In December 2011, when the Housing Authority of Columbus was developing a proposal to build 100 apartments around the historic Liberty Theatre, a newly formed development company met with public housing and city officials to share its vision for the property where Booker T. Washington apartments is located.
The company, Knicon Inc., used a colorful PowerPoint presentation in two separate meetings to propose a highly sophisticated concept for the intersection of Victory Drive and Veterans Parkway. Still in a conceptual stage, the proposal was called Commons II + Heritage Plaza because of its proximity to South Commons. It included plans for a hotel at the intersection -- across from the Columbus Civic Center -- along with other retail development similar to CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Fla.
One of the presenters was Joe Lunsford whose wife, Cecilia, is listed as president of Knicon. Lunsford is also the brother of Muscogee County Tax Commissioner Lula Lunsford Huff, who led recent opposition against the housing authority's now defunct plans.
"We felt strongly that Victory Drive, as the east-west connector, was basically one of the front doors to our community that people saw, and that South Commons was detached from the rest of downtown and the Liberty District," said Scott Allen, a senior principal partner with 2WR, the architectural firm that developed the concept. "We sought to strengthen the connection to the rest of the community by revitalizing that edge, by anchoring a hotel down there that could be used, not only for this part of the development, but for South Commons. And the goal was to connect Victory Drive up to the (Liberty Theatre) with mixed-use structures and medium density multi-family housing."
A week ago, the housing authority abruptly abandoned plans to build the apartments around the Liberty Theatre, postponing plans to demolish and rebuild the old BTW apartment complex. The agency said it faced "unexpected opposition" as it approached tight deadlines for tax credit financing, but it would continue to explore other options.
The opposition came from Huff, Councilor Jerry "Pops" Barnes and Councilor Bruce Huff, the tax commissioner's brother-in-law. Bruce Huff and Lula Huff's husband, Charles, are partners in Charles E. Huff's International Funeral Home, also located in the Liberty District.
Opponents also included grass-roots activists. They backed Lula Huff's argument that the development violated the city's 2003 Liberty District Master Plan. They pushed for a "Liberty Center" around the theater, once the heart of the Columbus black community, with a focus on commercial development and cultural activities.
On the other side of the debate was Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and City Manager Isaiah Hugley, who launched a vigorous campaign in favor of the project, even going down to the BTW apartment complex to rally support among residents.
The mayor's husband, Trip, is vice chairman of the Housing Authority board of directors. Tomlinson said her husband's position had nothing to do with her support of the project. She said she ran for office on a platform of revitalizing blighted areas and was just trying to do what was best for the community.
"Why would I be for something just because my husband is for something?" she asked. "Seems to me more likely my passion for this subject comes from my knowledge that opportunities like this don't come across that often."
As the housing authority regroups, the future of the Liberty District is uncertain, along with plans to maximize one of the city's most significant thoroughfares. The BTW apartment complex, which consists of 392 units, sits directly across from the Columbus Civic Center, the Columbus Ice Rink, A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium and the South Commons Softball Complex. A recent "as is" appraisal listed the value of the property at $2 million; about $1 million of that applies to the Victory/Veterans intersection that has been slated for commercial development, housing officials said.
So far, Knicon is the only company that has come forward with a proposal for commercial development at the intersection, said Len Williams, the housing authority's chief executive officer.
At a March 29 stakeholders meeting, Lula Huff said Tomlinson and other city officials claimed there were no private developers interested in the area. She then pointed to Joe Lunsford, who sat in the audience, and he stood to a rousing applause. But both Lula and Bruce Huff said the family connection to the Knicon proposal has nothing to do with their opposition to the housing authority plans. Lula Huff said it's about preserving the historical significance of the district, just like the city did with midtown and downtown.
"The east side was where the African-American downtown was," she said "It was their community. A community means that there's residential, commercial, there's the arts, there's civic. There's a combination. Not just residential."
Randy Williams, executive vice president of Knicon, said Joe Lunsford is just an "adviser" to the company. Lunsford's wife, Cecilia, is a principal investor but is not involved in the day-to-day operations, he said.
Knicon envisioned a possible arts magnet school around the Liberty Theatre in addition to mixed-income, multi-family housing and storefronts. The company developed a concept for the Lunsford property, at the corner of Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue, that included residential units above retail space.
"The Lunsfords own property (in the Liberty District), right in the midst of it, and I think they've always had aspirations of developing that before I, Knicon or anybody got involved," Randy Williams said. "There have been several thoughts and renditions about that. So, that simply happened to be in the mix of our thought process."
Tomlinson described the city's 2011 meeting with Knicon representatives as casual.
"People asked to stop by, which is not all that uncommon," she said. "They come to town, ask to stop by and pitch an idea, show me something they're doing, you know, a project, a program, something of that nature, and it was very much in that typical vein. So, they came in and showed the PowerPoint and there wasn't any feasibility study, no cost estimates, just no other material provided."
Amy Moore, the housing authority's chief real estate officer, said the agency's meeting with the company focused on commercial development, not residential. The agency later sent out a "Request for Qualification" for the first phase of the BTW redevelopment project. The RFQ went to 20 developers, including Knicon. The only one to respond was Columbia Residential, a minority-owned, Atlanta-based company that developed Ashley Station and Arbor Pointe.
Randy Williams said the company didn't submit an RFQ because it was still in its infancy and unable to meet requirements.
"This was simply an exercise to look at what opportunities may be there to revitalize that area," he said of the proposal. "It's just an awesome opportunity to merge economic development, revitalization and history."