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CLAYTON — Sandy Stephenson never imagined himself a real estate developer.
After launching his own insurance agency eight years ago, he was content to have a small office in a house-turned-office-building on Main Street downtown.
“So I came here to this building, rented an upstairs office and had no goals of doing anything other than building up a small insurance agency with a couple of employees,” Stephenson said in an interview from his office, now on the ground floor.
But then a fellow tenant planted a seed that would eventually bare fruit.
“We were talking one day and he said, ‘Have you ever thought about buying something or building something to put your business in?’ ” Stephenson recalled. “I just sort of brushed it off as ‘I have no desire, no interest in maintaining property, owning property. I just need a place to work.’ ”
It wasn’t that Stephenson disagreed with his office mate’s argument that it made more financial sense to own rather than rent. “I said, ‘I completely agree. I understand it. I just don’t know if I want to do it,’ ” he said.
But as sometimes happens, the seed took root. “I thought ... maybe one day when I retire and I want to sell my business, if I had real estate to go with it, I’d have more options,” he said. “I could either sell that too as an asset or I could rent it as rental property.”
So Stephenson started keeping his eyes open for an available building or lot and was especially interested in the lot across Smith Street from his insurance office, though he figured the owner would never sell. “But lo and behold, I pull out one day to go home and there was a ‘For Sale’ sign,” he said. “And I called, the price was reasonable, I made an offer, and within 30 days, we closed.”
Stephenson’s original plans for the lot were conventional. “I was going to build a real simple two-story, Colonial-type brick building and occupy the first floor and rent out individual offices upstairs, much like this building here,” he said.
But then longtime friend James Lipscomb planted another seed. “He was talking to me one day and said, ‘Have you ever considered mixed use?’ ” Stephenson recalled. “I said, ‘No. What do you have in mind?’”
Lipscomb’s idea was office space on the first floor with residential above. “So James planted that seed, and I started doing a little research, and it made more sense to have two or three apartments than it did to have five or six office tenants that might come and go,” Stephenson said. “People start new businesses that don’t make it.”
So Stephenson took Lipscomb’s advice, and the fruit of that seed is the Lofts on Main Street, a mixed-use building with office space on the first floor and loft-style apartments above. It’s scheduled for move-in later this month.
Sold on downtown
Stephenson, as both businessman and real estate developer, is sold on downtown Clayton, which has long been vibrant and is becoming even more so. “Especially in the last, I would say, 10 years, I’ve seen other business owners and new business owners really create a new environment here,” he said. “And I think it’s only going to get better.”
Given Clayton’s ongoing growth and its proximity to Raleigh, Stephenson thinks his investment in downtown is a good business decision. “But it’s more of a gut feeling and ... wanting to be part of something that’s positive for a town that has meant a lot to me since I was a kid,” he said.
For Stephenson, it was important to build a mixed-use project that was functional but also looked like it belonged in downtown, which is mostly home to one- and two-story buildings that have stood for many years. For that, he turned to longtime Clayton architect Tony Johnson.
In an interview from his office on North Lombard Street, Johnson shared Stephenson’s enthusiasm for downtown. “This number sounds almost ludicrous when I tell you ... but I’ve done probably over 60 projects in just these few blocks of downtown since I’ve been in business in Clayton,” he said, referring to both residential and commercial projects.
Most of those projects have been renovations, Johnson said. “So it’s always exciting to be able to get a standalone building that you can put in a downtown setting,” he said. “We’ve only had a couple of those here.”
Johnson also shared Stephenson’s vision for a building that would be new but in keeping with traditional downtown Clayton. “We wanted to reference back to the historic buildings,” he said. “If you look at most of the downtown buildings, most of them are red brick. They’re predominantly glass on the front, with smaller windows on the upper flows. Some have canopies.”
“So we wanted to take those traditional details and try to use them in a little bit of an untraditional way,” Johnson said.
It was important too that the building, given its location, make a good impression, Johnson said. Main Street heading west from U.S. 70 Business “really is kind of the gateway into downtown,” he said. And the Lofts on Main Street is “really the first downtown building that you get to.”
The project did present its share of challenges, Johnson said. “It’s a very small site; that was probably the biggest thing,” he said.
And Stephenson wanted to have parking on site, Johnson said. “It’s very difficult in a small downtown to actually have parking,” he said. “No other building in downtown really has its own parking.”
That forced Johnson to think tall and thin. “I really had to condense that building, and that’s why it’s kind of a three-story mass rather than a two-story mass because we just had nowhere else to go,” he said.
Still, Johnson said he was absolutely tickled with the outcome, expressing just one disappointment.
“In the original building design, the balconies were supposed to go up to two stories,” Johnson said.
But the town was concerned that the second-story balconies would be too close to the power lines that run in front of the building, Johnson said. “I was a little disappointed about that,” he said. “Again, that was another one of our challenges — things that are already there that you have to build around.”
A test case for Clayton
Stephenson knows a lot of folks in Clayton — from planners in Town Hall to fellow business owners — are watching to see if his project, with its mix of offices and apartments, will succeed.
It is an untested theory, Stephen conceded. “You can’t find anything like this really in town,” he said.
“And then I hear from other people, other business leaders, other developers, like, ‘Yep, everybody’s watching you. They want to see how this goes,’” Stephenson said. “And I said, ‘Well, no pressure.’”
But he thinks the one-bedroom apartments will find a market. “You have so many young professionals who are single or maybe married without kids, and they don’t want a house, they don’t want a yard, they don’t need a lot,” he said. “It’s a niche type of dwelling that you don’t find in too many places.”