Upset Columbus residents plan to fight Atlanta developer’s affordable housing project

Midtown resident concerned developer’s plan will impact home value, traffic

Teddy Reese, a midtown resident, talks about a developer’s plan to bring affordable housing units off of Wynnton Road.
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Teddy Reese, a midtown resident, talks about a developer’s plan to bring affordable housing units off of Wynnton Road.

In what is shaping up to be a contentious effort, a group of residents in the Midtown area of Columbus have decided to organize resistance against a planned affordable housing apartment complex on nearly 6 acres of land at 2551 Wynnton Road.

The challenge to the project comes with Atlanta-based TBG Residential proposing to construct a 94-unit complex on property that 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.

“We’re not opposed to a development there. We’re opposed to this particular development because of density issues, the traffic issues and environmental concerns. That’s what I’m hearing from everybody,” Tyler Pritchard, a resident of the area, said last week during an information session that he scheduled for concerned citizens.

Kevin Buckner, a principal with TBG Residential, has said he plans to submit an application for low-income housing tax credits through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs by May 24. His company expects to receive word in November on whether or not the tax credits, which will be used during the financing process, will be approved.

The developer originally tossed out the possibility of putting 84 senior housing units for residents age 55 and up, but switched after the city declined during a recent Columbus Council meeting to assist with the funding mechanism. The company then said it would build a 94-unit 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 following the recent council meeting in which he disclosed his plans that had been in the discussion stage for about two years. “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.”

The city and local nonprofit organizations such as Midtown Inc. and Historic Columbus said they only learned of the development in April, catching them off guard and wondering about the impact it might have on the surrounding area, particularly neighborhoods bordering the proposed apartment complex. As the news spread among residents, anxiety has mushroomed.

“I, too, have concerns about home values and traffic and things of that nature considering I have a very, very small daughter that will soon be riding her bikes in the local neighborhood,” said Teddy Reese, who lives on nearby Stark Avenue. “It’s really a concern that’s rooted in the fact that I’ve been living in this property a little over two years and no one came and talked to any of us in the neighborhood about a potential development. So it kind of seems like it’s a rush job.”

The land targeted for development is under contract with the Eakle Family. Grandin Eakle, who now lives in Harris County, said his family has owned it for more than 100 years. At the informational meeting last week, he implored residents not to jump to conclusions on the quality and impact the apartment development will have on the area.

He confirmed that TBG Residential had contacted the family 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. He said the family declined to sell to the developer a couple of times before ultimately making the decision to go ahead with it. He did not disclose the sales price.

“I understand that you and a lot of other people are against this or you’re angry,” Eakle told the more than 200 residents who attended the information meeting at the main Columbus Library on Macon Road. “We’ve always had plans to do something there. You cannot expect us to not do something with that piece of property.”

Muscogee County tax records show the market value of the Wynnton Road property is $239,602, although a developer planning a profitable long-term venture would likely pay much more for the prime location on the heavily trafficked multi-lane Wynnton-Macon Road corridor. Annual property taxes are just under $4,000.

Midtown residents listened intently last week as city officials and the nonprofit groups dished out what little they know about the project and what might happen moving forward. They also fielded a variety of questions related to specific concerns.

Muffy Schladensky, a lifetime resident of the Midtown area who lives on Wildwood Avenue, and is on the Midtown Inc. board, said the organization is not against mixed-income housing. Instead, she is concerned with the lack of details released by the developer about traffic issues and the density of the apartment complex.

One resident wondered what impact school buses and the entrance and exits of the housing development will have on nearby homeowners and their quality of life and property values. He said the city should not allow it to happen. One neighbor in the area said the traffic would be a “disaster.”

Pam Hodge, the city’s deputy city manager over development, said there is little that the city can do until it sees documents such as site plans and traffic studies. TBG Residential will have to submit site plans to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs when it submits its application seeking tax credits to the agency later this month. Traffic and environmental studies will likely come after the developer finds out in November if the low-income tax credits are approved.

“I can’t say, yes or no, that we could stop something until they go through a formal process,” she said in response to one resident’s query. “An analysis would have to be done on how that traffic circulates within the development and on to the street. So that would be reviewed. If they don’t meet the requirements, they might have to change the density of the project in order to meet the traffic requirements.”

Hodge acknowledged the city learned of the development less than three weeks before it was brought to council’s attention.

“Until they needed our involvement, I don’t know that there was any reason for them to contact us to make us aware of this project. It’s zoned correctly,” she said.

Historic Columbus executive director Elizabeth Barker said her organization also is trying to learn more about the project. As a National Register of Historic Places listing, the land in question is also locally designated as historic, she said. That means the city’s Board of Historic and Architectural Review would also take a look at what the developers plan to do when specifics are released.

For now, Barker said, “We cannot support what we understand is the proposed development because of density, the traffic and quality of construction. And we believe that a 94-unit development on this site will not respect the surrounding historic neighborhood because of the mass and the scale that it will require to build such a massive complex on six acres.”

One of the more enlightening presentations made during the concerned citizens meeting was by Cathy Williams, president and chief executive officer of NeighborWorks Columbus, which assists local residents with attaining affordable housing. That includes using low-income tax credits to help finance construction of dwellings.

Williams explained that a tax-credit developer looks at properties in rural and urban areas each year to see what would “score” well on an application for the low-interest rate financing mechanism administered through the Department of Community Affairs, or DCA. The tax-credit program is guided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

The scoring process that she and developers such as TBG Residential look at include guidelines such as a property that is close to a grocery store, pharmacy, school and other services such as public transportation.

“This piece of property that we’re talking about, I will tell you, scores very, very high,” Williams said. “It’s got a lot of what tax-credit developers are looking for because since a Supreme Court ruling two-and-a-half years ago, HUD has intentionally moved tax credit developments into what they call opportunity areas. Those are areas not with a high concentration of poverty or a high concentration of minorities.”

Williams said TBG Residential would have looked at the Wynnton road property, negotiated a price for it on what the zoning would allow and how high it would score. The higher the score, the more likelihood a tax-credit application will be approved.

“Clearly, this developer has already done some of that due diligence or he has a good idea of what can go on the property. He’s done 16 developments, so this is not somebody who doesn’t have experience,” she said.

TBG Residential and other tax-credit developers will find out in November whether or not their application to receive tax-credit financing has been approved. Williams said it’s never a done deal considering there are a limited number of tax-credit allocations made each year — perhaps one or two for a city the size of Columbus — and that there could be another property in Columbus that scores higher for a project. Nobody will know until DCA releases information this fall, she said.

If the Wynnton Road developer receives approval, that will be the time to start speaking with the company about things like design and buffers and other concerns, Williams said. She also cautioned that if affordable multifamily housing is listed on the May 24 application, it is likely that it will not be allowed to change to another use such as senior housing.

One Midtown resident at the information session commented that it appears that everything, more or less, is a done deal. Williams said the developer certainly will not view anything as a done deal until his approved tax-credit allocation letter arrives. She said it would be wise for residents to form committees and see what they can accomplish in the coming days and months.

“Start communicating with the developer. Have a relationship with the developer,” she said. “No developer wants to come into a city and start a development hated. And no developer wants to leave a city and know that a community is going to be one step ahead of him or her (disparaging them) when they go into the next community. This development company, I would hope as an industry representative, is not going to be unreasonable as long as the people that it communicates with are not unreasonable. If you kind of keep that in mind, I think you’ll win a lot more than you’ll lose in this situation.”

Pritchard, who organized the concern citizens gathering, said now is the time to start moving forward by forming committees, reaching out to state representatives and, perhaps, even the governor of Georgia.

“It’s one thing to be a mob with pitchforks,” he said. “But it’s another thing to come together and have a unified point of view that we don’t want this thing and these are the actions we’re going to take to make sure that it doesn’t happen.”

TBG Residential has 16 affordable housing developments scattered throughout Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, with 11 of them multifamily complexes and five senior housing. The company has projected the Wynnton Road development could bring the city $250,000 in property tax revenue annually.