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VOL. 121 | NO. 12 | Friday, January 6, 2006

Highland Strip Area Starts to Sizzle

New businesses, construction signal neighborhood upswing

By Andrew Ashby

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DYNAMIC TRIO: Peter Moon, Melissa Pearce and Rick Johns pause at the bar of RP Billiards in the Highland Strip area, which moved in to the former Highland Cue's space last summer. -- Photograph By Andrew Ashby

After years of inactivity, the area around the Highland Stip is starting to pick up as property renovations and other new developments continue.

Probably the most visible new addition has been RP Billiards at 525 S. Highland St. The building housed the Highland Cue for about 25 years.

Taking their cue. Last summer, Peter Moon and Rick Johns, owners of RP Tracks on Walker Avenue, moved into the property, which is owned by Van Natta Properties LLC. Moon and Johns renovated the space and renamed it RP Billiards.

"They have really done great job on the place," Van Natta Properties chief manager Cecil Humphreys said.

They rebuilt the bathrooms, moved the bar and put in new floors and better lighting, among other things.

"Basically, it's a whole new place," Humphreys said.

Down in the Vault. Next door, they also added the Vault Room, a small bar which offers live music on the weekends. They also rent it out for special events.

Moon and Johns started RP Tracks 19 years ago and renovated it in 2000. They chose the Highland location for RP Billiards based on the neighborhood and the architecture.

"From a real estate standpoint, these are some of the few remaining buildings that have that 1930s feel," Moon said. "I don't know of too many areas east of Highland that have that feel."

Johns couldn't agree more.

"A lot of our philosophy in redoing those buildings was to bring them back to their natural state," Johns said. "Besides downtown, it's one of the few places you can park your car and walk to restaurants, shop or listen to music."

A family tradition. Humphreys and his family have owned several properties along the Highland Strip for about 40 years.

"Originally this was a thriving neighborhood and business area. There was a hardware store, drug store, jewelry store and several other businesses," he said.

The street earned its Highland Strip moniker and reputation in the 1960s.

POOLED RESOURCES: RP Billiards on Highland sits next to a development that's slated to have five bays for retail businesses and parking for up to 50 vehicles. -- Photograph By Andrew Ashby

"Everything kind of turned into blue jean stores and clothing places," Humphreys said. "The last few years, there hasn't been much other than a few college bars. Some of these buildings were just rented as storage and warehouse spaces.

"We're hoping to try to put some more money in it and turn this thing around a bit, turn it back into a thriving area."

Renovations underway. One of the new changes is going on at the Van Natta Properties' building next to RP Billiards. For the past 25 years or so, the building was rented to Dixie Color Labs. When it went out of business, it stood vacant for a few years.

Now, Montgomery Martin Contractors LLC is renovating the 6,000-square-foot corner building at 521 S. Highland St. They're modifying the building to face north instead of east toward Highland. The building will have five bays.

"We're hoping to have maybe a restaurant space on the front cap and then some retail or other commercial space for the back," Humphreys said.

Van Natta Properties also bought the freestanding building at 515 S. Highland St. that used to be a U.S. Male clothing store with a warehouse behind it. Van Natta tore down both structures to create 50 parking spaces.

"We realized that one problem with the area around here is parking and that will help," Humphreys said.

The general cleanup of the building and the parking lot will begin this month. After that, the finish work will be done to fit what the tenants want.

Humphreys said he feels the future of Highland Street-area real estate is looking up.

"I think it's going to get a lot better," he said. "It's a great location in town and I think it should be a more vibrant spot next to a big university. There's a lot of stuff going on. I think by Rick and Peter fixing this place up, it's already having a domino effect on the other properties in the area."

On the up and up. Some of that effect can be seen across the street from RP Billiards.

Eric Fuhrman, a Realtor in Crye-Leike's commercial division, said a 0.9-acre parcel of land is under contract there. The land includes five buildings, four that face Highland and a house around the corner. Those buildings can be torn down and redeveloped as one parcel.

Melissa Pearce has lived in the Highland area for 10 years. She is a board member of the University Neighborhood Development Corporation and University District Inc., a pair of nonprofit organizations that are working toward revitalizing the area around Highland.

Pearce has heard the Highland Street Church of Christ at 443 S. Highland St. is planning to move. That would open up a substantial piece of land for development.

"Until it's built, nothing is set in stone, but the plans for that property are extraordinary," Pearce said. "It is, at this point, modeled after the Saddle Creek area with a mix of upscale and moderate retail, as well as residential. It will have an incredible impact on this area."

Onward and upward. While the future is looking brighter on Highland Street, it's going to take a plan to get to any real improvement. To that end, the University Neighborhood Development Corporation used grant money to hire Looney Ricks Kiss Architects to do a master plan of the whole area.

"It's going to be a really comprehensive plan for the whole university district, but with a focus on Highland from Central to Park," Humphreys said. "That will be another tool for developers or business people to see what the area could be and to see what the plans are."

PROPERTY SALES 51 328 20,960
MORTGAGES 58 387 24,132
BUILDING PERMITS 170 842 43,435
BANKRUPTCIES 50 288 13,468