Monday, June 29, 2009

Preservation News, June 29, 2009

Inman Park Properties implosion puts neighborhood landmarks in limbo

Creative Loafing

June 26, 2009 at 7:54 pm by Scott Henry in News

Very little has changed about the Clermont Hotel — or its time-capsule strip club — since Atlanta real-estate mogul Jeff Notrica took over the Ponce de Leon landmark six years ago.

Much as he promised when he bought the 85-year-old building, Notrica resisted the developer’s temptation to chop it up into condos or turn it into modern apartments. Downstairs, the storied Clermont Lounge was left untouched and remains its gloriously seedy self.

But it may be this same hands-off approach that Notrica has taken with the Clermont and many of his other properties — a land baron’s acquisitiveness tempered by a collector’s appreciation for each new bauble — that has helped bring his intown real-estate empire crashing down.

Unless a deal is struck between Notrica’s Inman Park Properties and New York-based lender Fairway Capital — or unless a deep-pocketed buyer steps forward — the Clermont Hotel and its lounge will be auctioned off on the courthouse steps July 2.

If that happens, it will be only the latest, if largest, in a long series of foreclosures suffered by Inman Park Properties over the past three months. The company’s apparent meltdown has involved some of the most recognizable and beloved buildings in East Atlanta, Little Five Points, Poncey-Highlands and Midtown Atlanta.

A five-minute drive south on Moreland Avenue will take you past the Wrecking Bar mansion, the old Gordon Elementary School and a former bank building whose modernistic design gives you an idea of what might result if the High Museum mated with a giant spider. All three have sat vacant and decaying for years and all three were, until recently, owned by Notrica.

And there are other, even more historic landmarks still in the Inman Park Properties portfolio that local preservationists are eyeing with renewed concern: the former Ansley Inn, the 1907 Tudor mansion built by menswear magnate George Muse; the Antebellum-style Craigie House across from Piedmont Park that was home to the nation’s second-oldest D.A.R. chapter; and, most significantly, the “Castle,” the sprawling post-Victorian house that sits atop a stone wall overlooking the Woodruff Arts Center.

While many community activists are thrilled to see Notrica lose control of properties that had been allowed to rot, Boyd Coons, longtime director of the Atlanta Preservation Center, is ambivalent.
“His buildings may have been in terrible condition, but at least they were still there,” Coons said. “We now have real fears about what’s going to happen with all these properties.”

Coons first became aware of Inman Park Properties several years back the same way most Atlantans did: by seeing its “For lease” signs pop up in front of architecturally interesting buildings around town — and then remain there, sometimes for years.

The company quickly gained a reputation for seeking out old, unusual or landmark properties, but Notrica himself remained largely a mystery. Described as shy and withdrawn by business associates, he rarely speaks to the press and usually avoids talking about himself. He did not return repeated calls for this article.

But acquaintances and former employees provide glimpses of an unconventional businessman who defied the stereotype of the rapacious developer. A native Atlantan, Notrica didn’t come from wealth; his father owned a small Old Fourth Ward grocery store. Instead, Notrica made his first real money dealing in rare coins. According to his company’s website, he got started in development in the mid-’80s by rehabbing and selling houses in Inman Park and Candler Park.

Within a decade, he’d begun stockpiling unusual and historic properties in Atlanta’s trendiest neighborhoods and in downtown Savannah. Some he redeveloped and leased; others collected weeds, despite his repeated pledges to restore them. Notrica seldom seemed interested in selling an empty building or vacant lot simply because it wasn’t generating income.

It was Notrica who tried to bring the Cotton Club music venue to his 1940s-era Hilan Theatre in Virginia-Highland in the late ’90s, an effort that was defeated by neighborhood nay-sayers. He later renovated the space, located behind the Ben & Jerry’s, for use as an event facility, but it remains unoccupied. Last month, the building narrowly avoided foreclosure.

And Inman Park Properties was targeted by the Atlanta Preservation Center when it compiled its annual “Most Endangered Historic Places” list. In 2003, the APC listed the saucer-shaped Trust Company Bank building at Monroe Drive next to the I-85 overpass and the 100-year-old Fire Station No. 11 next to the North Avenue MARTA station. Both were then owned by Notrica and had been vacant for several years. They now house Eros Tapas Bar and Engine 11 Firehouse Tavern, respectively. Notrica lost the Trust Company building in foreclosure in March.

Still, Coons took a risk a few years ago and invited Notrica to join the APC board.

“That was controversial among our members, but we were trying to reach out to someone controlled a large number of historic properties,” explains Coons, who says he quickly realized Notrica wasn’t the typical developer.

“Notrica told me he had an affinity for old buildings, which really surprised me because that’s not what I’m used to hearing from developers,” he says.

“Jeff’s gotten a lot of criticism — and it may be deserved — because he buys historic buildings and lets them deteriorate,” Coons adds. “But the status quo among many developers is to buy an old building and then level it. He’s a real dichotomy.”

(Photo by Tara-Lynn Pixley)

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