Isaac White Sr. knows exactly where the old state DMV headquarters used to be. It’s just a few blocks away from his longtime home in the Battery Heights neighborhood of Southeast Raleigh. 

Today, the roughly six-acre property located at the corner of South Tarboro Street and New Bern Avenue is still home to an old, squat brick building, with a fading sign reading “N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.” But the facility is clearly deserted, with an empty parking lot that has weeds growing through the cracks in the pavement. 

It’s a remnant of the neighborhood’s powerful past, like many places in Battery Heights. As rich Raleighites move east and developers replace old one-story houses with $800,000 mini-mansions, residents in the historically Black neighborhood are struggling to hold on to their homes. 

“Everywhere, things are getting more expensive,” White says. “[It’s] the gentrification. How [people] come in where they wouldn’t used to come in. That’s fine, now you’re desiring to live here, but my taxes double and triple.” 

Property taxes aren’t the only costs going up in Southeast Raleigh. Basic commodities like gas and groceries are also more expensive, according to White. And it’s not just economics. White can see his community changing around him—his neighbors aren’t the same. His friends are being forced out. 

“We worked hard to get over here,” White says. “Now you’re going to punish us? I love where I live at. I plan on living there until the Lord take me home. But I’m saying don’t penalize me and tax me to death.”

For White and other Southeast Raleigh residents, the state-owned plot of land off New Bern Avenue represents a huge opportunity. For years, Raleigh mayor pro tem Corey Branch and other city council members have been talking with state officials about buying the property. Earlier this month, the city filed a $20 million bid. The North Carolina Council of State approved it. There are still a few more hoops to jump through, but the city will likely finalize the purchase soon. 

This is important because large plots of land near downtown Raleigh rarely come up for sale, and when they do, there’s extremely high demand from developers, many of whom propose building 20-story apartment buildings or dense townhome neighborhoods to take advantage of Raleigh’s booming real estate market. The city’s purchase of the land means it can control what to do with it instead of leaving it to the whims of the private market. 

Raleigh’s bid has raised a powerful, fragile hope among residents who want to see the property used for something good, a project that will help the community, such as low-income housing or a local grocery store (or both).

“A place where my kids can afford to live in [zip code] 27610. That’s what I would love to see,” says White. “The majority of people I know now, [they’re] having to go to Knightdale, Wendell, Clayton, Johnston County … because they can’t afford to be in that area. I understand we can’t go back, but we can recognize what’s going on here now.”

A short walk away, at Martin Street Baptist Church, Dr. Shawn Singleton says he’d like to see a business in the area, like a Lowes Foods or Sheetz gas station. The Village District, for example, has stores that attract people and incentivize them to spend money locally, he says. Why not replicate that in Southeast Raleigh? 

“One of the things that is lacking in the community is something that allows people to spend their dollars in their community,” Singleton says. “In order for people in that community to go grocery shopping, they have to relocate and go somewhere else.”

Singleton and other church leaders will likely have a large voice in the project since the church owns about 3.3 acres of property across the street from the old DMV headquarters. Before the DMV’s move to Rocky Mount in 2020—back when it employed hundreds of local residents—the church leased much of its property to the state for employee parking. 

Dr. Shawn Singleton, pastor of Martin Street Baptist Church Credit: Brett Villena

Branch, who represents many Southeast Raleigh residents in District C, says he’s already in conversation with church leaders who will help determine the future of the site. After the city officially purchases the property, the next step will be to hold conversations with the community to see what they want to be built, Branch says. 

“Right now, I think we’re at a point of ‘Let’s put everything on the table,’” he says. “Let’s have a more meaningful conversation with the community and then go from there and see how we’re going to pay for what is built.” 

There are some “key stakeholders” in the area the city wants to hear from, Branch says, like the local Wake County library and State Employees’ Credit Union. He adds that the city could potentially partner with these or other nearby organizations—such as WakeMed, Wake Tech, or Saint Augustine’s University—to provide more medical care, job training, or education opportunities. 

When Branch looks at the property, he sees a mixed-use development, he says: land that could be home to a combination of housing, retail, and office or institutional space. 

“[The community needs] a grocery store. A place for business owners to operate … even doctor’s offices, attorney’s offices. Things that people need for their day-to-day life,” Branch says. “I mentioned the library. That [gives] access to a place to meet. And then there’s housing, looking at housing challenges and needs. So definitely something mixed-use is needed there.”

The project will likely be built in phases, with construction two to three years away, Branch says. Before shovels break ground, the city has to decide what it wants built on the site and send out a request for proposal (RFP) to developers and other organizations. 

RFPs are essentially challenges to see who can come up with the best and most cost-effective plan for the city. The city council gives applicants guidelines—that the project should include a certain amount of affordable housing, for example. Applicants then submit proposals that the city council selects. This process also often determines how a project will be paid for—a business partnership between the city and a developer or contractor, for instance, could influence how the property is used. 

Overall, the project could be a “game changer,” Branch says. When the DMV headquarters first moved out of the area, locals lost more than 300 jobs that were “vital to our community,” he says. Now, the city has the potential to build something equally impactful. 

“We’re doing Bus Rapid Transit right here on this corridor,” Branch says. “So when we look at Bus Rapid Transit and the opportunity for jobs as well as housing, that’s why I was like, ‘Hey, it’s good that we own it.’ One thing I’ve always said to individuals is that she or he who owns the dirt controls what happens to it.”

If the city does the right thing, Singleton says, its development of the property could make a “huge difference.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t see that happening. 

“I have no optimism at all,” he says. “That doesn’t sound good coming from a pastor. But look at the way things are trending. The city may be buying the property right now, but who influence[s] what the city does with the property will tell the story. And I believe who is going to really influence what the city does with this property are the other stakeholders in the rapid transit expansion.”

The city’s plan for building new Bus Rapid Transit lines includes a route on New Bern Avenue, which makes the property even more valuable to city officials and developers alike. 

“If you look at those plans and how they’re designing the New Bern Avenue corridor, that new design does not fit with attracting low-income families,” says Singleton. “I’ve seen it. I’ve been to the meetings and I said … ‘This doesn’t look like you’re trying to designate a portion of whatever housing gets put here for low-income.’”

Singleton, like some other Raleighites, suspects the land will become fancy new apartments or other homes or businesses that are unaffordable for existing residents. People know that the property is a great opportunity for the community but don’t seem to trust the city council with its future. 

“I understand that the city [is] saying they want to get it before developers,” says White. “And [Raleigh mayor] Mary-Ann Baldwin, she talks a [good] game about affordable housing, but that’s a catch-all. What does that really mean? Affordable to who?”

The city has already faced criticism from residents over its plans for another valuable piece of property—about three acres of land located around Moore Square. Last year, after asking for RFPs, the city decided on a proposal from Loden Properties, a major developer with projects across Raleigh, including the Target on Hillsborough Street. 

Plans for the Moore Square land include an apartment complex with more than 500 units, at least 160 of which would be rented below market rates as affordable housing. The complex will also include a grocery store, and Loden Properties has pledged to build a new, permanent building for Raleigh Rescue Mission on the site. Nearby, the developer plans to build a 160-room “boutique” hotel and coworking space. 

Housing advocates say the plans don’t do enough to create more affordable housing for the people who really need it, especially those who are making less than 30 percent of the area’s annual median income, about $117,000 for a family of four in Raleigh. City officials, on the other hand, said they were impressed with the amount of affordable apartments included in the proposal and appreciated the inclusion of a new building for Raleigh Rescue Mission, which works to end homelessness. 

When it comes to this project, Branch says the next steps are still being formalized but that “the community will be engaged while looking at ways to pay for the development.” How seriously the city takes the community’s input is yet to be determined.

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