Winston-Salem leaders ready to boot garage owner from historic train station

Joe Walters, Sadie Clement and Albert Porter (l-r) to stood to show their opposition to the city of Winston-Salem extending a lease to Harvey Davis.

Winston-Salem City Council members signaled in a 5-4 vote on Monday night that they’re running out of patience with Harvey Davis, the owner of a garage near Winston-Salem State University who is being forced out through eminent domain to allow the city to redevelop the once and future Union Station as a transit hub.

The division was more procedural than substantive: Mayor Allen Joines broke a tie to support a motion by Southwest Ward Councilman Dan Besse to postpone the vote until November to give Davis time to come back with an acceptable plan.
East Ward Councilman Derwin Montgomery, whose ward includes the facility in dispute, initially made a motion to grant Davis a six-month extension on his lease. West Ward Councilman Robert Clark, perhaps the most sympathetic to the business owner, said he thought that was probably the best deal Davis was going to get. Davis said six months wasn’t enough time. Southeast Ward Councilman James Taylor Jr. said he had planned to support the six-month extension. Besse said he opposed the six-month extension because he was “concerned that any extension of the lease will facilitate another round of rezoning debate.”

The snag for Davis and Besse centers on property on South Stratford Road purchased by Davis in 2005 to relocate his auto repair business. The property is zoned for multifamily, in keeping with the city and Forsyth County’s Legacy Comprehensive Plan, and Davis would need city council approval to change it to highway business to operate his garage. The South Stratford Road location is in Besse’s ward, and the councilman said residents would vigorously oppose any effort to re-zone it.

“I may have to run for his seat so I can get it passed,” Davis said after the meeting.

City Attorney Angela Carmon addressed the business owner’s dissatisfaction about the zoning process in an Aug. 8 letter to Rich Keshian, who represents Davis.

“Normally, a prospective buyer will condition the purchase of property upon the same being rezoned for its intended use,” Carmon wrote. “If the rezoning does not occur, the sale is never consummated. As I have expressed before, the city is legally prohibited from making promises or assurances regarding the rezoning of any property. Such an arrangement would amount to contract zoning which is illegal.”

Davis said after the meeting that the current zoning designation not only stops him from operating his business but also prevents him from selling the property because there is currently no market for multi-family housing in the area.

Carol Davis, executive director of the SG Atkins Community Development Corp., urged council to deny Harvey Davis’ request for an extension.

“The location that he has is the eastern gateway to the city, and it’s the gateway to Winston-Salem State University,” she said. “And it’s an eyesore in its current condition, and it’s been so for a long time. It’s just going to be difficult for economic development to pick up along that corridor without that site being addressed. Multimodal transportation is definitely coming for that purpose that will draw further economic development around the area. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”

The stated mission of the community development corporation is to nurture balanced growth in communities surrounding the historically black university, foster economic development initiatives to serve the needs of low- and moderate-income residents, improve affordable housing in distressed neighborhoods and preserve buildings and sites important to the African-American community. Contrary to a recent editorial in the Winston-Salem Journal, Carol Davis said, the city has not hired SG Atkins Community Development Corp. to redevelop Union Station. But Assistant City Manager Gregory Turner said in a recent official memo that the community development corporation “has approached city staff with a memorandum of understanding for joint redevelopment of the city building and land in a manner consistent with the transportation funding and acquisition restrictions.” He said staff was reviewing the memorandum.

“I suspect that the city is going to do a request for proposals,” Carol Davis said after the meeting. “We would have to compete for it.”

Harvey Davis dismissed the selection process as a mere formality.

“She’ll be in control of it,” he said. “Trust me.”

Union Station was built in 1926 to serve rail passengers, according to a 2002 NC Transportation Department feasibility study, and at its peak in 1947, 18 daily trains traveled in and out of the station, connecting Winston-Salem with Greensboro, Charlotte, Roanoke, Va. and other cities. Harvey Davis bought the facility from the city in 1975. Turner told council that Davis paid $19,000, but the business owner later disputed the figure, saying he had paid $55,000.

The city received a $1.3 million federal grant to acquire and renovate the property in 2004. The following year the council voted to acquire the property. The city initially attempted to work with a private developer to rehabilitate the train station, but when it became apparent two years ago that the developer’s plan was not financially feasible and with concerns that the federal funds would expire, the city changed tack and initiated condemnation proceedings under eminent domain. Through negotiations that have continued through late spring, the city eventually agreed to pay Harvey Davis $1.4 million for the property. The city has set a deadline of Nov. 30 for him to relocate his business and remove his personal property.

Turner wrote in a recent memo that the roof, chimney and mortar in parts of the brickwork will need to be addressed soon, and that lead paint and asbestos need to be removed. “Full and unimpeded access to the building will be required,” he wrote, “during the evaluation, design and rehabilitation of the building.”
The 2002 feasibility study offered $9.7 million as a preliminary cost estimate of rehabilitating Union Station.

The false starts and delays have frustrated many East Winston leaders, who hope the rehabilitation of the train station will bring economic revitalization to the area.

“We feel that we have been patient and have been stagnated long enough in our efforts to restore this historical landmark,” Marva Reid told council on behalf of the East/Northeast Winston Neighborhood Association. “We want you to give us a chance for our community to thrive once again. We ask you to finally relieve us from this eyesore in the East Winston community and environmentally unsafe business by not extending this lease any further.”

City Manager Lee Garrity has said that the city’s purpose in taking the property through eminent domain is to serve the city’s transportation needs, but some of Harvey Davis’ supporters bristled at the East Winston residents’ articulated goals.

“I’m  a little confused,” Ed Crook said. “The city has condemned and taken this from Mr. Davis, and all these people have come in here look like they’re going to get a chunk of it. And that’s not what eminent domain was for. And somewhere down in y’all’s negotiation with Mr. Davis, lo and behold you offered to give it back to him. And then somebody found out about it and pitched a fit, and here we are tonight. And it’s just not right. You’ve got to have a specific use to take a piece of property for eminent domain. It ain’t to prettify the neighborhood, and that’s what looks like everybody here wants to see done.”

Crook’s assertion that the city considered aborting its plans to acquire the historic train station confirmed an earlier allegation made by Reid in May that the council wanted to back out of its commitment and return the property to Davis. Reid said at the time that Councilman Montgomery had told residents that council members were split on whether to proceed with the condemnation. The issue was hashed out in closed session, and Montgomery did not respond to attempts to confirm the statement.

Winston-Salem is the only Triad city without passenger rail service, but Councilman Clark expressed skepticism on Monday that Harvey Davis’ eviction would hasten its return.

“If there’s a train pulls in there in the next 20 years I’m going to be surprised,” he said. “There is absolutely no federal money on the horizon to run any rail anywhere right now.”

By virtue of the fact that Winston-Salem does not have passenger rail service, the city missed out on a $545 million federal stimulus grant received by the state in 2009 to improve track between Raleigh and Charlotte, including Greensboro and High Point, as part of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor project.

A June 2009 project update sets this year as a target for the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, or PART, to develop plans for regional rail service to serve a future “Winston-Salem connection.” Yet member counties have opted not to pursue additional revenue from sales tax, constraining the agency’s plans for expansion.

Clark’s forecast appears to be sound: A 15-year regional transit development plan released in late 2010 by PART recommends the development of a “bus rapid transit” route connecting Hanes Mall to NC A&T University that includes a stop in downtown Winston-Salem as a “rail precursor.”

For now, Union Station’s proponents seem satisfied to reclaim a cultural asset.
“With Winston-Salem State University being as old as it is, generating so many funds back into this community,” Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke said, “that Union Station is a disgrace and a shame to be sitting there.”

Harvey Davis (center) is being forced to sell his property to the city of Winston-Salem. 

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