Former Kentington Heights property owners reflect on new plans
Nov. 03, 2013 @ 02:15 PM

Durham resident Alvin Nesbit was looking for investment property, and ended up buying land and a house in the Kentington Heights neighborhood once he heard that “maybe a big mall was coming out there.”

Nesbit bought the property in 1999, three years before The Streets at Southpoint opened nearby off Fayetteville Road.

In the 14 years that he’s owned the property, he said, a series of potential buyers showed interest in his property, but those deals fell through.

But, recently, he was one of the Kentington Heights landowners who saw their land finally sell.

According to property records, Charlotte-based Hendrick Automotive Group bought land in nearly 100 separate deals for a total of about $20.1 million.

Hendrick officials plan to open a Mercedes-Benz dealership on the property next summer. They also plan to move the downtown Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac dealership onto the same site by the fall of 2014.

The company’s purchase included property for a possible second phase of development. Kendra Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Hendrick, said the first phase includes both the Mercedes-Benz dealership and the relocated downtown dealership. The second phase is for any future needs.

A site plan has been submitted to Durham City-County Planning for an approximately 180,000-square feet autopark development. Lewis Cheek, an attorney working on the project for Hendrick and another developer, said another plan should soon be filed.

The Durham City Council voted in September to rezone 33 acres of land, to annex the property, and also OKed a deal for the city to extend water and sewer service to the site.

“Obviously, I supported it,” Durham Mayor Bill Bell said. “I think, to me, it was more an issue of the residents than anything else because they were fast living in a ghetto and a hidden site to a certain extent. If you didn’t go there, you wouldn’t know, because it’s not something you can see from the roadside.”

Previously located in Durham County, residents in the neighborhood relied on wells for water and septic tanks.

The septic systems had a track record of failure, said Patrick Eaton, environmental health specialist and on-site water protection supervisor for the Durham County Department of Public Health’s Environmental Health Division.

He said the soil was unsuitable for the septic tanks. Homes in the neighborhood were built prior to when applicable state laws went into effect, he said.

“The main reason is the unsuitable soils they have, which is what’s referred to as ‘expansive clays,’” he said. “It’s very, very difficult, if not impossible, to repair systems in that area. (And) the well water typically, the yields are low…”

Amy Blalock, spokeswoman for the City of Durham, said in an email that there was “a lot of discussion” about the need for something to be done about utilities for the neighborhood after the construction of Southpoint.

However, she said residents would’ve had to pay for the extension of the city’s sewer system to the neighborhood.

“It’s my understanding that they have been waiting for a developer to come in and redevelop the area…,” she said.

In 2002, residents backed a plan to push for a re-designation of the neighborhood for commercial development. And the Durham City Council approved the change to the area’s future land-use map to allow the commercial.

Nesbit said he believes many of the residents couldn’t afford the cost of the sewer hook-up. He said he never lived on the property, but he did have renters.

“I really don’t know what the problem was with the sewage because we never lived there, but I do know the tenants that stayed in the house that we were renting – they used bottled water a whole lot,” he said.

Courtland Mangum, a Durham resident who also owned Kentington Heights property, said he wasn’t aware of a petition circulating to try and secure water and sewer for that area.

“Had that happened, I would have supported it,” said Mangum, who said he bought the land with a plan to, one day, build a home there. But he said he ultimately got divorced, and never built. He lives elsewhere in Durham.

He said he heard that there was a “massive rush to get out” from the neighborhood. He also said he believes that residents should have tried to get city water and sewer hook-ups with the construction of Southpoint.

“(They) should have allied themselves with people building Southpoint: ‘as opposed to fighting you, we will back you, if you throw us a bone,’” he said.

According to previous reports in The Herald-Sun, conflicting accounts emerged over whether neighborhood leaders and residents supported the mall’s development. But the report also said that, in 1999, mall developer Urban Retail Properties of Chicago struck a deal with the neighborhood association to accept $84,500 for sewer hook-ups, a neighborhood sign and street lights.

The Herald-Sun article cited tapes from a 1999 meeting that showed neighborhood leaders saying they had polled residents, and heard support for the mall.

Bell said he believes that some residents wanted city water and sewer connections, while others wanted to sell. He also said some residents didn’t want to assume the cost of being annexed into the city. That would have been necessary for extending city water and sewer service, he said.

“It wasn’t a case where the city, we would involuntarily annex them,” Bell said. “That wasn’t an option.”

New Jersey resident Mechita Self said the land on Kentington Drive in Durham has been in her family for decades. She said her parents bought the vacant land with the dream of one day returning to Durham and building a retirement home there. She said they had migrated to New York.

“I think the idea was that this was going to be this fantastic neighborhood for people of color,” she said. “I think that’s what it was. And maybe 40 years ago, it must have been attractive for them to think that they would go back to live there.”

But when they moved back, she said they bought a home somewhere else. Other areas had more development that they were interested in, and “there was no reason to go live in the middle of nowhere.”

“My father would always say, ‘the land, the land, the land,’” she said. “He was going to go back to build his house, but it was really never to be.”

The property remained vacant, and then she said she inherited the property. She said she was approached by a number of different interested developers.

With the sale of the land, she said, she was glad the process was over. 

“It’s like a bad ball, with too many suitors, and every time someone comes in, and they make their pitch, they go from ‘we want to help these people, they’re having a hard time, it’s just so dreadful, please feel sorry for us, (we’ll) hold the property until God knows when, and if we ever get anyone to sell, you’re going to be first in line,’” she said. “I never felt like anyone was fully in the know. It never felt great to me.”

She doesn’t know if worked out to be a great deal for residents or not. She said she just knows that she once had a property that she could do “absolutely nothing with,” and does not anymore.

“When you’re away from it, removed, and don’t know people, don’t know the true ups and downs of each person’s story… there were a lot of people trying to take advantage of people,” she said. “I hope it worked well for everyone.”

Bell said he heard that some people didn’t get as much as they should have.

“It was a case of a willing buyer and a selling seller, and I don’t know how much more you can ask than that,” he said.

Nesbit said he was satisfied with what he got for his land, and also believes a lot of residents were ready to get out. He also said, however, that he had one contact who died before her property sold. He said the automall will be good for the area.

“I think it’s going to bring a lot more business to the area out there,” he said. “People coming to Southpoint, they can go right across the street to the major car lot that they’re building out there now.”