Group tells 'other side' of BTW redevelopment debate

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 27, 2013 

Opponents of plans to build 100 apartments near the Liberty Theatre held a community meeting Wednesday to tell what they called "the other side of the story."

Members of the group, called Concerned Citizens, said their message had been misrepresented by Mayor Teresa Tomlinson in her recent comments to a group of residents at the Booker T. Washington public housing complex. They said the group is not against the redevelopment of BTW and that they're only concerned that the city, in their opinion, is not following the 2003 Liberty Theatre District master plan.

"This group's only purpose is to provide community awareness and to obtain community feedback to present to council," said Kuwonna Ingram, in her opening remarks to the audience. "This is not a forum to bash anybody. It's not an 'us against them.' We are in favor of revitalization and economic development. ... But we want it in accordance with the 2003 master plan developed by the city."

About 50 people attended the meeting held at the Macon Road Library auditorium. Those present included Councilmen Jerry "Pops" Barnes and Bruce Huff. Organizers encouraged the group to contact Columbus Council members to express opposition to the plan, and also to attend Liberty District stakeholder meetings that will be held by the city starting this week. The first meeting will be held 4 p.m. Friday at the Mildred Terry Library. The rezoning proposal goes before council on April 23.

Tax Commissioner Lula Lunsford Huff, whose family has owned businesses and land in the district over the years, was the main speaker at Wednesday's meeting. She said the focus of the master plan is a Liberty Center surrounding the theater that is supposed to include commercial, entertainment, cultural and recreational components, as well as some residential development. But saturating the area with 100 apartments and rezoning the area residential will kill the potential for economic development and violate the community trust.

"There should be a plan for the re-investment and improvement of BTW," she said. "It says it in the plan. But you don't hurt another part of the plan by only addressing one part of the plan. Because addressing one part of that plan and moving it somewhere else, you will destroy the plan itself."

Huff said economic development was delayed over the years because of flooding in the Liberty District. A one-cent tax approved in 1999 was used for other projects, and was only recently used for flood abatemen. She believes it's now time for the city to begin planning commercial development in the Liberty Theatre District that can benefit everyone.

"Just think about it, we're going to have whitewater rafting here," she said. "They're going to charge $80 a person. What kind of infusion into the economy is that going to be? And we're just a few blocks away from that. What can that do for us?"

Wednesday's meeting was held two days after Tomlinson went to BTW and rallied a group of about 100 public housing residents to fight for the project proposed by the Housing Authority of Columbus. If implemented, the redevelopment project would involve tearing down the old BTW apartments at the intersection of Victory Drive and Veterans Parkway and replacing them with mixed-used development at the current location and 100 mixed-income apartments on three blocks surrounding the historic Liberty Theatre.

Last week, the Planning Advisory Commission heard from members of Concerned Citizens and voted against rezoning one of the three blocks needed for the project. On Wednesday, Barnes encouraged the group to inundate councilors with phone calls and emails.

"What the city has done, they've gone down to BTW and given the people down there half the story," he said. "And housing, under Len Williams, is sending buses to pick them up to flood the council. We have to counteract that."

Tiffani Stacy, a public housing resident and member of the Mayor's Commission on Unity Diversity and Prosperity, said she was disappointed in the controversy that has erupted between the mayor and the black leaders in the room.

She said she didn't want to have to choose between the mayor, whom she respects, and those in the room whom she believes are trying to do what's best for the Liberty Theatre District.

She said public housing residents are being treated like the "red-headed stepchild" that nobody wants.

"I am a resident of Columbus, Georgia, not just housing," she said, breaking into tears. "I engage downtown, midtown and I go to Liberty Theatre. So I'm saying to you all -- from me -- come together, stop fighting. This is horrible. I am tired of seeing my people fight and argue."

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