The first thing Hollis Nixon said to me when I told her I was calling to ask a few questions about the NoDa Mills was, “I’m so sick of all of this, it’s been seven years.” Nixon is the president of the NoDa Neighborhood Association. The abandoned mills on the corner of 36th and Davidson streets have been a thorn in her side since shortly after she took office 10 years ago. “I just want to close my eyes and have them magically become beautiful again,” she confessed.
If only it were that easy.
The future of the mills will be decided tonight when City Council votes on whether or not to write the non-profit developer who purchased them last year a check for $1.25 million. The Community Builders outbid the competition and bought the mills for $1.2 million in April 2011, but as it began renovations on the property, the developer realized that it is in much worse shape than was originally thought.
“Conditions are exacerbated by the poor quality of the 1990s development and the damage done to the building since it has been shuttered,” said Rob Fossi, mid-Atlantic regional director for The Community Builders.
"What they did to the buildings in the '90s was criminal, nothing is up to code,” Nixon said.
The $1.25 million price tag is down from the $2.4 million The Community Builders asked for when it first approached City Council on Monday, Sept. 24. City Council members postponed the vote and asked the developer to take two weeks to try to bring that number down. Now, with the help of Foundation for the Carolinas, they’ve cut their original request in half.
Still, the mills were purchased “as is” and it’s a pretty bold move to ask the city to pay to have them taken off its hands. Marguerite Arnold, a NoDa resident, wrote in an open letter to City Council posted on her blog, “the developer needs to face up to the fact that either they come up with the cash or get out of the project. You bought it. You made promises. Now deliver, or get out of the way.”
Nixon argues that Arnold is a lone dissenting voice in a neighborhood that is overwhelmingly in favor of having the city give the developer the money.
“What people don’t understand is that we aren’t asking for local taxpayer dollars,” she explained. “It’s federal funds through the Community Development Block Grant, it’s money that has been earmarked for affordable housing, shovel ready projects, just like the mills.”
If The Community Builders secures the funds needed to renovate the mills, its plan is to convert them into 100 percent affordable housing units. With a Lynx blue line station planned for 36th Street, it would be the first project of its kind in such proximity to public transit.
Property values have shot up in the last decade, putting the neighborhood out of reach for many of the artists who were vital to making NoDa the vibrant and eclectic community it is today. For NoDa resident Brian Zimmer, keeping prices affordable is important.
“One thing that is top of mind for most here is our support for our local artists. I’m of the opinion that we don’t want to price our local talent out of the neighborhood."
The president of the neighborhood association is also in favor of affordable housing.
“You have all these other neighborhoods that go to City Council to protest affordable housing projects and cry "NIMBY" — not in my backyard,” Nixon said. “We’re saying, put it in our backyard. We want the teachers, the firefighters, the policemen.”
On Monday evening, dozens of NoDa residents are expected to show up at City Council to say just that. And although it isn’t as phenomenal as having the mills transformed in the blink of an eye, getting an entire community to rally behind an affordable housing project is a pretty magical event in its own right.