Renewed life: Revitalization effort still shaping Southside

Featured

If pressed, Southside residents make minor gripes: The neighborhood could use a grocery store, and it feels a little disconnected from the rest of downtown. Beyond that, they love their almost-new community at the edge of Greensboro’s city center.

“I moved there because I was living in Graham,” said Lindsey Weir, who lives on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and now works as regional property manager for Signature Property Group. “I worked in Graham. I realized, with all due respect to Graham, it was not the social life I wanted for someone in her late 20s.”

In Southside, Weir, now 30, discovered that social life, and she has helped expand it. She was a founder of the Southside Running Club, and hosts potluck dinners in her home. Weir and other residents praise its diversity as they describe a neighborhood that’s urban but still welcoming to children, pedestrians and pets.

Those factors lured Deborah Rondo to Southside when her children grew up and she wanted to downsize from her family-sized home on Randleman Road.

“I like this a lot better,” said Rondo, 55, owner and operator of the Cutz-R-Us beauty salon in a townhouse-style live-work unit on Lewis Street. “The neighborhood where I was living was fine, but when your kids leave the nest, this was a little more suitable for me.”

Southside covers only a few blocks, roughly hemmed in by railroad tracks on the north, Murrow Boulevard on the east, Lee Street on the south and Elm Street on the west. Wander through the neighborhood on foot and you’ll find a warren of townhouses and hair salons, service alleys and cozy single-family houses. A neighborhood with a great deal of new development — condominiums, apartment homes and townhouses — Southside also boasts some of Greensboro’s oldest homes.

According to the city of Greensboro’s Web site, the community was identified as a redevelopment project area in the early 1990s. A bond package approved in 1996 financed the Southside plan to rejuvenate the blighted area. The plan promoted the renovation of historic houses for occupancy, construction of new housing and commercial growth.

The neighborhood’s new homes were built to evoke a 20th-century ideal of residential life before car culture and flight to the suburbs spawned strip malls and tract housing.

“The neighborhood is a market success,” says an “UnSprawl Case Study” at Terrain.org, “A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments.” “Not only did all the rehabilitated and new homes sell out, but the neighborhood generates significantly more tax revenue for the city.”

Before the public-private partnership that revitalized the neighborhood got in gear in the late 1990s, Southside was a decaying area with a defunct chemical plant and a bad reputation. In the 1990s the entire neighborhood only brought in tax revenues of about $9,000 a year, said Ed Wolverton, president and CEO of Downtown Greensboro Inc., citing figures from the city’s Community Development Department. By 2005, however, the neighborhood was generating $82,000 a year in tax revenues.

“As far as the city’s vision and the developers’, I think Southside’s lived up to everybody’s expectations,” said Bob Isner, CEO of Greensboro Contracting and the man responsible for new development projects such as CityView at Southside, an apartment community that has an occupancy rate around 90 percent. “Southside’s pretty developed out. It’s pretty much into second-generation buyers now.”

The one exception to the success of Southside as a residential community is Fountain View, a condominium complex on Lewis Street. Work on it wrapped up in 2008, just as the city got hit by the double whammy of the real estate bust and the recession, and sales of its 14 units have been stagnant. Fountain View’s owners, Greensboro Contracting and Berkley Hall Construction, recently began renting the units as apartments because they weren’t selling as condos, Wolverton and Isner said.

Anna Wheatley never expected to see luxury condos or upscale apartments in Southside when she lived there in the early 1990s. She came to the city to get her Ph.D. in English at UNCG, and lived in a “railroad apartment” in a vintage two-story brick building that still stands on Arlington Street.

This was before downtown’s renaissance in the past decade, and there were few amenities for the small number of residents. She moved to Manhattan in 1995, but enjoyed her time in Southside.

“You felt a little bit like you were in Mayberry,” said Wheatley, who now lives in Alabama. “You really felt this sense of an old small town, and you could just close your eyes and pretend that all the McMansions that were springing up in the suburbs — you could just ignore them. You weren’t part of that community. You could imagine a day when you probably could have lived without a car. You knew all the shopkeepers. Even if you didn’t know people, you recognized them and you could nod. I really loved that aspect of it.”

Manny Polanco is working to create that kind of community feel in latter-day Southside. He is raising two children in the neighborhood, and manages Manny’s Universal Cafe in a live-work unit on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

“We’ve been here a little over three years,” said Polanco, 34, a Yonkers, N.Y., native who came to Greensboro to attend college at N.C. A&T. “We’ve learned a lot.”

Manny’s cafe offers homemade sandwiches, soup and pastries, as well as beverages, from fresh-roasted gourmet coffee to beer and wine. Polanco hosts live music on the patio in the back on a regular basis during warm-weather months. He likes his adopted city and wants to contribute to downtown’s success.

“The weather’s nice, the people are friendly,” he said. “It’s a nice pace. I’ve seen a lot of changes since I was here. I got down here, I’d go through downtown and not see anybody. It was hard to believe it was a downtown area. It’s not what I was used to.”

All the changes to downtown have made him feel much more at home in Greensboro.

“Southside is great,” Polanco said. “I can walk downtown, be part of the downtown life. … I can check out some of the other restaurants and bars, then walk back. I feel safe.”

He would like to see some of the same improvements mentioned by his fellow Southside residents, including slower traffic on MLK, a better connection to Elm Street and the rest of downtown, and a grocery store within walking distance.

Plans have been discussed to turn land owned by Norfolk Southern Railway along MLK into a park, but they remain nebulous, Wolverton said. Despite efforts to recruit a grocer, he doesn’t anticipate one coming downtown anytime soon.

“We are still continuing to add housing, and that remains an important strategy for us,” he added. “But I think we’re more likely to see what I would call a green grocer, with about 1,500 to 3,000 square feet of space, selling prepared food, maybe with a deli sandwich counter. More entrepreneur-based as opposed to Harris Teeter or Whole Foods or something like that. For all the successes we’ve had with housing, we still need to build a lot more to be able to justify a store from a retailer point of view.”