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Katrina with a Wrecking Ball?

Residents of Morningside Apartments are anxious over proposed demolition

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William Perry couldn't be accused of sugarcoating his feelings about the proposed demolition of Morningside Apartments. "For me," the 75-year-old resident says slowly, "having to find another place to live would be just like a man-made Katrina."

Exaggerated as his comment may sound, people living in the 56-year-old complex just south of Central Avenue in the Morningside-Commonwealth area are grappling with the likelihood that their residency has an expiration date. Owners of the apartments hope to sell to Atlanta developer Tom Graham, who wants to replace the complex with a mixture of condos, single-family bungalows and possibly some shops.

Homeowners surrounding the complex are generally pleased with the proposal. "It's a good development; it's a good developer," says Cheryl Miller, president of the Morningside-Commonwealth Neighborhood Association. "The only bad part about it is, it's going to be a big change for our neighborhood."

Renters in Morningside Apartments are less sanguine. Some of them have circulated petitions, written letters to the mayor and even launched an unsuccessful campaign to have the complex declared a historic landmark -- all in a last-ditch effort to keep their homes.

"It's going to be hard for me," says Miguel Alvarez, 41, who has lived in the complex for the past 11 years. "I like to be over here."

The conflict is yet another sign of change in the area surrounding Central Avenue, where chichi boutiques share blocks with check-cashing joints and Saab-driving professionals coexist with hip bohemians and bus-taking immigrants. Relatively cheap rents can be found in the area's many apartment complexes, but the prices of homes continue to rise.

The development that could replace Morningside is likely to increase property values. Condo prices will probably start at about $150,000, with much higher price tags not uncommon -- far out of reach for the average renter at Morningside. "I'd be naïve to say it's not going to gentrify the area, because it will," Miller says.

Morningside Apartments was built in 1949 and 1950 to ease the housing shortage that followed World War II, according to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission report. In its early days, Morningside attracted World War II veterans, bachelors and widows. These days, it houses a mix of people -- different races, backgrounds and education levels. A notable contingent of Sudanese and Bosnian immigrants live in the complex. It's a relatively safe home at a good price: one-bedrooms rent for as little as $350.

"They're not going to be able to afford something in a decent neighborhood for that price," says Elizabeth Stafford, a frustrated former Morningside resident. "They're all going to have to go to the ghetto."

Developers have expressed interest in helping people find new homes. Where will they go? Apartment complexes less than a mile to the east have vacancies, but several people express fear that those places aren't in as safe an area.

Perry, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam who lives on Social Security, scoffs at the changes afoot in his working-class neighborhood. "I'm being pushed out of my home, and these people want to make shops and everything," he says. "They want to make a showcase."

He pauses for the right words. "It's like putting vanilla icing on a bran muffin," he says finally.

Perry was one of a handful of residents who appeared in recent months before the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. The commission studied the history of the apartments, eventually agreeing the buildings had some historic features. But because the owners opposed designating the complex a historical landmark, and studies found that Charlotte has other examples of such housing, the commission turned down the request.

Rennie Biggers, a co-owner of Morningside who lives less than two miles from the complex, says the commission made the right decision. "It's no more historic than my house is historic," he says.

Biggers has walked the neighborhood and polled homeowners: "I feel kind of bad about people that won't be able to live there, but I think in the long range, it's going to help the neighborhood."

Biggers and the other owners had wanted to sell Morningside for years. Then, late last year, Graham and Rob Pressley, president of Coldwell Banker Commercial MECA, met with neighborhood leaders to discuss their intent to buy the property. The development could involve as many as 1,200 residential units, according to a site plan submitted to the city. Morningside, by contrast, now has about 300 units.

Neighborhood association members have been cautiously supportive, says Miller, who's lived in the area for almost 12 years. She says if the apartments aren't torn down, they'll need a lot of repairs -- a cost that likely would be passed along to tenants. Also, the situation could be much worse, she says. "It's 35 acres. They could come in and put a Target in there. Instead, this is something that's pretty darn positive, and we get something out of it," she says, citing proposed improvements to Veterans Park.

"I'd just as soon [Morningside] stay around, but you have to know that somebody's going to come in there and develop that property, and you want to support the right development that's going to go in there," she says.

When Miller moved to the area in 1995, houses had just been demolished along Independence Boulevard to make way for the freeway. Since then, property values have risen. The post office on Thomas Avenue became Thomas Street Tavern. The Penguin came back to life, and the Harris Teeter was remodeled.

Residents of Morningside Apartments likely won't have to find new homes for at least a year.

"I think it's a shame," says Margaret Hanna, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, her first two at Morningside. "People can't afford the price of houses and apartments these days."

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