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Posted on: January 15, 2021

More multifamily housing on the horizon

A construction worker paints the metal windows at the new Blue Bell apartments.

Construction is underway on two multifamily housing projects that will add more than 100 new apartments to the City of Lenoir.

Yorke Lawson and Tom Niemann, owners of Blue Bell Lenoir, LLC, are building 46 market-rate apartments in the old Lenoir Cotton Mill/Blue Bell, Inc. plant on College Avenue in downtown. Mark Morgan, owner of MC Morgan & Associates, INC, has broken ground on a 68-unit, affordable-housing project located between Wilkesboro Boulevard and Lower Creek Drive. Both developments should be complete by the end of the year.

The Blue Bell apartments will be one- and two-bedroom units. The property will have storage, a fitness center for residents, and on-site parking. Residents will also have key fob access to the parking area. The building is located at the intersection of College Avenue and Underdown Avenue SW. Lawson said they hope to have their certificate of occupancy by the end of September this year.

"The project is all about historic preservation and community development, both of which lead to economic growth," Lawson said.

Given the design and the proximity to downtown, Lawson said he didn't think it would be difficult to rent 46 market-rate units once the apartments were finished.

"There are plenty of people who work in Lenoir that would live in Lenoir if they could find apartments they want to rent in the city," Lawson said. "Let’s hope it is the success we all envision, 46 market-rate, beautiful apartments a tenth of a mile from downtown. I believe that will draw a lot of interest."

Morgan's development, known as Kattz Corner, will offer 68, one-, two-, and three-bedroom units. The complex will have a 3,600 square feet clubhouse, a fitness center, a computer lab, a "Tot Lot", and a large commons area for residents. Maintenance staff and property managers will be on-site. At least 10% of the lower units will be Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible. The apartments will have vehicle access from Wilkesboro Boulevard and pedestrian-only access from Lower Creek Drive. The units should be available to rent at the start of next year.

"Communities need diversity in the types of housing available for residents," Morgan said. "Many times, single-family housing is not a good fit for older people who are downsizing or for younger people just starting out. Developments like Kattz Corner provide options for people who want to downsize, but still stay in the community, and those moves open up other housing in the community."

Morgan said that generally 30 percent of his tenants in a market like Lenoir are over 65.

"We've seen a need in many communities for accessible and affordable housing options," Morgan said.

Blue Bell and Kattz Corner are both examples of how having the right people in the right place at the right time can make things happen. The projects also show how government assistance through various means can help developers move forward with new construction.

The State of North Carolina offers tax credits for target projects including affordable housing and historic preservation. As an affordable-housing project, Kattz Corner will receive a 30% discount on property taxes paid to the city and county. Blue Bell is a Local Historic Landmark, and is on the National Register of  Historic Places. The local landmark status gives the building a 50% property tax break, and the National Register status gives the property Historic Preservation Tax Credits.

City staff worked hard to help the Blue Bell apartments become reality, but the genesis of the project started by having the right person in the right place at the right time. About five years ago, City of Lenoir Downtown Economic Development Director Kaylynn Horn attended a Preservation North Carolina conference. During a recess, Horn approached Ted Alexander, Regional Director of the Western Office for Preservation NC and now an NC State Senator, about saving 122 Boundary St., Lenoir, from demolition.

"When I came to visit Lenoir, Kaylynn [Horn] also introduced me to the mill [Blue Bell]," Alexander said. "I tucked that property away in my brain. It wasn't too long after that I was contacted by Yorke [Lawson]."

Lawson and Niemann have done several historic preservation redevelopments and they were looking for a mill in North Carolina to preserve and reuse. Lawson travelled the state looking at mills in Gibsonville, Mount Holly, and Gastonia, but he hadn't yet found the right property.

"One day, I was talking to Ted [Alexander], and he said, 'There are two mills in Lenoir,' and he pointed me to Kaylynn [Horn]," Lawson said.

Lawson came to Lenoir. Planning Director Jenny Wheelock and Horn organized several tours of the Blue Bell building and the old Steele-Cotton Mill/Bost Lumber plant, and the rest is history. In addition to having City staff in the right place at the right time, the City invested a lot of resources to help the Blue Bell project along.

The City and Caldwell County, with the assistance of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission (EDC), funded part of a School of Government Development Finance Initiative (DFI) mills study. The City funded environmental studies on the site and established an Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) under the guidance of Planning Director Wheelock. The HPC was able to declare Blue Bell an historic landmark, which opened up the property tax credits. City staff and Council members lobbied State elected officials to secure Historic Preservation Tax credits for the project, and the City is funding sewer and street infrastructure improvements around the development.

On top of that direct assistance, the City is building more greenway right next door to Blue Bell. Unity Park and Community Gardens is a four-minute walk down the street, and the City is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up the remnants of an old furniture plant that sits at the corner of Virginia Street and College (the Virginia Street property).

Senator Alexander, originally from Morganton and the former mayor of Shelby, said he is excited to see that construction has started on the Blue Bell apartments. 

"That is a very serendipitous project, and I’m thrilled that it worked out," Senator Alexander said. "I don’t think you can overstate the impact that a project of this magnitude will have in Lenoir. You’re going to have an enormous increase in tax base and a large number of people coming to live in very close proximity to downtown. That will boost the economy in downtown Lenoir and the rest of the City."

In addition to City staff and elected officials, the Caldwell County EDC has been working behind the scenes for years on market-rate housing. EDC Director Deborah Murray said market-rate housing is one of the primary needs employers say would attract and retain workers in the community.

"The lack of market rate housing options has made employment growth even harder for growing businesses," Murray said. "Employers are very excited about these new units coming on line.  I am certain Lenoir Mills will have tremendous impact on the future growth of downtown Lenoir."

Mayor Joe Gibbons said he is excited about both projects, and he is especially grateful for the efforts of City staff, county partners, and Lenoir's state representatives to help make the Blue Bell project a reality.

"Most of the time, projects like Blue Bell don't just happen all by themselves," Mayor Gibbons said. "It takes a lot of work by developers, staff, and elected officials. In this case, it also took effort by our State Senator Warren Daniel and State Representative Destin Hall. They worked hard to secure Historic Preservation Tax credits for Blue Bell. Had they not gotten those tax credits, this project wouldn't have been viable, and the Blue Bell building would most likely have been torn down. I personally want to thank Senator Daniel and Representative Hall for their help in saving historic buildings in Lenoir. I also want to thank Mr. Lawson and Mr. Niemann for investing their dollars to save and reuse the Blue Bell building and others in the city. This project will be a great boost to our economy, and we look forward to more development in that area of our city."

Note: This is the second part of a three-part series on housing in Lenoir. Click here to read part one: New year, new homes in Downtown Lenoir.

The Blue Bell Building as seen from Underdown Avenue SW.

The main floor of the Blue Bell apartments contains a two-story tower that may or may not be part of one of the new units.

A construction worker walks across the main floor of the Blue Bell building.

A construction worker walks by on the main floor of Blue Bell. Construction plans call for creating several openings in the main floor to let natural sunlight into the lower floor. 

The Blue Bell Building as seen from College Avenue SW.

Blue Bell as seen from College Avenue.

The Kattz Corner property as seen from Lower Creek Drive.

Contractors building the Kattz Corner apartments still have an old house on the property to demolish. The complex was designed to limit the height of structures near Lower Creek Drive, preserving views of Hibriten Mountain.

The new entrance to Kattz Corner from Wilkesboro Boulevard.

The entrance to the Kattz Corner development off Wilkesboro Boulevard has been cut and graveled.

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