Lack of support for an Atlanta-based company’s proposal to build a senior housing complex on Wynnton Road apparently backfired in the wake of a recent Columbus Council meeting.
Instead of building 84 housing units for residents 55 and older, as TBG Residential proposed Tuesday night, the developers have decided to move forward with their original plans to build an even higher-density development at the 2551 Wynnton Road location. Those plans call for a 94-unit, multifamily affordable housing complex on the 6 acre site.
The Hilton property was once the site of a four-room clapboard house built in 1838 by Dr. Lovick Pierce, a prominent pastor in Columbus. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, according to city officials.
Kevin Buckner, a principal with TBG Residential, said the company plans to submit an application for low-income housing tax credits through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs by May 24. He said developers should know by middle- to late-November whether the tax credits are approved.
On Thursday, Buckner told the Ledger-Enquirer that the project is moving forward despite running into strong opposition at Tuesday’s council meeting, where councilors took no action on the company’s request for an affordable housing loan to help with the project.
“When citizens come out, they have the right to voice their opinions,” Buckner said, reflecting on the outcome of the meeting. “They love that parcel of land; it’s been there for years and years. We have empathy for them. We do.
“... But once we’re built, once we’re leased up and once they see how quiet our properties are,” he said, “whether it’s senior or family, they won’t know the difference. They just won’t.”
City Manager Isaiah Hugley was among those who withheld support for the project Tuesday night. Prior to the meeting, he emailed a letter to councilors expressing his concerns.
“Since the project site is located in Midtown, the developer reached out to Midtown Inc. hoping to gain their support for the project,” he wrote. “Since that meeting occurred, the city has been contacted by numerous citizens that own property in Midtown in opposition to this project.
“With the development consisting of affordable housing, many have expressed concern that property values will decrease and the crime rate will increase in their neighborhoods,” he continued. “Also the potential site is the Eakle Property which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so many oppose this type of development being constructed on this site.”
On Thursday, Hugley said Tuesday’s meeting was the first time he had heard of the developer’s plans to build senior housing. He said the city wasn’t given enough time to assess the project.
“We understood all along that the property is already properly zoned for the development that they would want to do and because it’s properly zoned they could move forward with the project,” he said. “The question was, and continues to be, were we going to continue to partner with them in the project, considering they had not done all of those things that I pointed out at the City Council meeting? And for those reasons, I was not prepared to bring the project forward at this time.”
On Thursday, Midtown Inc. issued a public statement clarifying the organization’s position on the development.
“Many residents have wondered why MidTown, Inc. was not forthcoming with information about proposed development on the Hilton property at an earlier date,” the statement reads. “As an organization, we have sought to gather accurate facts about the site and the proposed project and alternatives before disseminating any information or taking a formal position.
“We are still not certain that we have all of the pertinent facts or understand the controlling interests: the principals involved have been ambivalent.,” it continued. “We hear clearly the concerns expressed throughout our community, especially with regard to density, design and quality construction at this gateway site.”
The statement expressed appreciation for Council’s decision to decline action to support TBG Residential’s request for city participation in the project.
Later, in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Midtown Inc. Executive Director Anne King said TBG’s first meeting with organization occurred on April 3rd. She said it didn’t give the organization much time to fully analyze the plans. She said Midtown residents who showed up in opposition on Tuesday were there to oppose the multifamily development due to the density of the project. They didn’t know about the senior housing proposal until they got to the meeting.
“We have heard a lot of concern about this project and most of what we have heard is from people who want opposition to this project,” she said. “There are a great many people who are opposed to the density. It’s a radical change that’s being proposed.
“What I wish - is what we’re so used to seeing happen locally - is that the developers had engaged in a year-long process of community engagement,” she said. “None of us have seen site plans for a project, concept drawings for a project. We’ve only met these developers within the last few weeks. ... So this is all new to the community as a whole.”
On Tuesday, Bradley Smith, the company’s senior vice president, told councilors the company has been working on the $16 million proposed project for two years. The original plans called for 94 units, but developers began changing their plans after a Midtown Inc. meeting, where residents expressed a preference for senior housing.
TBG needed the low-interest loan, available through the city’s Home Investment Partnership Program, in order to build the 84 senior housing units at the site, Smith explained. He also requested the continuance of a recently eliminated Metra bus route during lunch hours for the remainder of the year.
Smith said the extension of bus route 8 would help the company secure low-income housing tax credits through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. He said TBG would pay for the bus service through the end of 2018.
But sitting in council chambers were dozens of Midtown residents opposed to the project. Councilor Bruce Huff asked them to stand as he chided the developer for not holding additional meetings with residents before appearing before council. He said Smith had promised to do so at a previous meeting.
“We were all thinking that there would be more time to meet all of these people and their neighbors so they could understand more what was going on and have more conversation,” Huff said. “And I think it’s semantics as far as you trying to get your financing together. We didn’t realize your financing included us.
“So all of these people are not in favor of what’s going on right now,” he said. “... My phone has rung off the hook; my emails are off the chain, and at this point and time they’re here saying, ‘We don’t want this in our neighborhood.’”
Mayor Pro-Tem Evelyn Turner-Pugh asked Smith if his company had developed any other projects in Columbus. He said no.
“Well, you’re not aware of how things operate in Columbus,” she said. “... When you have controversy between the people who live here and people who want to build here and they can’t get together and talk before they come to council, we have a big problem with that because we hear from them... and they need to be listened to and something needs to be worked out.”
She said Council had already approved discontinuation of the Metra bus route and the decision would not be reversed.
Laura Johnson, the city’s director of Community Reinvestment, provided council with the pros and cons associated with the project.
She said TBG is a developer out of Atlanta that aims to provide communities quality affordable housing. They’ve completed 16 affordable housing projects throughout Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. Five of the developments are senior housing and 11 are multifamily. The company currently has two projects under construction.
Johnson said the project could benefit the city by generating $250,000 per year in property tax revenue.
She said the property is located in Midtown West Tax Allocation District No. 5 and the TBG development could be a successful TAD project, creating rental housing units for residents. Local companies would be employed during and after construction, creating temporary and permanent jobs.
Johnson also acknowledged resident’s concerns, which included the density of the project, concerns about property values, traffic and crime. And, she said, some residents believe the historic significance of the property will be impacted by the development.
On Thursday, Buckner said TBG Residential selected the Wynnton Road site because it meets many of the guidelines required for low-income tax credits through the state Department of Community Affairs. The guidelines include being close to a grocery store, pharmacy, school and other services.
“Some of the guidelines are also: What does the poverty look like in that area?” he said. “In some cases, we do well going into areas that have very little poverty, and in some cases we submit applications to the Department of Community Affairs for impoverished areas.”
He said the company is still completing a market study on the Wynnton Road area, but he believes the area would be ideal for an affordable housing complex.
“The truth of the matter is that there is always a need for affordable housing, not only in the state of Georgia, but throughout the country,” he said. “So, when we choose an area, we often do not see numbers come back that don’t show a large demand for affordability.”
He said the Wynnton Road project would be developed for people who earn 60 percent or less of the area median income. But every resident, unless it’s a senior citizen receiving retirement benefits, has to work or have some other type of income.
“It just means that they may be working harder than anybody else,” he said. “They’re just not earning as much income as other people in the county.
TBG currently has the property under contract with the option to purchase, he explained. Because the property is already zoned multifamily, the project does not require council approval, he said. But plans will have to go before the Board of Historic & Architectural Review for design approval.
Buckner said TBG would work with architects skilled at preserving the integrity of historic properties.
He said the company was aware that there was some neighborhood opposition and tried to work with city officials and community leaders. He regrets that developers didn’t hold more meetings with residents, but they were on a tight schedule for the May 24 tax credit deadline.
“We heard about a bunch of push-back from Midtown Inc. and the city and that people were unhappy about us building,” he said. “So we thought, ‘Gee, let’s offer up senior housing even though it’s not as financially profitable for us to do it.’
“We would trade something we wanted, which was multifamily housing, for senior housing, if the city would support us with Home funds and or the bus,” he said. “The bus was always a reach, but you ask. Nobody gets in trouble for asking.”
Despite the setback in community relations, Buckner said, the company will continue to meet with Midtown Inc. and other residents as the project moves forward. While they might be angry now, he believes they’ll come around once the project is completed.
“Our residents are hard-working, they’re good people, they want a safe place to live where they’re not rent- burdened, which means spending more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing,” he said. “So, at the end of the day, the neighbors are going to be mad, but we have yet to find neighborhoods who hate us long-term, because we do what we say.”