man's vision turns urban blight into DeLand's Garden District
By Michael Jiloty - THE REAL ESTATE JOURNAL OF VOLUSIA
COUNTY, FALL 2003, PRINTED WITH PERMISSION.
Arth has helped give a new lease on life to a once-decaying
part of DeLand now known as the Garden District.
the mythical Greek god, is known for having overcome incredible
challenges in the face of danger and evil. But despite his courage,
wisdom and resolve, it is not clear whether Hercules could have
done what DeLand resident Michael Arth has done in transforming
a crack haven into one of DeLand's most unique neighborhoods.
what has become known as The Garden District, only recently was
an urban jungle festering with drug traffic and crime. How did this
metamorphosis happen? What compelled Arth to take up residence in
an urban hellhole, armed only with vision and determination? The
reference to Hercules is not hype. What Arth has accomplished is
Herculean in every sense of the word.
Arth has helped give a new lease on life to a once-decaying part
of DeLand now known as the Garden District.
2001, Arth was a homebuilder in Santa Barbara, California. But unlike
a typical homebuilder, he has a fine arts background. He is an author.
He is a longtime student of city planning. He is a proponent of
the New Urbanism and founder of the New Pedestrianism, movements
that seek to correct many of the design flaws inherent in American
cities and towns.
was in the throes of writing a book titled "The Labors of Hercules:
Modern Solutions to 12 Herculean Problems," so he is intimately
familiar with the revered god's batting average against all odds.
He is equally familiar with the complex problems of contemporary
society. Among the chapters in his book are narratives on urbanism,
transportation and drugs, each posing great challenges to city governments
and the residents they serve.
passion for the elusive sense of community lacking in most communities
took Arth on a "field trip" to see places that have invested
in planning and design to avoid or mitigate these and other problems.
These communities were created or restored under the influence of
the New Urbanism and Smart Growth movements. What he saw in Celebration,
Charleston, Beaufort, Savannah and Seaside moved him profoundly.
He began thinking about creating a neighborhood that would emulate
the communities he studied and visited.
the course of his studies, Arth came across an online real estate
listing by Maggi Hall, a DeLand real estate agent and preservationist.
She invited Arth to purchase some core buildings in an area whose
character and sense of community had given way to decay and crime.
The houses in the area date to the period between 1906 and World
War II. She had hoped he would take an interest in the area and
generate discussions about what to do with the neighborhood which,
by all accounts, had hit rock bottom.
visited DeLand and saw a neighborhood that had multiple nicknames
including Cracktown, Crack Alley, The Bottom, Hell, The End and
others. The two-block area had a number of crack houses. Even the
neighborhood convenience store was a crack house where dealers and
users met, bought and sold drugs and paraphernalia.
was horrifying to see and chilling to realize that this slice of
hell flourished just a couple blocks away from government and shopping
areas and city neighborhoods populated by families," said Arth.
"It seemed obvious the cancer not only was malignant, but also
surely would spread, consuming more and more of this charming old
Florida rural city."
saw something beyond the danger and horror that defined the neighborhood.
He could see interesting architecture beneath the neglect and decay.
He could see a city neighborhood whose basic layout could be restored
and modified as a catalyst to comfort, safety and security, eliminating
the fear, danger and paranoia that prevailed. But it couldn't be
done simply by restoring a couple of houses. It would require seizing
the entire neighborhood and giving new life to dozens of buildings,
moving junkies, drug traffickers and criminals out, and convincing
families and professionals to move in. It was a huge challenge -
a Herculean challenge.
did he begin? He identified two buildings on E. Voorhis Avenue that
were condemned flop houses. The city advised him that back taxes
of $16,000 were owed on the buildings as was $302,000 in building
code violation fines. The houses were scheduled for demolition,
but City Manager Mike Abels told Arth that for $950 the city would
board up the houses, delay demolition and give him six months to
purchase the buildings. Arth took the deal.
and his wife, Maya, sold their California home (at a loss), and
drove across the nation, a nine-day journey punctuated by six breakdowns.
The day after they arrived, he sent Maya, who was pregnant with
their first child, to live in her native Bulgaria for two months
while he got situated. On the last day of the city's six-month extension
on the two houses Arth wanted to buy, he cobbled together $16,000
and bought them for back taxes. The city forgave the building code
violations. He then began work on the houses, while sizing up the
entire neighborhood, walking the streets and inviting drug addicts
and dealers to leave. They did.
neighborhood convenience store re-emerged as a bona fide convenience
store with security cameras, a no loitering policy and a police
edict assuring the store would be run henceforth as a legitimate
exhaustive work began on the two homes Arth purchased. During this
time, Arth lived in another decaying house. The owner simply flipped
him the keys. No heat. No air. No class. But no rent either. Arth
later bought the house and restored it.
the structure is home to the Arth family, including Sophie, 18 months.
Just a few steps across the street is Arth's office.
the past two years, Arth has purchased 19 structures representing
some 28 homes including houses, duplexes and one four-unit apartment
building. He has relied on private lenders for mortgages. Banks
now, others have purchased buildings, including Maggi Hall, who
bought several houses that anchor the southwest corner of The Garden
District. Attorney Lisa Starke has purchased land and plans to build
an office that will fit in nicely with the neighborhood restoration.
A couple is considering opening a gourmet store and restaurant in
the neighborhood. There soon will be a neighborhood newspaper, the
Garden District Gazette, that will be edited by Ramona Whaley, who
also manages The Art in the Garden Gallery, which exhibits Arth's
artwork and photography.
drug addicts and dealers have vacated and respectable tenants have
moved in. Among them are some semi-retired people, young families,
single professional women, a journalist and a photographer.
initial work is centered in the core area of the Garden District,
near S. Amelia and E. Voorhis avenues. As more people respond to
the concept of a "garden district," restorations will
reach from S. Amelia and S. Alabama avenues and from E. Howry and
E. Euclid avenues.
addition to the physical changes in the neighborhood, there is a
genuine neighborly aura. As Arth walks through the neighborhood,
narrating its evolution along the way and pausing here and there
to pick up litter, he is greeted warmly by residents, each of whom
knows him by name - a testimony to his accomplishment and the notion
that one man can make a difference.