Update: Mayor outlines four alternatives for Liberty District redevelopment

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comApril 2, 2013 

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson sent a memo to “Liberty District stakeholders” Tuesday outlining four alternatives to the controversial proposed redevelopment of the district and nearby Booker T. Washington public housing units.

In the memo, which was copied to members of Columbus Council, the mayor points out that because federal funds and tax credits are involved, strict guidelines must be followed. And for the first time since debate over the project erupted between two factions last month, Tomlinson raises the possibility that some demands made by opponents to the current plan could be deal-breakers.

“There are not unlimited possibilities,” Tomlinson wrote. “That means that this opportunity allows for only a certain number of feasible configurations.”

The memo includes a description of four alternatives with accompanying artist’s renderings.

“If none of these alternatives work, if a consensus to move forward cannot be reached, then this opportunity may not be for us,” she wrote.

Plans for revitalization of the historic Liberty Theatre District go back to the last century and were formally laid out in a 2003 district master plan. Differing interpretations of that plan collided last week when two public meetings presented two differing views of the district’s future.

Tomlinson, City Manager Isaiah Hugley, the Housing Authority of Columbus, Liberty Theatre Board Chairman Robert Anderson, area clergy and some BTW residents are supporting a plan that features 100 mixed-income apartments to be built around the Liberty Theatre.

That aspect is critical to the planned demolition and replacement of the BTW apartments, Housing Authority CEO Len Williams contends.

Williams said he is familiar with the alternative plans in Tomlinson’s memo and, while he prefers the plan currently on the table, the Housing Authority can live with any one of them.

What is critical, Williams said, is that the factions come to terms that will allow the Liberty District to play a role in revitalizing the BTW apartments. Otherwise, that effort would be at best delayed “significantly,” and at worst, scrapped in favor of a simple renovation of the existing apartments.

Competition for the HUD funds and tax credits that make such a project possible is increasingly fierce, Williams said, and HUD has lately been pushing housing authorities to opt for an alternative to projects such as Arbor Pointe and Ashley Station.

If applied at BTW, HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program would modernize the existing property, but would not have the dramatic end product of those other two projects, Williams said.

Critics of the current plan say it includes too much residential property and doesn’t leave enough property for commercial development. Tax Commissioner Lula Lunsford Huff, who owns property in the area, and Councilors Bruce Huff and Jerry “Pops” Barnes, are among those opposing the plan on the table. At a public meeting last week, Lunsford Huff said she supports including BTW in the district’s revitalization, but not to the exclusion of so much commercial property.

“There should be a plan for the reinvestment 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.”

Efforts to contact Lunsford Huff and Barnes were unsuccessful. Bruce Huff said he had not had a chance to read Tomlinson’s memo, so he couldn’t comment.

According to Tomlinson’s memo, the alternative plans would:

Plan 1:

Allow for commercial development on Ninth Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. Provide a three-block linear park and room for expansion of the Liberty Theatre.

Plan 2:

Allow for commercial development at Ninth Street and Eighth Avenue and along Eighth Street between Sixth and Eighth Avenues. Also provide a three-block linear park and room for expansion.

This plan was rejected at a Liberty Stakeholders meeting in early March.

Plan 3:

Allow for commercial development along Ninth Street from Seventh and Eighth Avenues and on all corners of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. Also provide a three-block linear park and room for expansion.

Plan 4:

Allows for commercial development along Ninth Street from Sixth to Ninth Avenues and at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. Allows for Liberty Theatre expansion, but eliminates a section of the linear park.

Also eliminates a parking lot being used by Friendship Baptist Church on Sixth Avenue. The church opposes this aspect of the plan.

In addition to the alternative configurations, Tomlinson offered several ideas to help stimulate private investment in the historic area.

Tomlinson suggests including the district in a group of urban service districts that offer tax breaks for developers who invest in the area. She also suggests that council appoint a Liberty District stakeholders committee to develop plans for a proposed Liberty Center and for a marketing plan to help attract private investors.

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