Tax credits clear way for start of BTW housing redevelopment

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 31, 2013 

The first phase of the redevelopment of the Booker T. Washington public housing project will begin in late 2014 or early 2015, the Housing Authority of Columbus announced this week.

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs just awarded Low Income Housing Tax Credits that will facilitate the first phase going forward, Housing Authority CEO Len Williams said.

Phase one will involve building 100 housing units for older persons on the site of the old Chapman Homes housing project on Fort Benning Road east of Victory Drive. When those apartments are completed, in late 2015 or early 2016, eligible tenants from BTW will be relocated there.

Phase two of the project will involve demolishing half of the BTW apartments and developing 100 units there for current residents. Phase three will consist of demolishing the remaining BTW units to make way for commercial development along Victory Drive and Veterans Parkway. Williams said he hopes to see phase two completed by 2017.

The first phase is expected to cost about $15 million, Williams said. Nine million will come from federal and state tax credits, $4.4 million from the housing authority, $1 million from the Consolidated Government and a $600,000 mortgage, he said. The cost and funding will be similar for phase two, he said.

The timetable for the entire project depends on future funding and on attracting commercial development in the corridors along Victory and Veterans, Williams said.

The process of redeveloping BTW stumbled earlier this year when opposition to including part of the Liberty District, which is just northeast of the apartments.

When plans to relocate 100 housing units from the complex to lots around the Liberty Theater became known, a group of district stakeholders, including Tax Commissioner Lula Lunsford Huff and Columbus Councilors Bruce Huff and Pops Barnes, blocked the plan, saying it was contrary to the 2003 Liberty District Master Plan.

Advocates for the proposal, including Williams, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, City Manager Isaiah Hugley, Liberty Theater Board Chairman Robert Anderson and state Rep. Calvin Smyre, disagreed. Smyre, who helped develop the master plan, said it fit the concept.

But in the end, the Housing Authority decided not to pursue including the district in the plan. One reason the authority changed course was fear that postponing it could mean losing the valuable tax credits, without which the project would stall indefinitely.

"Fortunately we were able to get the tax credits this year. That was really our concern when the controversy arose, that we would lose a year," Williams said. "And the tax credits are getting more and more competitive and harder to get."

Tomlinson still believes it was a lost opportunity to kick-start redevelopment of the Liberty District.

"It's good news that we're able to re-do Booker T. Washington into superior product," Tomlinson said. "The downside is that we weren't able to get as big a bang for the buck as we could have. We would have been able to have a broad-scale revitalization of the entire Liberty District. But that didn't work out."

As for the future of the Liberty District, Tomlinson said it will take some innovation to attract investors to the long-blighted area.

"The area has been greatly improved from an infrastructure standpoint, but the area still has some cost prohibitions to a full development," Tomlinson said. "So we're going to come up with some pretty innovative ways to encourage the type of broad-scale development the citizens would like to see there. So it's back to the drawing board."

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