Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Prospect Hill

GANA Speaker Series
Bill Sturbaum
Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association

8:00 – 9:00 p.m. April 26, 2006 (after our monthly meeting, see meeting report)

Bill, who moved to Prospect Hill in 1964, inspired us with his story of how Prospect Hill evolved into a vital, flourishing, highly-sought-after neighborhood.

The Process
Bill began by passing around a photo of a pretentious two-story house on a tiny lot amidst modest bungalows. His neighborhood, Bill says, faces this very real possibility right now, and the outcome of the current situation in Prospect Hill may set a precedent for all of Bloomington.

The background
A house was sold to someone who wanted to demolish the house according to a plan that would have a new house in character with the existing neighborhood. Then it was sold to another owner who wants a new plan with a 70-foot-long, two-story house on a block where all the existing houses are one-story. In order to do this he will need a variance. Prospect Hill has invited the new owner to meet with them, and on the basis of what happens at that meeting will decide to support or fight this project. In any case, they will all converge at the next Board of Zoning Appeals Meeting on May 18th where a decision will be made.

Besides the precedent-setting character of this situation, Bill wanted to emphasize that his neighborhood is quite familiar with and used to the idea of working with city officials—the Mayor’s office, City Council, HAND, to the Board of Zoning Appeals, the Traffic Commission, the Planning Office—whichever office appropriate for whatever they need done. Given their experiences over the past 20 years, they “have a lot of confidence” he said, that they can make things happen when they work with the city. And by the way, he added, we need to realize that we are very fortunate to live Bloomington where the city government is so very responsive.

In this and every issue that comes up, Prospect Hill proceeds as follows: the executive committee meets, comes up with two or three suggested solutions to the problem at hand, and then gives it to the whole group to debate, with whoever serves as a facilitator taking no position on the issue. One of those suggestions may be taken, or some other solution entirely may emerge. They follow Roberts Rules of Order, and “in a gentle way, keep to the topic.” If an issue continues to be contentious, they table it for later.

Prospect Hill got going in 1987, in response to a mayoralty campaign in which one candidate wanted to put an east-west corridor through 3rd St. They discovered that if they could get their neighborhood designated “historic,” then there would have to be a study before the government released the money. This indirect approach to the problem at hand proved successful. In three years they had gotten national, state, and finally, local designation as a “historic district.”

There used to be 500 semi-trucks a day going up Prospect Hill, (loaded with TVs from Mexico!). In order to get that stopped, they had the ingenuity to measure the decibels which, it turned out, were equivalent to an airplane taking off! So they just took that fact to the city and got the truck traffic stopped

Many times now, Bill has bought and rehabbed old houses—seventeen in all—“never,” he says, “with the intent of making money, but of changing the neighborhood.” He bought the first house with a credit line from his own home, and just kept going. He rents the houses until he finds a renter that he wants to sell to, and at times has offered the house to them at below the appraised value and/or carried the contract on the mortgage himself. Through the years, he says, he has “come out even” financially in these neighborhood-enhancing ventures.

After the original three-year push to form an “historic district,” Prospect Hill residents realized that they had learned to work together. Meanwhile, other people got wind that something special was going on in Prospect Hill and wanted into the neighborhood. (Plus, at that time, big old houses there could be had for very little money.) Their neighborhood association is now 20 years old, and keeps a waiting list of people who want to buy into the neighborhood. They are organized into “block captains,” who, among other things, keep track of when a home owner is going to leave town, and report in at every meeting. They call and ask the seller to hook up to a willing buyer before the realtors can list it, thus saving both seller and buyer realtor fees.

Bill suggests that in order to begin to do the same thing in Green Acres, we need to think of money “as a tool, not and end.”

“For any vacancy,” he says, “find out who the owner is, and then offer a three to six month option (for $500 to $1500). During that time, take care of the property, paint and clean it up, and then sell it to a new home owner.” And, he adds, “if an owner doesn’t appear in that time, then buy it!”—since you can deduct the interest on the mortgage, plus insurance, depreciation, and any repairs. He suggests these three ways of getting capital: 1) Bloomington Restoration—BRI will lend money interest-free for six months (beyond that, you must pay interest and have the loan paid back in three years); 2) Investment Groups: these invest in contracts and will lend money— find or form one of your own; 3) a home equity loan on your home; and finally, 4) refinancing your home.

Many of the Prospect Hill homes have front porches, which fosters neighborliness, and many of the blocks are very narrow, through which cars must move slowly. This neighborhood is also close to downtown, another drawing card.

Over the years, Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association has moved reached out to the streets with tiny houses that were not part of the original Victorian milieu, and their email list (it used to be a snail mail newsletter) goes out to hundreds of people. Like Green Acres, Prospect Hill also includes about 400 homes.

Both Bill Sturbaum’s long-time vision of Prospect Hill as a caring, close-knit neighborhood and his courtly, gracious manner has, no doubt, helped ease their way forward through any number of difficult issues. We thank him for giving us so much food for thought as we ponder how to help Green Acres Neighborhood Association grow into its own unique maturity as a model of urban sustainability.

Ann Kreilkamp

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