Len Williams: Harper off base on Liberty plan

May 14, 2014 

While reading Charlie Harper's recent column in the Ledger-Enquirer, I noted with interest his comments about the proposed Liberty District redevelopment.

Our first involvement in the Liberty District Plan was in 2004 when the firms of JRA and KPS, a local and a Birmingham, Alabama, firm, were developing a Master Plan for the area. The Housing Authority of Columbus, Georgia (HACG) was fortunate enough to be asked to participate in this process. In fact, representatives of KPS met with us in my office to get input concerning the plan. I had previously worked with KPS in Birmingham and was very comfortable discussing the Liberty District plan.

During our discussion, it was proposed that we consider a plan to demolish the obsolete Booker T. Washington neighborhood and to redevelop with mixed-income housing at the current site, as well as develop a second mixed-income development near the Liberty Theater. The portion of the existing Booker T. Washington site at Victory Drive and Veterans Parkway would be cleared and made available for future commercial use or residential above commercial use. The idea was to develop mixed-income housing at both ends of the Liberty District thus igniting future redevelopment of the area. Those ideas were incorporated in the 2004 Master Plan after much discussion and stakeholder involvement in the planning process.

In 2010, the Housing Authority began master planning for the implementation of the mixed income housing portion of the Liberty District Plan, working with the city of Columbus administration and the city council.

We were quite surprised when a group of stakeholders who had previously met with the Housing Authority and were involved in 2004 Master Plan came forth with concerns and objections. Unfortunately, we were up against state of Georgia deadlines with the Department of Community Affairs and were unable to resolve those objections within the required deadline. We had to abandon this $17.5 million investment opportunity.

The mayor, Columbus Council members and city administrators supported a joint effort to develop an alternative plan. This team was successful in securing financing for partial replacement of Booker T. Washington at an alternative site. That plan included building one hundred units of housing for older persons at the former Chapman Homes site and construction should begin at the end of 2014.

The Housing Authority of Columbus is now hard at work on developing a low-income housing tax credit application for the northern half of the Booker T. Washington neighborhood. If successful, construction should begin on that site in late 2015.

It is important the public understand the context and history of both the Liberty District Master Plan and the proposed mixed income housing communities. This is an example of how, in Columbus, Georgia, we can work together to overcome any issues and come together to get the job done.

J. Len Williams, Chief Executive Officer, Housing Authority of Columbus, Georgia; jlwilliams@columbushousing.org

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