Take a look around Davis Garage, and you’ll see more than a few reminders of its former glory days as a rail depot.
Still visible are signs reading “Travelers Aid,” “Customer Lounge,” and “Chapel.” Garage customers drop off their keys through the old ticket window, leaning against the same marble counter rail passengers did half a century ago. One easily imagines men in hats and wool suits hurriedly passing through the concourse on the way to do business in the Camel City.
Owner Harvey Davis proudly displays the April 15, 1926, special edition of the Winston-Salem Journal celebrating the opening of the new rail depot. It seems as though mainstream media was as excited about trains back then as they are today.
Today’s excitement over trains is sparked by the government’s desire to increase train travel. North Carolina is slated to receive an additional $461 million in federal stimulus dollars designed to establish a higher-speed rail line with the hope that citizens will abandon their automobiles for the romance of the rail car.
Davis Garage, which has been in business at different locations since 1939, finds itself caught up in all that excitement. The City of Winston-Salem hopes to use a $1.3 million federal grant to convert the garage to into a modern-day “transportation hub,” with the expectation that it would connect to the higher-speed rail line.
But it may be some time before the city can acquire the historic Davis Garage property, let alone bring its vision of a transportation hub to life. Davis and city officials are far apart in their assessments of a fair market value for the parcel. Nor can the two sides agree on a new location for the business, which Davis plans to keep operating. The dispute may well be settled through litigation rather than negotiation.
Ideas of a public-private mixed-use development have been bandied about, but back in September the City Council debated acquiring the property through eminent domain.
The council passed a resolution delaying any condemnation for 30 days and entering into good faith negotiations with Davis. The resolution passed 6-2, with council members Robert Clark and Vivian Burke voting “no.”
During council debate, Clark’s argument against the resolution was the garage’s location, two miles from the center of downtown. There is also limited parking, which would make it difficult for commuters who might park at the depot to catch the train.
“I do not think this is the appropriate place or the appropriate building for a train station,” Clark said.
Clark also expressed his reservations about using eminent domain to acquire the property. “If we take the step of taking someone’s property, it should be as a last resort, not a first resort,” he said.
Council member Dan Besse countered Clark’s argument. “I would take issue with the presumption that a transit center is not a legitimate occasion to use eminent domain,” Besse said. “This is a public purpose. This is transportation. We would not hesitate to use eminent domain to acquire the property to build a highway interchange.”
The city eventually filed for eminent domain Dec. 30. Assistant City Manager Greg Turner told Carolina Journal that the city is moving forward with the acquisition, but they are also waiting on another appraisal from Davis “in order to be able to consider any alternatives.”
Davis told CJ he is asking $1.8 million for the property, while the city is offering $681,000, according to the eminent domain filing.
Davis believes the city’s offer is low, considering the property’s location. “You can’t find a piece of land like this for that price,” Davis said. “They’re few and far between within the city limits.”
Complicating matters is Davis’ battle with the city on another front. He owns a separate parcel of property on the corner of Jonestown and Stratford roads where he wants to relocate the garage, but the city planning board voted down his rezoning request.
While nearby residents protested the location of the garage, city staff also made its case based on long-range planning for the area, which calls for moderate-density residential development.
Davis said he can’t understand the city’s motivations in denying the rezoning, with other commercial development nearby. “I don’t know what their issues are, other than they just don’t want me there,” he said.
The council was scheduled to hear Davis’ rezoning case at its April 4 meeting, but Davis withdrew the request to allow more time to address residents’ concerns before he refiles his request.
In the meantime, if an agreement on his current location cannot be worked out with the city, Davis says he will file a lawsuit.
Right now, he believes a court battle is inevitable. “I see no open doors where they want to negotiate,” he said. “Fair is fair.”
Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.