Developer Yorke Lawson recently gave a tour of the Blue Bell apartment project to a few members of the City's Historic Preservation Commission (HPC).
"This is a historic project in more ways than one," Planning Director Jenny Wheelock said. "It's preserving a piece of history, and it’s the first project to be developed under the City’s new preservation ordinance as a local landmark."
Lawson and Tom Niemann started developing the Blue Bell Plant, Steele Cotton Mill, and the freight depot several years ago. The partners are building 46 market-rate apartments in the former Blue Bell mill. They plan build up to 60 more residential units in Steele Cotton Mill. The freight depot will be designated for commercial use. While discussing their development plans with City staff, Lawson and Niemann said that having local historic landmark was an important and needed element in pushing the project forward.
In 2018, the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office (HPO) completed an architectural survey of Lenoir to identify historic buildings, landscapes, and districts in the City. Blue Bell, Steele Cotton Mill, and the depot were all mentioned in the State survey. The following year, the City of Lenoir established a new Historic Preservation Commission. Later in 2019, the HPC designated Blue Bell, Steele Cotton Mill, and the freight depot as local historic landmarks. These are the first three properties the City HPC designated as local historic landmarks in Lenoir.
When a property is designated a local landmark, the owners get tax benefits in exchange for following strict preservation standards established by the Secretary of the Interior. The original features like windows, brick, and the iconic smoke stack are required to be preserved. The HPC issued a certificate of appropriateness (COA) for the project in 2020. It was the first COA ever issued in Lenoir.
"The HPC also reviewed all of the plans for Blue Bell prior to any zoning or building permits being issued to ensure key elements would be preserved as the developers renovated the building," Wheelock said.
A local historic landmark designation gives property owners access to state and federal tax credits. The State of North Carolina offers tax credits for historic preservation projects. The local landmark status gives the building a 50% property tax break and the National Register status gives the property Historic Preservation Tax Credits
"Lots of times, tax credits can make or break a development project," Wheelock said. "Thankfully, City Council saw the value in creating an HPC, and the HPC saw the value in designating local historic landmark status to these three properties. This is an amazing project that will save and reuse some of the City's most historic buildings."
The three properties are known collectively as "Lenoir Mills Campus." The Blue Bell phase of the Lenoir Mills will be an approximately $14 million investment. The Steele Mill and Depot projects could be about $16.5 million and $1.75 million investments, respectively.
Lawson said his developments goals have always been to bring historic buildings back to life and help boost the local economies where his projects are located.
"Tom and I always wanted to work on mills," Lawson said. "We wanted to take valuable historic building stock, give it an extended life, and bring it back into the working economy. Once Blue Bell is restored, it'll last another 100 years."
Having people living in the Blue Bell apartments and possibly living in the Steel Cotton Mill will be significant boost to Downtown Lenoir, the City proper, and Caldwell County.
"First, the people have to come," Lawson said. "Having people living in these apartments in downtown will boost the need for the goods and services in downtown. That will likely draw more commercial shops into downtown and Lenoir."
Yorke Lawson, yellow hat, discusses the Lenoir Mills project with members of the City Historic Preservation Commission Thursday, March 4, 2021, in front of the Blue Bell building. Pictured from right to left, Marta Lazo, Lucy McCarl (HPC chair), and Sharon Bryant.
The Lenoir Mills Development consists of the Blue Bell Apartments, Steele Cotton Mill, and freight depot. The HPC gave landmark status to all three properties in 2019. The dotted pink line is an unpaved section of the Overmountain National Historic Trail (OVNHT) that runs through Lenoir. The solid pink line is a paved section of the OVNHT. Click here to check out this view on Google Earth.
Public Hearing on Historic Landmark Ordinance
Below is the public hearing, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, on granting historic landmark status to Blue Bell, Steele Cotton Mill, and the freight depot.