It appears a vocal grassroots group of Columbus residents rallying around a Help Save Hilton campaign in the midtown area has been successful in stopping an apartment complex from being developed at 2551 Wynnton Road.
The Georgia Department of Community Affairs has denied Atlanta-based developer TBG Residential access to low-income housing tax credits that can be used to help finance what was to be an 84-unit apartment complex on just under 6 acres adjacent to residential neighborhoods.
“I was asked if we thought it was a victory,” Tyler Pritchard, a midtown resident and chairman of the Help Save Hilton steering committee, said Thursday. “I don’t think I would say that. I would call it more an opportunity. If this indeed is a final resolution, it provides our community and Help Save Hilton the opportunity to pursue other developments there.”
Help Save Hilton began organizing in early May, just as the Atlanta developer’s deadline for submitting an application for low-income housing credits was approaching. The group quickly raised $100,000 to fund its effort, which included some marketing signs and sending an official opposition letter to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. The letter raised the group’s concerns with the developer’s overall approach to the project and lack of transparency by failing to involve the community in its plans.
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The group’s letter was accompanied by another from Mayor Teresa Tomlinson — and with a resolution from Columbus Council members — saying the city could not recommend the development under the current circumstances, which included TBG Residential’s lack of community input and involvement.
The land targeted for development has been under contract between TBG Residential and the Eakle Family, with Grandin Eakle, who now lives in Harris County, saying his family has owned it for more than 100 years. The property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Known as the Hilton property, it is primarily a large forested lot with the burned-out remains of a home that is also bordered by Hilton Avenue and 15th Street.
Kevin Buckner, president of TBG Residential, said via email Thursday that his company is simply trying to find out why the proposed project was not approved for the tax credits. It was among 27 applications not selected by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to receive the credits statewide in what is a highly competitive process. Thirty-four applications were approved.
“At this point all we are going to do is have an informal meeting with DCA to better understand their reasoning for not selecting our proposal,” Buckner said. “I can’t give you much more information because anything I would say would just be supposition. Needless to say, we are disappointed and given that the Hilton property will be developed someday, we have always thought a well-maintained multi-family community would be better choice than many of the alternatives.”
Earlier this year, the developer initially tossed out the possibility of putting 84 senior housing units for residents age 55 and up, but changed that after the city declined to assist with the funding mechanism. The company then said it would build an affordable housing apartment complex on the property at a cost of about $16 million.
“They have the right to voice their opinions. They love that parcel of land. It’s been there for years and years. We have empathy for them,” Buckner said of initial concerns voiced by residents after a council meeting in April. “But once we’re built, once we’re leased up and once they see how quiet our properties are — whether it’s senior or family — they won’t know the difference.”
TBG Residential had contacted the Eakles more than two years ago about selling the land, which was rezoned for multifamily use sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, according to city planning officials. The family declined to sell to the developer a couple of times before ultimately making the decision to go ahead with it. The proposed sales price has not been disclosed.
The Atlanta developer has 16 affordable housing developments scattered throughout Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, with 11 of them multifamily complexes and five senior housing. The company had estimated the Wynnton Road development could bring the city $250,000 in property tax revenue annually.
Pritchard said Thursday he thinks the Help Save Hilton campaign was a significant factor in halting the proposed apartment complex. He praised the Georgia Department of Community Affairs for listening to the opposition group and elected city officials.
“It’s my hope that DCA as a department of the state that operates on taxpayer dollars understood that this was a concern within our community, enough so that it sparked interest from the mayor and city council, and that they acted on those concerns instead of just blindly looking at the application,” he said. “We hope they considered the totality of the circumstances and said we don’t think this is the best thing.”
Pritchard also stressed that he and others with Help Save Hilton believe that the property owners should be able to sell the land in the future, but that more thought should be given to what will go on the very visible acreage tucked between neighborhoods on one side and a heavily trafficked multi-lane roadway on the other.
He said some local people have tossed out the possibility of making it a park for the city, but he thinks it ultimately will be used in some sort of revenue-generating capacity. Asked if a small shopping center or a couple of fast-food restaurants might be the answer, he said there needs to be more thought and input from Columbus residents on what they would support on the historic property. He does hope whatever goes there can generate a buzz of approval rather than anxious concerns.
“I think we’re going to continue to work around the community and see what we can do as a movement to, A, ensure that the Eakles are provided an opportunity to sell that property, as is their absolute right,” Pritchard said. “And then, B, in that same vein, sell it to a developer who can turn it into something that we as a community can look at and say: This is going to be great. This is going to be great for the citizens of Midtown and for the citizens of Columbus as a whole.”