

Wheelock is working on a proposal for what the city should do. The next community meeting is scheduled Aug. 21 on the topics of branding and public art. Another needed step will be trying to find funding, which may come from applying for grants or loans, especially for things such as streetscape improvements and sidewalks.

The city will make another push for community input. The final plan will be put together around the end of this year and will go before the city council for adoption.

“(It’s) all the planning stage until we actually take the full plan with the full picture to the community,” she said.