New Phenix City housing developments hope to spur downtown revitalization
Ashley Hudson has lived five years in Phenix City’s Riverview Apartments, with the young mother raising three children in an area geographically referred to as “up on the hill” off Fourth Avenue.
On Wednesday, her eyes grew misty while describing in starkly simple terms why she is happy to be leaving the 1950s-era portion of Riverview for a new “rental assisted” apartment complex called Hidden Hills Trace a short drive away near South Railroad Street.
“It’s somewhere my kids will be able to actually go outside and play and enjoy themselves and not have to worry about anything,” said Hudson, 27, originally from Waverly Hall, Ga. “Now don’t get me wrong, Riverview has been a blessing to us. It has ... because it put a roof over our heads.”
But the mother and home-health care worker also is certainly looking ahead — with a humble pride of sorts — to the vastly more modern Hidden Hills Trace that is part of the Phenix City Housing Authority’s strategic plan to upgrade its aging complexes, which also includes shepherding a multiphase project called Whitewater Village on the property where Riverview has stood for decades, the earliest units dating to 1941.
“Yeah, moving is stressful, but at the same time it’s something to look forward to for my kids and for myself,” Hudson said. “It’s somewhere we can go where this is brand new. This is not something that we have to go in and someone before us already lived there.”
Those are the emotions that have been surfacing with Mary Mayrose, the housing authority’s executive director, and her staff relocating residents from the Riverview Apartments now being prepared to be razed by bulldozers to other housing in Phenix City.
All of the moves are tied into the Whitewater Village project, which will come over three or four phases, with the first step the creation of Hidden Hills Trace, a complex at the intersection of 24th Street and 19th Avenue. It is being built and overseen by Northport, Ala.-based Hollyhand Development with the help of a little more than $11 million in federal tax credits.
Construction on Hidden Hills Trace began last November and should be completed by December, Mayrose said, with families moving in immediately. Those people being relocated from Riverview have the opportunity to enter other public housing or convert their assistance to a program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, which allows them to live in any private housing complex in which the owner is participating.
Of the 104 families being moved from the western section of Riverview Apartments, 54 of them — including Hudson and her children — have decided they will move to Hidden Hills Trace when it opens, she said. The remaining 50 either can return to the new Whitewater Village housing complex when it opens by December 2019 or take a voucher and live elsewhere in the city.
It’s all part of a master plan that the Phenix City Housing Authority began reviewing roughly two years ago, making the decision to phase out the aging housing and replace it with new properties that have modern amenities such as central heat and air, wood flooring, sizable kitchens with a dishwater, washer-dryer hookups and good parking.
The overall 306 units that comprise Riverview Apartments — about two-thirds of them waiting for a future reconstruction phase —range in age from those constructed “up on the hill” in 1952 to others built in 1941, the year the U.S. entered World War II. The redevelopment area has been dubbed Whitewater Village because of its proximity to the Chattahoochee River and the rapids that form the whitewater course.
“We decided some years ago through a strategic planning process that we wanted to redevelop this site first. We knew we had redevelopment needs everywhere, but we wanted to start here,” said Mayrose of the public housing land that encompasses nearly 20 acres and is adjacent to the new Troy University building and a new Courtyard by Marriott hotel. The headquarters structure of credit-card processor TSYS is easily visible across the river in Columbus.
Whitewater Village will be a mixed-use development, but the first phase “up on the hill” will be residential only for both low-income subsidized residents and those paying market rates. The project is being funded through a second awarding of federal tax credits totaling $14 million, with site excavation starting this October and construction of the new buildings by Hollyhand Development expected to be completed by December of next year.
“When we were doing our strategic planning process, one of the things we learned is that everybody wants to get down to the river,” Mayrose said. “So we wanted to make walkways and pathways and roads and streets that would get everybody to the river because that’s a resource that we want our (current) families and our new families to take advantage of.”
Thus, the design is to make the first phase of the Whitewater Village residential development an urban neighborhood with plenty of trees, wide sidewalks and bicycle paths and improved streets. The plan includes widening 17th Street south to Fourth Avenue and eventually all the way to the river. Mayrose said the goal is to use the architecture and geographic design of the current phase of redeveloped property to give it “kind of an uptown feeling.”
There’s no time frame for when the next phase of the overall project will begin, the executive director said, although it will include additional residential areas and commercial property closer to the river.
“It’s maybe going to have some coffee shops and restaurants, maybe it’s going to have some office space. We’ve had conversations with Troy University about maybe some gallery space. Maybe they’ll have a need for some classroom space. We don’t know. We’re just really open to all kinds of options and conversations,” Mayrose said, noting all of the construction that will take place as the project unfolds will create jobs locally, as will any future business development in the area.
The Phenix City Housing Authority currently owns all of the property in the Whitewater Village project, although all of it except a tiny percentage will move to an entity called Whitewater Village Limited to protect those investing in the development via the 10-year tax credits, Mayrose said.
“We have an agreement with Hollyhand that in five years we will take over management of the property, and then in five more years, when the tax credits expire, we will take over ownership,” she said. “So it eventually comes back to us.”
Mayrose said the housing authority and its board members have done all their homework to include having environmental reviews conducted and performing market studies. The hope is everything will fall into place without any problems.
“We feel very confident about the product that we’re going to build. We feel very confident about the change that it’s going to provide for this community, and we feel really confident about the fact that we think it’s going to allow us to move on to our next couple of phases,” she said.
BY THE NUMBERS
▪ Hidden Hills Trace will have nine buildings, 84 units and 100,000 square feet of space under roof altogether
▪ Whitewater Village will have seven buildings, 82 units and 120,000 square feet of space in all