Looking Back: Excerpts from the Sunday interview with Len Williams
In early September, representatives from the Housing Authority of Columbus were in Washington to meet with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials.
One of the topics was the possible closing and demolition of Chase Homes, a 108-unit public housing complex along the Chattahoochee River. Local Housing Authority officials had grown more concerned about the electrical power substation adjacent to the 17 apartment buildings on the site and were ready to push the issue.
Over the summer, HUD officials had declined a request from the local authority to demolish half of the complex that was closest to the substation and First Avenue, Columbus Housing Authority CEO Len Williams said.
Williams and Chief Operating Officer Lisa Walters met with Gregory Byrne, HUD director of Affordable Housing Transaction Division. To make their case, the Columbus housing executives were armed with more than a dozen photographs that showed the potential dangers of the site.
“We decided to ask them to revisit that,” Williams said. “We took them pictures of the site so that they could see exactly what we were talking about.”
And the photos made an impression.
“At that point, they said, ‘Well, we think that is a bad situation for your residents and we need to get them away from those environmental issues. We think you should submit a Demolition Disposition application to clear the entire site,’” Williams said.
The photos, one in particular that showed a public housing building dwarfed by the substation, were effective, Williams said.
Georgia Power has two substations in that area, one between the river and First Ave. as First Avenue and then another between First Avenue and Second Avenue.
Thursday afternoon Chase Homes residents were informed of the HUD decision and the high likelihood that complex will be demolished sometime next year. About 50 residents attended the meeting in the complex’s community room.
The deal has not been formally approved by HUD, though the local authority is now acting at the request of HUD. The Housing Authority is in the process of putting together a Demolition Disposition application, which should be submitted to HUD late this month or early next month. A final decision from HUD is expected late this year or early next year, Williams said.
If the application is approved, HUD will then provide Section 8 vouchers for the Chase residents who wish to go into that program. They will be eligible to rent property in the Section 8 program throughout the city.
“We will be able to relocate the residents with vouchers,” Williams said. “... I would anticipate by the end of the first quarter of next year we will be able to start issuing vouchers. What we find is about half the residents will take vouchers and about half the residents will move into our other sites.”
Chase Homes sits on nearly 11 acres between First Avenue and the river just north of the TSYS campus. It opened in 1952 and is typical post-World War II era public housing.
Williams hopes to be able to build replacement housing for the Chase property along the Second Avenue corridor north of the current site.
“It is a pretty complex plan,” Williams said. “You may recall one of the mayor’s initiatives was City Village. The plan has always been to hopefully replace Chase with housing farther up in the Bradley Circle area. The city has accumulated property, which we have talked about for years trying to build housing there.”
Redevelopment of the area
The Housing Authority, in conjunction with its development partner Columbia Residential of Atlanta, plans to apply for federal tax credits, to facilitate the construction of the replacement housing, Williams said. Columbia has partnered with the Housing Authority on multiple projects, including Columbus Commons on the former Booker T. Washington site along Veterans Parkway and Victory Drive and Arbor Pointe and Patriot Pointe in south Columbus.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said that this has the potential to trigger the redevelopment of the area she and others call City Village, a roughly 30-square-block area between the TSYS campus and Bibb City. Chase Homes is located on the southern tip of City Village.
“This is one of those seminal projects that is going to further redefine our uptown area,” Tomlinson said. “This is basically bringing in mixed income in-town living to that community. We already have a strong Historic District. You got TSYS right there.”
This offers an opportunity to improve the area, which has been one of her goals for most of her eight years as mayor.
“About seven or eight years ago, we went to the Center for Urban Design, which is part of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and this is one of projects we took,” Tomlinson said. “There were world-famous designers and planners there. They said this is your Boston Commons. This is your moment to create a space that will be there for a 100-plus years. The plan is to create linear parks along the bluff to keep that public, put in integrated-income housing so you can have teachers living there and people getting their first job at TSYS living there.”
One of the things going for this project is Williams’ track record of success in his tenure as the CEO of the local Housing Authority. This is the fourth such project the authority has undertaken since 2004. That was when the Housing Authority was awarded a HOPE VI grant to demolish Peabody Apartments. It was replaced with Ashley Station, a 367-unit mixed-income rental housing project that cost nearly $48 million to develop.
Arbor Pointe replaced Baker Village Apartments beginning in 2009. Built in three phases, Arbor Pointe has 416 units and was developed at a cost more than $55 million. Patriot Pointe, which replaced Chapman Homes, was completed in 2016 at a cost of $17.2 million for 100 units.
The most recent project was Columbus Commons, built on the site of the former Booker T.Washington Apartments across from the Civic Center. The residential piece was completed last year at a cost of $21.5 million for 106 units. A large commercial tract at the intersection of Victory Drive and Veterans Parkway has yet to be developed.
Once Chase is demolished, the ownership will be transferred from the Housing Authority to its nonprofit entity CSG Development Inc.
“That will give us time to decide what we want to do, similar to the property at BTW,” Williams said. “If we are not able to build at Bradley Circle, a small amount of housing may be built back on that site. We don’t plan to abandon that area.”