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Mickey Garcia is restoring the 1895 Victorian at 106 Brewer Ave. in Suffolk, which had been turned into a duplex.
Residents renovate
old Suffolk homes
Historic districts and tax credits make it easier to change seasoned neighborhoods from run-down to restored.


SUFFOLK - A gleaming sign encased in brick just south of Suffolk's downtown business district announces that you've just entered Hall Place. Established 1909.
It took seven years of nudging and pleading with government officials to build the sign, but persistent Hall Place residents are proud of it. They hope it reminds people that Hall Place, once home to Planters Peanuts executives, has a history and isn't just a neighborhood of old homes chopped up into apartments.
The sign was put up last month at a time when more and more people in Suffolk are looking to take advantage of historic district status and the tax credits that come with that designation. Hall Place residents are considering applying for historic status. It would be the city's third district.
While officials continue work on major downtown projects - the Hilton Garden Inn hotel and The Fairgrounds, a 150-home new neighborhood near the Planters factory - those corner-stone revitalization efforts remain surrounded by older homes in widely varying stages of upkeep.
Many of the old homes still serve as low- and moderate-income rental housing. Some city officials worry about revitalization displacing renters, but others say those rental units are only holding downtown back.
"What we're shooting for is what a lot of communities want: a resurgence back to single-family homes," said Baker Parker, who lives on South Main Street in the Hall Place home he grew up in. His great-uncle Homer Brinkley built it around 1920.
Few Suffolk neighborhoods have been as fully restored or preserved in the same way as Newport News' Hilton Village, Hampton's Old Wythe or the village area of Yorktown. But from his front porch, Parker can see several homes, among run-down rentals, that have been bought and restored in the past year. Those homeowners intend to stay, he said.

Revitalization may displace renters
"We've got a real nucleus for positive change," Parker said.
Statistics show that the resurgence Parker wants is happening, and it is picking up pace. The city's Historic Landmarks Commission has approved more permits for restoration work and major projects in historic areas every year since 2000. The commission approved 32 major renovation projects last year and 78 projects overall. In 2000, it approved only eight major projects and 29 overall.
State and national historic officials have expanded Suffolk's two historic districts several times in recent years, giving more homes the prestigious stamp of being on a historic register and making it possible for people to earn tax credits by fixing them up. In turn, more entrepreneurs are buying homes and flipping them - doing a quick fix-up and then selling them for a profit.
The work also provokes a question about what will happen to the people living in Suffolk's older rental homes.
Cindy Taylor, assistant planning director, said the city has tweaked zoning rules and
Planned for affordable housing in The Fairgrounds to provide new places to rent. The city changed rules on the number of apartments or homes allowed on an acre downtown, making it easier to fit more rental units in down-town buildings, Taylor said.
The topic surfaced this week at the Suffolk City Council's annual retreat. Ray Gindros, a consultant with Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates, said restoring rental housing to single-family homes is vital to turning things around downtown. In key areas, such as the neighbor-hood around the former East Suffolk High School, which will be converted to a cultural center, the surrounding housing must improve for the project to succeed, Gindros said.
Several council members agreed but said the city needs to directly address the issue of displaced renters.
Mickey Garcia is renovating the house at 106 Brewer Ave. It is his 27th planned for affordable housing in restoration in downtown Suffolk.

"I think we have to have a solution before we start so people don't get in an uproar," said Councilman Charles F. Brown.
Rentals are not allowed by zoning in Suffolk's historic districts, but they are allowed under a grandfather clause. Taylor and others think the shift away from rental-dominated neighborhoods will come as the housing market lures buyers interested in restored older homes. To a degree, that's already happening.
On Friday morning, work crews swarmed 106 Brewer Ave., an 1895 Victorian that after about two months will be the 27th old home that Mickey Garcia, owner of Garcia Development, has restored in downtown Suffolk.
Ernest and Sandy Hefferon's home at 512 W. Washington St. is in one of Suffolk's historic districts. It was renovated by Mickey Garcia.

Garcia bought it about two weeks ago, and workers gutted the interior and tore off the exterior vinyl siding. Walls that separated the nearly 3,500-square-foot home into a duplex rental came down. The property is assessed at about $60,000, Garcia said, but after he's done he hopes to sell it for about $315,000.
Almost every house that Garcia has restored was a rental when he bought it. After working extensively in Hampton's and Portsmouth's now-revived older neighborhoods, Garcia said restoring block after block of older homes is the most important piece of Suffolk's tricky revitalization puzzle.
"It's the three-blocks-back rule," he said. "Main Street takes care of itself, once you get things going. But if people don't feel safe three blocks back, they won't come down there. And the housing makes the difference."
Suffolk's historic homes offer a quality of old craftsmanship that Garcia admires and enjoys restoring. And the homes in historic districts offer the potential for tax credits that make the work profitable. With that combination, Garcia doesn't see him-self working elsewhere any time soon.
"I'll be in Suffolk for a while," he said. "Suffolk's in transition. It's the place to be."