Housing Authority abandons plan to redevelop Booker T. Washington complex

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comApril 12, 2013 

After weeks of trying to quell opposition to its plans to build 100 apartments around the historic Liberty Theater, the Housing Authority of Columbus announced Friday that it was abandoning the plans and seeking other alternatives for redeveloping the Booker T. Washington housing complex.

In a letter to Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, the City Council and City Manager, the housing authority said the agency faced “unexpected opposition” as it approached tight deadlines for securing tax credit financing.

“Regrettably, HACG (Housing Authority of Columbus, Ga.) is unable to move forward with the project at this time in a manner that meets the concerns of the opposition,” the letter said. “We are dedicated to providing the highest quality affordable housing for our residents. HACG will continue to explore future opportunities to redevelop the Booker T. Washington Community. We hope the city will provide needed financial support when HACG is able to proceed with the Booker T. Washington redevelopment.”

The announcement came about a week and a half before the City Council was scheduled to vote on rezoning for the controversial project. On Friday afternoon, the city issued a statement canceling two Liberty District stakeholder meetings scheduled for next week, and housing authority officials went to BTW to personally inform residents of their decision. In the letter, Housing authority officials said they attended a meeting hosted by City Councilor Evelyn “Mimi” Woodson on Monday night to bring both sides of the issue together. While the agency tried to alleviate opponents’ concerns, it could not find a viable alternative, the letter said.

The public housing authority’s plans called for the demolition of the 75-year-old housing complex, which sits at the corner of Veterans Parkway and Victory Drive. Under an agreement with the city, the housing authority would have replaced the apartments with 100 mixed-income apartments and commercial development at the location where BTW is currently located. Another 100 mixed-income apartments would have been built on three blocks owned by the city near the Liberty Theater, which was once the heart of the black community. The city had already invested $3 million in cash and $1.4 million in land to the project, the mayor said.

But strong opposition emerged in recent weeks led by Tax Commissioner Lula Lunsford Huff, whose family owns land in the area.

Huff, with the support of grassroots activists and Columbus Councilmen Jerry “Pops” Barnes and Bruce Huff (her brother-in-law), argued that the Housing Authority’s plans violated a 2003 master plan that called for more commercial and entertainment development near the Liberty Theater.

The Planning Advisory Commission approved rezoning for two of the blocks needed for the development in February, but voted against rezoning a third block when the tax commissioner and other opponents appeared before the commission two weeks ago.

Tomlinson, who had visited BTW to rally resident support for the project, said she was disappointed in the announcement but understood the housing authority’s frustration. “I think, as they say, politics is the art of the possible, and at some point this opportunity just became impossible,” she said. “I know we’re all committed to seeing the Liberty District revitalized. I hope we can use this time to regroup and hopefully have council appoint a Liberty District committee with plenty of BTW resident representation and find a broad-scale solution to our challenges there.

“I know the city is committed to that,” she said. “We all want to make sure BTW gets redone. We just need to find a way to make that happen.”

Gloria Strode, a member of the Concerned Citizen’s Coalition that strongly opposed the project, said the city violated the public trust by developing a plan that she and other opponents believe went against the city’s 2003 Liberty District master plan. She said many stakeholders were never notified, and some city councilors who approved funding for the plan were unaware that the master plan even existed. Councilmen Barnes and Huff have come out against the plan in recent weeks, despite voting in January in favor of funding it. Neither councilman could be reached for comment. Lula Lunsford Huff also could not be reached.

“The unfortunate thing about this is that the train left the station without everyone being honest and up front with all of the information,” Strode said. “And I’m deeply saddened — we all are for improving the BTW area. That is part of the Liberty District. Most of us have family and friends that have lived there at one time or may still live there.

“I’m very disappointed in the twist of the story because if it’s intended to make the residents of BTW and the other people that live in the Liberty District think that the grassroots — or Lula Huff or Bruce Huff or Pop Barnes — does not have their best interest at heart, that is really unfortunate.”

Robert Anderson, chair of the Liberty Theater board of directors and a supporter of the project, said the theater is struggling to stay open and the Housing Authority’s redevelopment project could have helped revitalize the area.

“Everybody seems to be concerned about the theater, but nobody attends it,” he said. “I wish the same enthusiasm that folks showed about their opposition to this project would be present in the preservation of the Liberty.”

On Friday, Len Williams, the Housing Authority’s chief executive officer, told a group of about 25 BTW residents that plans to redevelop the old apartment complex had been postponed and may be too late to pursue this year. He said the Housing Authority has been planning the redevelopment project for two years, and that some opponents to the project were aware of the plans for at least a year and didn’t express opposition until recently. He told the residents that the Housing Authority would continue trying to find land for the project but there were no guarantees.

“We simply received too much controversy, too much push back from folks in the Liberty Theater area,” he said, “and so I am so sorry. We worked so hard to try to make this happen for you.”

Some residents said they were disappointed. Others asked if there was anything that they could do to save the project. And some wanted to know why the plans called for them to move to the Liberty Theater area in the first place. They wondered why the Housing Authority couldn’t just redevelop BTW at the current location like it did with Ashley Station and Arbor Pointe. But most of all they wanted to know what would be done to improve their living conditions now that the redevelopment plans are delayed.

Phyllis Cliatt, 47, said she has lived at BTW for 22 years and she’s tired of the mildew and dilapidated conditions.

“To me, having to come down here to all these meetings, and now they’re saying they’re not going to redevelop BTW, that’s hurtful to me.”

Shandrea Miles, 24, said she’s tired of the crime.

“I thought the changes would make it better,” she said. “There was a shooting at BTW a few months ago when my children were outside. And the mildew is making my kids sick. I just thought they would have done something by now because BTW has been here so long and the crime rate is so high.”

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