News: Charlotte Exclusives

Historical Omissions

Local preservationists cannot fight real estate market realities

Keep on eye on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. The commission’s desire to buy the Grace AME Zion Church on South Brevard Street could wind up being another money loser for taxpayers.

Earlier this year the commission had agreed to buy the church for $1.575 million with the county voting to loan the commission an additional $800,000 in May to help cover the cost.

But – whoops! — an appraisal of the church came in at only $840,000 and scuttled the deal. Church leaders have recently appealed back to the county commission for more money to make the deal happen at a price closer to the $1.5 million mark.

County officials need to understand that, as well-meaning as the people involved in preservation efforts might be, they seem to have little concept of how much properties are actually worth in the real world. Or more precisely, the commission seems to overestimate the premium an historic property can command. Exhibit A is the Grier Farm House on Grier Farm Lane off of McKee Road in South Charlotte.

The commission bought the property, located in the middle of a 190-unit townhome development, for $100,000 in September 2002. The graceful, small home – the commission called it “an excellent example of a pyramidal cottage” – had a tax value of $255,000, primarily due to the large lot it sat upon. The commission then hired Copeland Architects to revamp the 2,900 square foot home with plans of reselling it.

Reselling properties is supposed to help refill the commission’s publicly-supported revolving fund, which voters funded to the tune of $7.5 million worth of bonds in 1999, making it one of largest such historic preservation funds in the country.

Right away, however, the Grier Farm project hit snags. Bids for the work the commission wanted done came in with the lowest bid $78,000 over budget. So in October 2003 the commission simply increased the renovation budget by 75 percent from $227,000 to $300,000 and hired D.E. Brown construction to do $286,000 worth of work on the house.

Along the way the commission won a buffer/access easement from townhome developer Portrait Homes and got the city council to rezone the parcel. When the renovations were completed in 2004 the commission estimated that it had put some $450,000 in the property, so it opted to put the house on the market for $500,000.

After several months of inactivity it was left to realtor Catherine Browning of First Charlotte Properties to explain to the commission that the price was too high for a house that sits surrounded by townhomes valued at less than half of the $500,000 asking price. Townhomes in the development start at $130,000 and single-family homes at around $180,000.

There was also the small fact that the extensive renovations did not install bathroom or kitchen fixtures in the house, an omission which turned off any potential buyer. The commission’s response to that little detail seems to have been to knock the price down to $449,500 in December of 2004.

By 2005 and still no firm offers, Browning suggested that maybe the house could be auctioned and that some coverage from The Charlotte Observer would help gin up interest. Commission minutes indicate commission director Dr. Dan Morrill intended to contact the paper and, sure enough, a lengthy piece on the property and the proposed auction soon appeared in the local real estate section.

The auction was set for May with a directive from the commission that the historical nature of the property be emphasized. The property was also highlighted on the Preservation North Carolina Web site. Predictably, the auction come and went without any bidders hitting the commission’s asking price. The commission is now mulling “more effective” marketing of the forlorn property and perhaps selling some of the land back to Portrait.

A visit to the commission’s Web site shows the empty, but historic, house still for sale.