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Vehicle for Change:

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CHAIN-GING HISTORY: Tribute Properties redevelops Nesbitt Court, a 72-year-old housing project, into a sustainable and sophisticated rental community. Photo by Bethany Turner.

“Murder trial gives glimpse into night at Nesbitt Court” is just one of the StarNews headlines that made downtown Wilmington residents feel unsafe and afraid, especially those who lived closest to the 72-year-old housing project. Homes and buildings surrounding Nesbitt Court were dilapidated eyesores, unfit to coincide with the beauty of historical downtown. A drive on Third Street from the George Davis monument to Greenfield Lake, for most people, meant locking car doors and avoiding long stops. A lack of care in the community equalled an increase in crime, as alleys and abandoned shacks hosted drug deals and stabbings. Landlords didn’t take the time to clean up the mess around Marstellar and Greenfield streets, and folks from other areas found it a great place to ditch even more trash.

Fortunately, changes have begun to take place in the area between Front and Third streets, as concerned citizens laid claim on the district. Within the last decade, local actor and director Steve Bakunas and his wife, Linda Lavin, took a second look at the southern portion of downtown Wilmington. Although Nesbitt Court was then still functioning, the two wielded hammer and nail to revive a few homes.

“We renovated six houses [including one that is now our own], but it took a while for people to feel unafraid to come to the neighborhood,” he explains. “While remodeling, we were robbed a couple times, and I got a few black eyes. It was very high crime—there were stolen cars and overgrown yards. I challenged property owners to come and clean up or sell what they had. Most of them wanted to sell.”

Still, the husband-and-wife team didn’t lose faith. Four years ago, they encountered an old repair garage which Bakunas thought could be his work studio. Today, the garage that shone with only a small glimmer of hope is now Wilmington’s Red Barn Studio, a 50-seat live theatre venue. “It anchored all of our properties,” Bakunas admits. “We gained a good reputation from the theatre; tenants came, kids were playing outside, and people were having picnics. The neighborhood came alive.”

The two also donated property between Second and Marstellar streets for the city to develop. “They said, ‘We’ll build a beautiful park,’” Bakunas notes. “And they did.”

Bakunas and his wife were not the only people who saw life worth saving on South Third Street. Margaret and Valentine Jennings recently opened The Harp, an Irish pub, on the corner that meets Greenfield Street.

On the next block down, Dusty Ricks and his business partner began welcoming guests to Satellite Bar and Lounge, which sits directly across from Nesbitt Court. “I was just curious what [the building] was leasing for, so I could possibly have a workshop place. On a subconscious level, though, I thought it would be cool to have a nice neighborhood bar.”

Like a satellite town, the bar lives up to its name. “It’s a ‘destination bar,’” Ricks says. “We’re close by, but at the same time, we’re out by ourselves in the midst of a ghost town. That’s part of the mystique though and a good selling point. It’s very unexpected.”

Like Bakunas’ developments, the creation of Satellite—winner of Best Neighborhood Bar in encore’s 2011 reader poll—was a labor of love. Ricks tore the ceilings out to install massive wooden beam work, exposed aged brick and refinished the concrete floors. “I gutted the entire building, me and one helper,” Ricks explains. “I had a handful of electrician and plumber friends who tidied up the permitted stuff.”

Ricks says he had no clue what the outcome of a bar in this area would be, and neither he nor the Jennings were aware of each other’s renovations. He claims the opening of The Harp in a nearby abandoned restaurant was “very happenstance.” It seems now the two groups are lucky to have bought locations in that part of town, as Tribute Properties has a rental community on the way—in the now defunct Nesbitt Court.

Although declining an interview, the apartment complex managing group did offer information in a press release about South Front Rental Community, which is scheduled to open in a couple of months. Tribute Properties, like Ricks, sees using the resources already in the area as the best way to redevelop. Their goal is to foster a sustainable complex that will meet strict Energy Star for Homes guidelines, complete with LEED for Homes Silver certification.

Cothran Harris is the architect for South Front, and he’s bringing a sophisticated, urban (and green) look to the units. The original concrete floors of the housing project are being sanded and sealed, rather than covered with carpet or hardwood, and contractors will install concrete countertops to match. The 1939 masonry will remain the face of South Front’s buildings. Interior walls will be painted with low volatile-organic-compound paints, and almost every individual living space in each unit will have a programmable thermostat. “Renovating a building is the ultimate act of recycling,” Harris claims.

With a total of 216 apartments, and varying one- and two-bedroom floor plans, South Front Rental Community will offer a range of amenities. The to-be-expected fitness center, outdoor pool and resident lounge are met with the unexpected, as well: a “chef’s show” kitchen, rooftop community gardens and ground-level planting beds, billiards room, media screening room with surround sound, community bike share, and kayaks available to use in the nearby river and Greenfield Lake.

Even after South Front is completed, other folks are still brainstorming ways to improve the look of southern downtown Wilmington. Rick Catlin, president of Catlin Engineers and Scientists, says “an altruistic gentleman” by the name of Dave Rouen approached him with a proposition. “[Dave] asked me to help him find a good use for two city blocks between Second and Front streets and Marstellar and Dawson streets,” Catlin asserts. “He’s considering donating part or all of the land. We approached the City of Wilmington, but they are not in the position to accept [the costs of developing] a park.”

Although ideas are still bouncing around, and they are far from ready to begin any work, Catlin says Rouen would like to leave the community better than he found it. For now, they are considering a terraced garden with a small amphitheater. “We’d like to tie into Steve and Linda’s growth of the artistic community [there],” he claims. “We could anchor it with condos or townhomes, and the park would provide some draw for artists that may want to live in the area.”

Catlin also thinks it’d be ideal to take care of any permit requirements so that a contractor could turn the property quickly. “It would be easier for developers to go to the bank with all of their permits and little to no land cost,” he says. “Lenders are tied up these days, but this would be less risk with a known outcome and short time frame. Plus, we could stimulate economic development at no cost to taxpayers.”

According to Catlin, reviving the community is up to “private-sector visionaries,” such as the citizens who’ve already invested time and money into these once neglected streets.

“This area for a long time hasn’t had any attention paid to it,” Ricks adds. “It’s an odd little slice of Wilmington, with a mix of industrial and some residential areas. But we took a second look at it with The Harp and Satellite opening around the same time. We’re just a handful of people willing to stick out our necks and say, ‘I see the potential.’ [Other] people have a tendency to follow suit from that point on.”

Bakunas seems to have the same mindset. “People see it as an interesting neighborhood,” he says. “They’re investing more and fixing up the area. I definitely think it has potential, as long as the [South Front Rental Community] clientele maintain the integrity of what’s happening here. I’m hopeful. My wife and I were knee-deep in it, and it takes people like that to be a vehicle for change. I’m not a developer; I’m just a can-do guy who got involved personally.

“If people don’t think you care, then they won’t care,” he finishes with a word of advice. “We have to speak up and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We do care.’”

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