Raleigh’s skyline is changing as more construction projects come to downtown
The beige-brick building at 515 S. Blount St. has sat boarded up for years, one of a couple such empty buildings on that block.
But soon, its new tenant hopes, it will be part of a reactivation of a block in a part of town known as the Prince Hall Historic District, a historically African American community that grew up around Shaw University southeast of downtown.
The area has seen millions of dollars in investments in recent years — geared toward both residential homes and commercial space — fueling claims of gentrification and displacement in the area, most notably in a recent New York Times article.
But Valerie Fields, the owner of Raleigh-based public relations agency VK Fields & Co., is hoping her investment can highlight the history of the neighborhood.
Fields, who is black, is planning to put $100,000 worth of repairs and renovations into the South Blount Street building when she moves her firm’s office from West Hargett Street to the area just north of Shaw University.
“Here is another story,” she said referencing the New York Times article about white homebuyers flocking to the historically black neighborhood. “It’s important just to know something else is going on here, even if it looks like there is an overwhelming trend one way.”
It’s not a simple renovation. The building, once a photography studio, needs a lot of work to accommodate her full-time team of four professionals and about a dozen subcontractors that sometime use the space.
Its current state is reflected in its assessed value. While the .17-acre parcel of land is worth about $555,000, the building there, built in 1950, is worth only $4,728, according to Wake County records.
The property was last sold in 1975 for $18,000.
In return for putting in the repairs, Fields said she will receive a 10-year lease at the property and future equity in any sale of the property.
The extra work (and money) is worth it, she said, because it will mean an African American-owned business will be returning to a street that has long been associated with Raleigh’s black community. The block is still home to Shaw University’s Innovation Center, the historic Tupper Memorial Baptist Church and the Prince Hall building, which is home to several small businesses.
“In my mind, it is certainly a part of a history that can be used to encourage and inspire all entrepreneurs but particularly African American entrepreneurs,” Fields said. “What was on that block and surrounds it, you have Shaw University and you have business owners who stepped out as pioneers to be successful at a time when all the odds were against them.”
The transformation of the building might not have happened if it wasn’t for a chance phone call.
The owner of the building, Christopher Hinton, closed his photography business at 515 S. Blount St. after a serious medical injury. Fields, who once worked with his business on a project, reached out to him to see how he was doing after driving past the empty building.
“The conversation turned to the fact that he had this building but he no longer could do anything with it,” Fields said. “He said, ‘Hey, if I could find a partner to salvage this building that would be great, because we are getting offers from all over but it doesn’t feel right.’”
Helping get the project off the ground is a grant from the city. Fields will receive a $25,000 City Building Upfit Grant — a one-for-one matching grant that is meant to help small business owners improve business spaces.
Fields qualified for the maximum amount of grant money because the property is within one of the city’s priority areas for economic development, said Tiffany McNeill, who works in the city’s economic development office. She added that bringing this building back to life will make the block feel more welcoming.
“One of the immediate advantages is removing blight in the area,” McNeill said in a phone interview, “removing blight and making the space feel more welcome to the community — and not just the business community but also residents and students that have to walk in the area.”
The redevelopment is not stopping at this building, however. Next door to Fields’ future office is another empty building with a new owner.
Boarded up for several years now, the white building at 517 S. Blount St. actually came into the ownership of the city in 2003, after it was condemned and the city bought it for $168,000.
In the fall of last year, the city deemed the property to be surplus and put it up for sale in a bidding process. The winner of the bid was Blount Street Raleigh LLC, which bought the property for a little more than $630,000, according to city records.
The limited liability company that bought the property was registered by Milan Di Giulio, according to state records. Di Guilio, of Cary’s Performance Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine, has been linked in the past with attempting to purchase vacant properties from the state in downtown Raleigh to turn into medical offices. But that sale was canceled by Gov. Roy Cooper’s office.
Efforts to reach Di Guilio for more details about his plans were not successful, but in an email he said his plans had gotten approval from the city’s Historic Development Commission.
The proceeds from the city’s sale of the building went toward funding the city’s affordable housing efforts, according to city records.
Fields said she thinks it will be good to have two businesses possibly return to the block at the same time.
“I think it tells people this area is no longer being ignored,” she said.