With little improvement since it was bought in 2017, aldermen are desperate to save the historic building before it has to be condemned, torn down
Gibsonville’s board of aldermen will look into a second buyer for the old Gibsonville Elementary School after the current developers’ progress on the property was shown to be minimal, even after a 90-day extension from the town in September.
The report on the building’s status as of December 1, the town-mandated 90-day deadline for the property’s owners to make substantial safety improvements, was given by code enforcement officer Dennis Pinnix, who ultimately told the board that he “just doesn’t have any confidence that [the owners] are going to do what they say they’re going to do.”
The owners, Alireza “Alex” Shahrak and Lily Yang Shahrak, bought the old school site for $15,000 from Preservation North Carolina in December 2017. At the beginning of January this year, the board had the Shahraks appear at town hall for the first time to explain why the school appeared as decrepit as it had two years prior.
Story continues below photos.
What has followed appears to be a series of alleged hurdles that have led to the developers making little progress on the site, which has crumbling walls and roofing that, according to an evaluation by the town’s police chief in January, pose a safety risk for residents.
Some of the apparent setbacks have included contractors backing out of the project; the pandemic; the Chinese-American trade war; inclement weather; and, most recently, a lack of a generator.
Still, during his presentation to the board, Pinnix pointed to a glimmer of hope for the Shahraks. The duo is in the midst of negotiating a possible contract with Kevin Mangum of Raleigh-based Mangum Design-Build, whom Pinnix described as a “guy who knows what he’s talking about.”
“He definitely has the capabilities of coming in and securing these walls, stabilizing these walls,” he assured the board on Monday.
However, Pinnix added, a phone conversation indicated that Mangum is hesitant about taking on the Shahraks’ project.
“He’s really not on their team yet at this point,” the code enforcement officer said. “If they could get him on their team, they’d have an ace in the hole, because he knows what he’s doing.”
Mangum is, according to Lily, one of over 50 contractors that she and Alireza have contacted, with few being “finalized.”
“What we’re doing is trying to alleviate any health or safety hazard that the building is causing the citizens of Gibsonville right now. That’s our first priority: to keep our citizens safe.”
– Dennis Pinnix, Town of Gibsonville code enforcement officer
“What we’re doing is trying to alleviate any health or safety hazard that the building is causing the citizens of Gibsonville right now,” Pinnix said. “That’s our first priority: to keep our citizens safe.”
The board’s own hope appeared to lie in what the code enforcement officer described as a second, unnamed prospective buyer for the property. During a recent discussion with a town planner, Preservation N.C. representative Cathleen Turner, who has been the organization’s liaison to the Shahraks, said that the buyer had shown interest in the site if the Shahraks failed to move forward on the project.
“We want to end up with someone who’s capable of moving forward in a short period of time,” Pinnix said. “We don’t want this dragging out for three [more] years after it has in these last three.”
“We want to end up with someone who’s capable of moving forward in a short period of time. We don’t want this dragging out for three [more] years after it has in these last three.”
– Gibsonville code enforcement officer Dennis Pinnix
The code enforcement officer ultimately floated four suggestions for how to move forward on the property: offering the Shahraks another extension; contacting Turner to learn more about the second buyer; demolishing the school; or having the town pay to stabilize the site and placing a lien on the property to recoup its costs.
Drawn to the prospect of a new owner, the aldermen unanimously decided that Pinnix should contact Preservation N.C. and investigate the other buyer, returning to the board with findings at their meeting next month. In the meantime, he said, the process would give the Shahraks an additional 30 days to make improvements to the school.
The additional month didn’t receive a satisfied response from the developers, who initially asked that the town give a six-month, then three-month, extension.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Pinnix told the board. “To someone that’s taken three years to get to this point, six months is not going to be enough. In six months, you’re going to end up exactly where you are right now.
“You need some kind of concrete plan from someone who knows what they’re doing,” he added.
Lily’s request for another six months also frustrated mayor Lenny Williams, who told Lily, “Every time you come, you come with some other idea about what you’re going to do, and then you don’t do anything. So, I don’t know why the town would want to give you any extension.”
Developer says that school fell to wayside due to “so many” other projects
Defending her and Alireza’s lack of progress on the site, Lily told the board that the school site fell to a low priority over the past three years due to “so many projects” that they had in the works elsewhere.
Still, the only other project that the Shahraks have specifically referred to over the past year has been an apartment building at 602 Henry Street in Eden. That site, which was already an apartment building before the Shahraks purchased it in August 2019 with the intention of turning it into senior apartments, has only one record of a building permit since that time: the addition of a gas line to the building’s laundry room on October 31, 2019.
In a phone interview with The Alamance News last week, Eden’s chief codes inspector Bob Vincent told the newspaper that unless cosmetic improvements were underway inside the building, he was unaware of any progress.
Alderman revokes his second after developer reveals ‘an attitude problem’
Having initially seconded mayor pro tem Mark Shepherd’s motion to give the Shahraks another month as Pinnix investigates the second buyer, alderman Clarence Owen later revoked his second after a disagreement between Alireza and the mayor led Owen to say that the developer had “an attitude problem.”
Alireza approached the podium after Lily to say that, in a month’s time, the duo would have the building secured, which should in turn convince the town to give them another two months to “start building.”
“If the safety issue is out of the question, then city [town] have no problem to wait three months more,” he said.
“It’s an eyesore sitting out there for people who own homes out there.”
– Gibsonville mayor lenny williams
“It’s an eyesore sitting out there for people who own homes out there,” the mayor retorted.
“Their issue is also the safety,” Alireza countered. “Otherwise, this building has been sitting there for 15-20 years before we even purchased it. The reason it has been sitting and city [town] didn’t complain — nobody complained — is because there was no safety issue. Now, all of this only come up because of safety.”
After two months, he said, the building would be “perfectly safe and secure.”
“I wish I believed that, but I don’t,” Williams said.
“That’s fine,” the developer told the mayor. “You don’t have to believe it. That’s my opinion.”
After Owen withdrew his second, alderman Yvonne Maizland gave a second of her own, allowing the board to vote to have Pinnix begin his investigation.
Developers owe over $9k in property taxes on school site — again
As of this week, the Shahraks owed over $9,000 in property taxes due this fall, having owed around the same amount earlier this year before the delinquent taxes were paid.
Additionally, the address for EOG-HR, Lily’s limited liability company which manages the school property, has long been marked on secretary of state filings as 5710 Six Forks Road, Suite 201, in Raleigh. The address, town manager Ben Baxley told the newspaper last week, is also where mail from town staff to the developers is sent.
That address, however, has been claimed by Authentic Restoration, with a representative of the roofing contractor verifying last week the business at that location.