540 N. Blount St. in downtown Raleigh has seen better days. A thin layer of black dirt covers the outside, and if you want an invitation inside, you probably shouldn't touch the broken plastic button that was once a doorbell.
The inside boasts some ugly blue carpeting, fluorescent lights and a water fountain from the days when the state government used it as a headquarters for investigating white-collar crimes.
"There were guys with nightsticks and 9 mms on their hips wandering around," muses Doug Redford, a senior project manager with LNR Property Corp.'s commercial property group. "Why did you need a 9 mm to investigate white-collar crime, anyway?"
The North Blount Street historic district contains some of Raleigh's oldest and most historically important homes—most of which have been turned into state offices. Now, a redevelopment plan called Blount Street Commons could turn them back into homes and help transform the district into one of downtown's most upscale neighborhoods.
The district includes residences that date back to the 1850s. "It was one of the earliest neighborhoods in Raleigh," says Terry Harper, capital projects coordinator for the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. "The buildings represent the best architecture of the time." Indeed, North Blount Street still boasts some of the most impressive structures in Raleigh, with examples of Tudor, Second Empire and Queen Anne architecture.
Redford has heard stories about how Blount Street once was a thriving neighborhood. "On Sundays, traffic was backed up down the street, because the girls at Peace College would head to church in pairs, hand-in-hand down the sidewalk," Redford says. "Single guys heard about this, and would cruise down the street in their cars, trying to pick up the Peace College girls."
Times have changed, however, and Redford says that residents "fleeing for the suburbs" back in the 1960s left the Blount Street district underutilized.
In the 1970s, the state tried turning some of the houses into offices for government agencies. Harper, who's working as a state liaison for the new development, says that this was a decision that worked at the time. "When the state decided to make those buildings into offices, they probably saved them," Harper says. "It kept them from being demolished to make way for modern buildings."
Unfortunately, this plan didn't prove to be a long-term solution for the buildings. "It worked for a while, but [the state] had trouble maintaining them," Harper says. She supports LNR's plans for the district: "I think it's wonderful that these buildings are going to be houses again."
"Right now, what you have is part of a historic district with houses sitting in the middle of parking lots," Redford says. "We can't replace what was destroyed, but we can move the fabric of that neighborhood around and recreate the feel of what was there."
The question is—can this become a neighborhood worthy of its history?
Redford and LNR are arranging to buy and redevelop 25 homes in the district. According to Redford, LNR is currently nearing the end of the first of a four-stage purchase plan from the state, which could close in the next few weeks.
Though eight houses in the district will be moved to the main row of North Blount Street, Redford insists that the goal is help make the district a viable residential neighborhood. "We're not putting in a Wal-Mart, we're not putting a Target center," Redford says. "We're tying the fabric of the neighborhood together, and that's what the area wants."
In addition to redeveloping the homes, LNR also plans to construct new residential units along the periphery of the neighborhood, some of which will be retail space with live/work units. According to Blount Street Commons spokesman Scott Misner, these new buildings will keep an architectural style consistent with the existing structures.
LNR's goal is to redevelop 21 of the 25 houses as residences. The larger houses will probably be redeveloped to house small business offices, because, as Redford puts it, "not many people have the 15 kids you'd need to fill a 10,000-square-foot home." He adds that LNR has already talked to some potential businesses, including a bed-and-breakfast, a law firm and a construction firm. When the makeover is complete, some of the houses in the district may sell for as much as $2 million, according to LNR officials. Redford says the smaller redeveloped units will likely go for $350,000 and up.
Redford hopes that the redevelopment will provide more of a connection between the Blount Street district and downtown Raleigh. "This is a black hole between downtown and the neighborhoods, and we are trying to connect them back together," he says.
Still, he's aware that this is an unusual project, and that arranging the sale with the state will take time. "There is no sure plan," Redford says. "There is no cookie cutter that you can use to say, 'There have been six [projects] like these across the country, let's do the seventh.'"
But as he wanders through 540 N. Blount St., which will serve as the sales office for Blount Street Commons, Redford marvels at the building's craftsmanship and the potential once the blue carpeting and fluorescent lighting are taken out. He points at a molded archway over the stairs, and wonders how much something like that would cost today. "If you tried to build a new house and replicate it, the carpenter would retire, because that's the only job he would ever need to do," he says.
Time will tell, once the buildings are redeveloped, whether potential residents will share his enthusiasm.