Mystery buyer stirs up neighborhood 

Residents in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods face an uncertain future after an anonymous buyer announced plans to buy homes in a four-block area near south downtown's Drake power plant.

News of the buyout came in an Oct. 22 letter to homeowners from Griffis-Blessing, one the city's largest property-management and real-estate firms. But the realtors are tight-lipped about the identity of their mystery client.

"We were engaged by a client about a month ago to assemble a number of homes there, and part of that engagement is a non-disclosure agreement," said Stephen Engel, president of Griffis Blessing. "I cannot name the client, and I can't disclose the purpose [for buying the homes]."

On behalf of the secret buyer, however, Griffis-Blessing sent letters to several dozen homeowners who live between Sierra Madre and Conejos streets, just south of the Southern-Pacific railroad line and just west of the city utility's Drake power plant.

Engle confirmed that his company's letter to residents promised to pay 110 percent of the appraised values for the homes. To some residents, the offer is a godsend to a neighborhood where 100-year-old houses are often beyond repair.

"The homes aren't worth very much," said Chris Prado, a longtime resident of 923 Baltic. "So it's not a bad deal for us because we were planning on moving anyway."

Ditto for long-time resident Danny Vancil. "It doesn't bother me, I was kind of expecting something like this," said Vancil, noting that several nearby neighborhoods have either been converted to commercial zoning or been proposed for industrial use

But to others, the Griffis-Blessing offer could sound a death knell for the last small pocket of downtown homes where working-class families can still afford to buy and fix-up humble-yet-lovable digs.

"I don't want to move, because I just refinanced this house," said Gloria Tafoya, who lives at 915 Baltic St. "What they're offering wouldn't cover the extra cost of moving and the money I spent out of pocket to get refinanced."

Tafoya refinanced because she intended to set down roots in the neighborhood. "It's one of the few places we could afford to own a home," she said.

Whether they're selling or staying, many residents say they're put off by the mystery shrouding the proposed deal. In short, they say the secrecy puts them at a disadvantage, because they don't know who their future neighbor might be.

Griffis-Blessing's Engel would not shed any new light on his client's intentions, but he did say the buyer does not necessarily need or expect to purchase all the homes in the four-block area.

But residents said they have been handed several clues from Griffis-Blessing real-estate agent Julie Strodtman, who would not comment for this story. Residents say that Strodtman, who is handling the deal, told residents the client is a non-profit and that the proposed use would likely be controversial.

These small hints have led to considerable speculation in the neighborhood. Some wonder if their homes are the intended site for a long-planned homeless center designed to consolidate the city's various homeless services.

Others speculate it's for an expansion of the Drake power plant, since the city utilities enterprise owns several lots in the area. City real-estate staffers deny such a move, however.

Others propose something related to the planned city development of Confluence Park, which would extend within a half-mile of the neighborhood.

Engel would not comment on the residents' speculations, however. "I can't comment on that," he said, when asked about the homeless-shelter plan.

While some residents said they feel Griffis-Blessing has been more than fair in trying to accommodate counteroffers from homeowners, others say the real-estate agents are not playing fair.

"They've been telling us that all our neighbors, everyone to the north of us, are under contract and that we're the only ones left [who haven't agreed to sell]," said Robin Middleton, who's lived on Conejos Street for three years. "But we don't know anyone around us who's selling. No one we know wants to move."

Down the block, Middleton noted, one landowner just completed construction of a new home, and the two homes to her north have just been renovated. Indeed, many homes in the area are freshly remodeled or painted.

Both those who are planning to sell, and those who want to stay, say the issue is not yet dividing the neighborhood. People on both sides agree the neighborhood has its pluses and minuses.

It's one of a few places where homes still sell as low as $50,000 to $80,000, and where families have lived for as many as four generations.

"My family in the neighborhood goes back to my great-grandfather," said Ramona Prado, who is willing to sell. "We grew up in the area, and while it's hard to make changes, we are looking forward to moving.

"But there are a lot of seniors in this area and young couples just starting out," she added. "Where are they going to go?"

The proposed buyout also worries some residents who live just outside the affected four-block area. "Sure, it's a poverty neighborhood, but everyone cares about what goes on here," said Lyn Akers, a local radio announcer and resident of nearby Mill Street.

"It's a really cool neighborhood," she said. "So I'd like to know what's going on -- who's behind it and why it's such a big secret."


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