GREENSBORO — The once-grand mansion at 336 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive makes some neighbors nervous and leaves passersby sad and kind of spooked.
The neoclassical revival-style home, built for businessman John A. Hodgin around 1915, has become an eyesore and a safety hazard for the Southside neighborhood. It’s caught fire at least twice and homeless people wander the property, squatting and “doing their business,” neighbors say.
“The day we moved in they found a dead body over there,” said Carl Butler, who lives in a townhome across the street.
That was James David McKenzie, 66, who was found at the home last June. His manner of death is undetermined, but Greensboro Deputy Police Chief Michael Terry said McKenzie’s death isn’t considered a homicide.
Butler’s neighbor, Jennifer Sweeney, worries because she has small children at home.
“It’s just gotten increasingly worse over time with people loitering,” said Sweeney, who moved into the neighborhood last August. “It’s not safe, it’s a condemned building, so you don’t know who’s living in there. And if you have to go in there to help someone you don’t even know if you can help them.”
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The building is among 84 on the city’s demolition list. Deputy City Manager Chris Wilson would not speculate on why these properties generally go into decline, but he did say that some involve absentee landlords or heirs who don’t want to invest in the property after the owner dies.
The city tries to work with property owners to bring the structures into compliance with housing code.
“Our desire is compliance,” Wilson said. “It’s always preferred because we need the housing stock and we want people to move on these, but sometimes it’s just not achievable because of the condition or where they’re at in terms of the condition.”
Last week, the City Council turned up the heat. It voted to spend $500,000 to immediately begin catching up with a backlog of demolition orders.
The council was to vote on a larger amount — $1.3 million — which would allow the city to demolish nearly all of the homes on the list. However, new City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba asked for more time before the vote to “make sure that we have things in the right order.”
The issue will be discussed again at this week’s City Council retreat.
The item was added to the agenda after District 1 Councilwoman Sharon Hightower complained last month about the high number of vacant, boarded up properties in her district and District 2, which comprise parts of east Greensboro.
“Houses can stay boarded up indefinitely,” Hightower, whose district includes the southeastern part of the city, said at the Feb. 15 meeting.
At least one building has been slated to be razed since 2011 — although demolition can take place 90 days after an order is issued.
“We don’t have the budget to actually go in and take those houses down,” Mayor Nancy Vaughan said at the February meeting.
Since then, however, the city found $1.3 million in its general fund to carry out the demolition orders.
All demolitions require $350 asbestos testing ($450 if rushed), and the average cost of asbestos abatement is $4,500, Wilson said. In severe cases, the abatement can go as high as $20,000, he added.
The demolition itself costs about $12,000 for a 1,200 square-foot house. A lien is placed on the property to allow the city to recoup the loss if the property is ever sold.
And while there are 84 structures on the city’s demolition list, only 73 of them are anticipated to be demolished, Wilson said. Work on 11 other buildings is being done to bring them into compliance with the city code.
Despite Jaiyeoba’s request for a delay, council members didn’t want to wait to get started. So they voted to spend $500,000 to demolish 35 houses that are the most concerning.
“This is a critical situation,” said Councilwoman Tammi Thurm, whose District 5 encompasses the western part of the city. “It’s a matter of safety, public safety.”
And while she voted for the $500,000, Hightower said more discussion is needed.
“I don’t want this to lead to a whole lot of pockets of empty lots,” she said, “with no ability to rebuild in those spaces without having some discussion around what that will entail.”
However, 74-year-old Gladys Jackson, said an empty lot would be better than the decrepit house she sees from her front windows.
A large tree fell on the vacant house at 2105 Maywood St. about two years ago, she said, “and it’s been like that ever since.”
The lot attracts illegal dumping, too. “There’s a lot of people putting trash in the yard,” she said.
The issue affects the city’s Black and Hispanic neighborhoods much more than white neighborhoods, according to Director of Neighborhood Development Michelle Kennedy.
“So if you talk about issues of, for example, racial equity, it’s clear where this issue lives in our community,” she said.
Claire Newman, a dog walker who traverses the Southside neighborhood several times a week, said it’s time the city did something about the house on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
“It is interesting that they kind of allowed it to get to this point where now it’s not only burned in the back, but the front is falling apart and the windows are broken,” Newman said. “It kind of looks creepy.
“You could use this property for so much more.”
The loss of the old mansion saddens Noel Hart, who lives downtown on Elm Street.
“I don’t like to see history torn down,” she said. “You don’t see houses like this much anymore.”
And though he agrees with demolishing the building, even if the property remains a vacant lot, Butler also finds the situation sad.
“It’s too bad because it looks like it was a beautiful house at some point in time.”
Contact Kenwyn Caranna at 336-373-7082 and follow @kcaranna on Twitter.