City again wants to buy stores in Belmont

Charlotte's city council is again trying to buy convenience stores in Belmont.

The proposal comes months after the council shot down a similar plan to redevelop business property in the neighborhood. Critics said the city would have spent too much money in an area already attracting private investment.

The council will vote Monday on whether to buy an option on the Parkwood Food Mart, a small grocery store on the corner of Parkwood Avenue and Pegram Street, and an adjacent property for about $472,000. If it purchased the property, the city would also buy a second, abandoned convenience store, for an estimated $71,000 more.

The buildings would then be torn down. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Development Corp., a government-funded nonprofit, would redevelop some of the land for business use.

Council members who support the proposal say it's different from previous attempts to buy property in Belmont, a historically working-class, largely African American neighborhood about a mile from downtown.

The area has been transformed in recent years by real estate investors attracted to the bungalows, wide streets and proximity to downtown. The per-square-foot sale value of homes increased 122 percent between July 2005 and December 2007, according to a city study. Boarded-up, dilapidated homes are interspersed with freshly painted renovations that sell for more than $200,000.

Supporters say this strategy is more focused, follows a decade-old plan for the neighborhood and will improve life for many area residents.

“The original plan had the city coming in and buying a lot of existing businesses and replacing them with housing,” said councilman John Lassiter. This move would replace the store with different businesses, he said, such as a dry cleaner, restaurant or coffee shop.

“We don't need uses that tend to sell cigarettes and liter bottles of beer,” he said.

But some residents say they'll be losing one of the cleanest, most affordable grocery stores they can walk to. It's a fixture in the community, customers say, and the owner allows people to purchase food on credit and sometimes feeds the hungry. They worry the city is trying to push them out so wealthier people can move in.

“All you're trying to do is move us all to the outskirts, so the rich people can move to the inskirts,” said Era Cox, 29, who grew up in Belmont.

She feared that tearing down the food mart and putting up something new would only speed that process. “Where have you been where they threw in a new store and the property values didn't increase?”

In an urban neighborhood speckled with corner stores, the Parkwood Food Mart has a better reputation than some of the others. Diane English, a longtime neighborhood activist, said she shops at the food mart when she can't get to Wal-Mart. She said it's far less expensive than the Harris Teeter, the closest full grocery store.

“He's one of our better stores,” she said. “He sells things that you can actually use and afford.”

The owner, Robert Lunn, declined to comment. His real estate agent, Will Watson, said Lunn is a “team player and a good citizen,” and supports the proposed sale to the city.

The neighborhood struggles with crime problems, including drugs and vandalism, that police have said are exacerbated by loitering around the neighborhood's convenience stores. But recent statistics show crime near the Parkwood store is infrequent – 14 calls for service in three months, some of them routine police checks.

“In the grand scheme of things, it's not significantly high,” said police spokeswoman Jean Wassenaar.

Five council members who serve on the economic development committee – Lassiter, James Mitchell, Nancy Carter, Anthony Foxx and Patsy Kinsey – unanimously support the purchase of Parkwood Food Mart. They say they have no intention of pushing out residents, only helping them.

“We are wrestling with how to reach out and make every community in Charlotte a better place,” Foxx said. “And I think poor people deserve that consideration, too.”

A majority of the council is six votes. Susan Burgess, Warren Cooksey, Edwin Peacock and Mayor Pat McCrory said they did not know enough about the proposal to comment. Councilman Andy Dulin said he thought the prices on the properties looked high, but he needed more information about the appraisals. Council members Warren Turner and Michael Barnes did not return phone calls.

This plan is more expensive than the last one. In September, the council tabled a decision to buy three convenience stores for $450,000.

McCrory vetoed a previous proposal in March 2007 that would have put $1.1 million toward purchasing an unspecified number of stores that were deemed to be crime nuisances.