Sunday, September 25, 2011

When the risk-takers run out of risks

That house on Camilla Drive is finally off the market.

You may have seen it driving through South Charlotte – or in an Observer column I wrote late last year. It’s a six-bedroom, seven-bathroom, 6,977-square-foot palace near South Park, a home that has a little Charleston, a little Dilworth, and a lot of made-you-look going on.

It is, depending on your perspective, a spectacularly unusual house in a city where even the mansions are afflicted with sameness – or it’s a self-indulgent castle unwisely plunked in a neighborhood of smaller and plainer 1970s and 80s homes.

This much we know: 4823 Camilla Drive was on the market for more than eight years, longer than any home that Realtors across Charlotte could recall. Most told us they couldn’t think of another home that came close to hanging on the rack that long.

But now the house has occupants, who have signed a lease-purchase agreement allowing them to pay monthly rent that goes toward a purchase down the road, if they decide they want to own. So although the house is off the market, it technically has not been sold.

Which means it can torment its owner a little while longer.

“Nothing about this house,” says Eric Markel, “has been easy.”

You might remember Markel. He is the cocky president of a New York property management company who moved to Charlotte 13 years ago. He decided to build a few luxury homes here, none more extravagant than Camilla, but he chose to put that house in a neighborhood with properties worth a fifth of his home’s $2.45 million asking price.

It was a bold choice in a city where boldness usually paid off handsomely. But although people were dazzled by 4823 Camilla when it hit the market in 2003, no one bought it. Then, the recession arrived.

By the time he gave me a tour last December, he was understandably miffed. Along with touting the Brazilian hardwood on the deck and the custom cherry kitchen cabinets, he had some less-than-laudatory things to say about real estate agents and Charlotte in general.

“People don’t understand it,” he said of 4823 Camilla.

And: “They’re living in their own little Charlotte world.”

Charlotte, as you might imagine, had some suggestions on what Markel might do with those Brazilian planks.

Markel laughs now at the comments – his and other’s – although he still thinks Charlotte didn’t fully appreciate his creation. He does, however, have this to say about his homebuilding career: “It’s done.”

That would be a shame, because even if it comes bundled in brashness, Markel has a point about Camilla and Charlotte. When he built the house eight years ago, our city was beginning to do things out of the ordinary architecturally. Markel saw Camilla as the antithesis of the new luxury homes that populated Charlotte, the brick mansions with all the same bells and whistles that builders knew would attract buyers.

Charlotte has historically been much like those builders – checking off all the amenities that newcomers might like. We’re clean and pretty, and we have museums and pro teams, all of which is why people like Eric Markel came here and stayed.

That’s helped us thrive enough that something special was beginning: We were accommodating the uncommon, the independent businesses and funkier neighborhoods that give a city more texture and soul.

Then the economy squeezed most everything, including Markel, who’s doing fine now, in case you’re wondering. He’s made enough money elsewhere to survive the financial blows, but he says: “I can only imagine the bigger guys that really got hit.”

He believes prosperity will return here, and he’s already seeing glimpses of it in small ways – busier nights at restaurants and the mall. Bigger investment will come, he says, for all the reasons Charlotte thrived before.

But the risk-takers, the people who wanted to build one unusual house, open one unusual business? Those are the ones who have the least amount of resources – and the least amount of will – to risk it all again. In some ways, with our biggest businesses among our most uncertain, the smallest are the ones we need more than ever.

Maybe so, Eric Markel says, although it won’t be him. “My day has passed,” he says.

Then he pauses.

“But,” he says, “human beings have short memories.”

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Peter, I like that Charlotte is clean and pretty. I don't think Charlotte will ever be known for a funky vibe like some parts of San Francisco, a city where I lived for many years and still travel to regularly for business.

In fact, people come to Charlotte precisely because it is clean and pretty. If they the funky vibe of city streets used as a toilet they'll go to San Francisco.

The recent Businessweek ranking of cities named Raleigh the best city in the country (we were #20 on that list of 50.) What I saw lauded about Raleigh was a place for people to live comfortably and affordably while being surrounded by the Triangle universities and brain power those schools attract and spin off.

I didn't see a funky vibe lauded, maybe because Raleigh doesn't have one.

Charlotte does not need to try to replicate San Francisco's Mission district. Charlotte should pour everything into UNCC and other educational institutions. The brains thereby attracted will provide all the quirkiness we need, thank you.

In reality, the longing for a funky vibe where none exists just becomes another check-off on a list of civic to-dos.

Anonymous said...

I should add a few other things:

I am thrilled that we have so many different culture in Charlotte. I suspect our newcomers like that Charlotte is clean and pretty, too.


Eric Markel didn't take a risk; he made a mistake. There is nothing wrong with the house except the location, a huge blunder. That kind of house belongs in a neighborhood of similarly-priced houses (Foxcroft) or a close-in neighborhood undergoing a renaissance (Dilworth.) Location, location, location. :)

pstonge said...

Thanks, Anon. I don't know of many folks who are advocating for a S.F.-style Mission District. I do think Raleigh has an independent vibe that's apparent in several places, including its downtown, and I think that contributes to the city as a whole.

On Markel: Risks bring more mistakes, and I think his choice was a risk and, as it turns out, a mistake.

Thanks,

Peter

Lynne Stevenson said...

I can't even imagine how much the monthly rent (or mortgage), light bill, taxes, and other related expenses would be on a house that size...Suddenly my little four bedroom "rabbit hutch" in BFE looks a lot better to me...Some people clearly have more money than sense...

Anonymous said...

I think ol' Pete is jealous one house in Charlotte is worth more than the company he works for.

chupacabra said...

Personally, if I were in a position to buy a house that big and that expensive I would want to be involved in its design. Funky is great but if you build it you really better expect to be the one to live with it.

Foghorn1 said...

I prefer clean and pretty, the other stuff attracts hangers on and wannbees. We have enough of those. Markel needs to go back whence he came. In case he doesn't quite "get it", we don't want to be a world class city with all it's problems.
I would say to him and all the others who want to come here and criticize us for being what we are, hit the road, Delta is ready when you are.

baahumbug said...

I agree with Anonymous. I looked at this house and thought seriously about buying it. I loved the architectural style and unique features. The problem is that the builder chose a bad location. Busy, noisy street where the house was completely out of sync with the neighborhood. The builder shouldn't blame the difficulty in selling this house on Charlotte's lack of "funkiness", but rather from his own poor choice of location.

Cleveland Carole Cohen 3C said...

7,000 square ft. homes have gone out of favor. Some still sell, especially to celebrities who need their privacy, and yes, maybe the 'out of favor' part began because of the recession. If it had been on a smaller scale, but was still interesting, would it have made a difference?

God willing and the creek don't rise, I'm planning a move to Charlotte in 2 yrs. I'm in Cleveland and our housing stock is not based on 7,000 square ft but it is architecturally unique. I think it works better on older homes, but that's just my opinion.

Back to the move. I'm a Realtor and I will miss the housing stock here,but...the calm of the housing stock I have seen so far is part of the appeal. For my move. So Anon may also be on to something.

Even when recovery happens, I have a feeling people might just want to keep a bit of what they've learned about bigger not always being better. I guess we shall see!

Anonymous said...

Pete - The Camilla house was on the market for a long time, yes, but it's nowhere near the catastrophe that Mirko Djuranovic had on his hands at 1401 Meadowood Lane. He built it in 2000 and it sat vacant and unsold until US Bank foreclosed on it in 2010. The original listing price was just over $4.5 million. 11,284 square feet with a pool, poolhouse and tennis court (used to play on it with my friends in high school). The final sales price was $1.0 million in January of this year. He also built a couple of other houses with the exact same architecture, 5200 Piper Glen and 4420 Town & Country, both of which languished on the market unsold for years and eventually cleared for a fraction of the original asking price. Now that's a story.

Anonymous said...

Rule in real estate....conformity. He missed it.

Anonymous said...

Risk taking is one of the virtues necessary for successful entrepreneurship. And successful entrepreneurship is necessary for a prosperous society.

Unfortunately, as societies become more socialistic, as ours has, it generates a bigger and bigger class of people: Parasites.

These are people who prey upon entrepreneurs, in particular, and who if allowed to run out of control, will destroy prosperity.

These parasites are governmental and private sector creatures, working together to ultimately create conditions where everyone is hunkered down, protecting what little they have left, and deathly afraid of taking any risks, lest they draw the attention of the parasites.

-Ken
http://www.LaserGuidedLoogie.com

kantstanzya said...

"People don't understand it."

"They're living in their own little Charlotte world."

"Charlotte didn't fully appreciate his creation."

So everyone was wrong except him? He builds a house 5 times the value of any other in the neighborhood and we are the crazy ones? There is a difference between risk taking and doing something stupid.

The house was bulit in 2003. No one bought it in 2004. Or 2005. Or 2006. The housing recssion didn't even start until 2007. To paraphrase an old saying. If Markel looked around after 4 years and couldn't spot the sucker...the sucker might be him.

As Seinfeld pointed out, "sometimes the road less traved is less traveled for a reason."

Anonymous said...

We built our own unique dream house in 1981 in Weddington, and lived in it ourselves -as Cupacabra advised (Good advice, we agree). Recently, retirement afforded us time to explore Charlotte's civic attractions. Call them funky, call them independent: certain special ones -- Dish, CAST, Charlotte Film Society, HAWK, farmers' markets -- called us back time and again.

Meanwhile, our neighborhood had declined... many houses in poor repair, and losing value. We decided to take our loss, and move closer-in -- to more easily link into the creative vibe, drive less, take the Lynx.

That's when it occurred to us... why not live in a place that has some clean&shiny, AND some funky vibe, AND (this is important) welcomes the mix. That's how we came to choose Portland, Oregon, our new home. We've been here 3 months. Our best friends from Charlotte came to visit, to see what we saw in Portland. We walked all over (and cars stopped for our crossing!), took light rail to the Pearl district, and munched on local berries and leafy greens. So much variety! Our friend summed it up this way: "Charlotte is easy to understand; it'll take you years to get your arms around Portland."

Anonymous said...

Peter,

Congrats on joining the editorial board but I want to point out something. In the CO editorial yesterday, the writer rightly hammers the "Education" Lottery with a "I told you so" message. NOT ONE WORD WAS WRITTEN THAT OUR GOVERNOR BEVERLY PERDUE CAST THE CRUCIAL VOTE TO PUT THIS LOTTERY INTO MOTION. NO MENTION THAT JIM BLACK, MARK BASNIGHT, KEVIN GEDDINGS AND THE REST OF THE DEMOCRATIC CRONIES PUSHED THIS THROUGH WHEN MEMBERS WERE OUT OF TOWN...HEAVY HANDED POLITICS FOR CASH NOT FOR THE PEOPLE. AND, WHILE YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT GAMBLING, DID YOU KNOW THE LARGEST ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CURRENTLY IN OUR STATE IS THE $300 MILLION PLUS EXPANSION OF HARRAH'S AT CHEROKEE. THINK THEY AREN'T SUCKING DOWN UTILITY, RENT AND CHILDREN'S CLOTHES DOLLARS OF IDIOTS WHO THINK THEY CAN WIN? WE HAVE BECOME THE GAMBLER'S STATE BUT WE ARE WORRIED ABOUT THE LITTLE INTERNET CAFE GUY. IF THE REPUBLICANS HAD PUSHED THROUGH THE LOTTERY, YOUR EDITORIAL WOULD HAVE BEEN FULL OF THEIR NAMES.

Anonymous said...

Re: 11:10am Anonymous

What is this unintelligible all caps rant doing in this comments section? You might be better served responding to the CO Editorial section. And please quit shouting...it's irritating and hard to read.

Anonymous said...

Isn't pompousness a sight to behold? See and hear it every day! One mile down the road I live on, they have built $5 mil houses which I understand some are now in jeopardy(my son is a mortgage lender),they decided cheaper houses were needed so they went across the road and are now building $2.5 mil houses and are about in the same status."The Lord resisteth the proud and rewardeth the humble".

Anonymous said...

11:10
Unintelligible?

Do you not understand the double standard or do you have your head so far up Obama's derriere' that you can't see the facts? The ALL CAPS is a frustrating response to media that slants news/opinions. There is no moderate or right viewpoint on the Observer's editorial board. So, thanks to them for not addressing these facts:

1. The largest economic development project in North Carolina this year is the $300 million expansion of Harrah's Cherokee Casino in Cherokee. If you have ever seen this casino floor you would know that this casino is expanding because the people gambling are hooked and most have no business in that building.

2. The deciding vote for the NC Lottery was cast by Beverly Perdue...a convenient fact overlooked by the CO. If you are going to write a "told you so" editorial, wouldn't you take aim at the person who ignored the warnings and pushed it through? A calculated omission.

3. Charlotte/Meck officials are now patting themselves on the back because they are working on rules to outlaw "internet cafes." Wow, way to go. Support the state's involvement, support the Cherokee massive operation and stamp out the little guys...talk about a speck in your eye.

Feel free to get out of the house, read some other newspapers and open your eyes...might make for a less "intelligible" life for you...unless you are another robot CO staffer.

pstonge said...

Hi all,

Just back from a furlough. Anon, 9/25: The house on Meadowood wasn't on the market until 2006, according to records and a couple Realtors. But the market clearly has hit these luxury homes hard - perhaps as hard as any segment, analysts here say.

Thanks...

Peter

Anonymous said...

Peter,

You owe the ranting in all caps an answer. Why is does the editorial page not call out the errors of government regardless of party affiliation? Do you really think the public is so dumb we can't see through your sins of omission?

All media outlets have become so polarized them make no attempt to hide their bias. During Bush years, his low poll ratings were front page, above the fold, headline news. Today poll ratings of Obama are buried on page 9.

People are looking for truly objective news outlets but for some reason, that seems impossible today. This is of course to the detriment of the Observer as people will move to other outlets for their news due to bias stance of the paper. Enjoy your new position while it lasts. I am sure more job cuts are on the way

pstonge said...

Anon, I think the all-caps commenter is incorrect. We've been regularly critical of the lottery in our editorial pages. I also think you're incorrect. We didn't run President Bush's poll numbers above the fold on the front page. Plus, we've been very critical of Obama and his lack of leadership with jobs and the deficit.

Is that as critical as you would like us to be? Clearly not. But when I look at our editorial pages of late, I see balance. Show me otherwise.

Peter