Replacing BTW units could revive Liberty area

The area surrounding the historic Liberty Theatre, once the hub of Columbus' black community, may be nearing a rebirth.

The Housing Authority of Columbus hopes to build 100 multi-family apartments on property surrounding the theater as part of its plans to demolish the aging Booker T. Washington public housing complex at Veterans Parkway and Victory Drive. The new units, proposed for a three-block area, would provide replacement housing for some BTW residents.

But before trying to revive one of the city's most neglected areas, the Housing Authority must obtain multi-family zoning for seven acres bounded by Eighth and Ninth streets, from Sixth to Ninth avenues. The city-owned property is currently zoned for residential office, light manufacturing and general commercial use. The rezoning must be obtained before the agency can apply for federal tax credits needed to fund the BTW revitalization project.

Len Williams, the Housing Authority's chief executive officer, said the plans are to tear down the BTW complex and replace it with modernized, mixed-income housing. The apartments would be similar to those at Ashley Station, which replaced the Peabody public housing complex, and Arbor Pointe, which replaced Baker Village. Both Baker Village and Peabody were antiquated, high-density developments similar to BTW.

Williams said the 2005 Ashley Station project was funded by a $20 million Hope VI grant from the federal government, but the grant has been converted to a Choice Neighborhood's Initiative program, and the funding is greatly reduced. The agency had to use tax credits, replacement housing and modernization funds, as well as accumulate some debt, to build Arbor Pointe, now in its final stage of development.

Williams said the same type of funding will be needed for the BTW project. The Housing Authority plans to file the tax credit application by June, with the hopes of getting approval by November. If the financing comes through, construction could start by the fall of 2014 and the apartments could be completed a year later.

On Feb. 6, the agency cleared one small hurdle when the Planning Advisory Commission unanimously voted in favor of rezoning the property surrounding the Liberty Theatre, just south of the Muscogee County Jail. Now the commission's recommendation, along with an assessment by the planning department, must go to the City Council, which has the final say. If the council agrees to move forward, neighbors will be notified and public hearings held for input, said Planning Director Rick Jones.

The city has already committed $3 million to the project, which would be conducted in two phases, Williams said. The first phase would involve building the apartments near the Liberty Theatre, relocating residents on the northern end of the BTW property, then building new apartments on the vacant land. During the second phase, residents on the southern end of the property will be relocated, opening up land at the intersection of Veterans Parkway and Victory Drive for commercial development. Some residents would be given Section 8 vouchers for market-rate rental housing scattered throughout the city.

But Williams said the project is in jeopardy if the tax credit application is not approved.

"We just couldn't afford to do it without that," he said. "We'll keep our fingers crossed and hope that we're funded."

Liberty District's heyday

The Liberty Theatre District, which includes both BTW and the theater, was once the pride of Columbus' black community. Businesses lined the streets and residents supported them. In 1925, the Liberty Theatre opened to cater to black residents banned from white theaters. It became the heart of the community, showcasing such great performers as Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington.

The district was also home to Columbus' own blues singer Ma Rainey. Her house remains there along with the home of William Henry Spencer, a renowned black educator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But in the 1970s, Columbus became more integrated, and many black families moved to neighborhoods outside of the district. Buildings began to deteriorate, and the area was left in ruins, said Robert Anderson, chair of the Liberty Theatre board of directors.

"When things came to the point that we could go elsewhere, we went elsewhere, and we didn't support our own businesses," he said. "The theater closed, The restaurants closed. The gas stations closed. For whatever reason we never had the opportunity to go, so we went, and when we went we didn't come back."

The theater, which remained closed for many years, is now on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1993, it received a $1 million grant for rehabilitation and restoration. And it's now a performing arts cultural center for plays and musical events.

Last week, the theater prepared for weekend performances of "Clybourne Park," a 2012 Tony award-winning drama that opened last Thursday and will end its run Feb. 24. Many of the properties surrounding the theater were vacant and run-down, and the ground a mucky mess due to a city flood abatement project.

State. Rep. Calvin Smyre, who grew up in the area, said the flooding abatement project is a sign that the district is making progress. For many years, the area was swamped during heavy rain, which turned off potential investors. Now that the problem is being addressed, he hopes it will make the area more desirable for commercial investment.

"I've seen other areas (redeveloped)," he said. "I've seen midtown. I've seen historic Columbus. And I think, rightly so, it's time for the city to focus attention on the Liberty District."

Smyre said there was discussion about moving the BTW apartment complex 15 years ago, but there were no good replacement options available. He said the Liberty Theatre vicinity is a good fit because the area needs residents.

But it will take much more to revive the area, he added. "My goal, as well as the goal of others, is to make sure when we adopt a plan that the Housing Authority and the city is collaborating on that there are businesses, social, entertainment as well as the other activities that make up the quality of life."

Bringing it back

The city has about $5 million in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds for infrastructure improvements and revitalization in the Liberty District. It has been used for infrastructure, property acquisition, flood abatement and streetscape projects, City Manager Isaiah Hugley said.

The city is currently trying to swap land with Holsey Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church as part of the revitalization plan. In August, the council also approved $700,000 to purchase about 4.5 acres in a crime-riddled apartment complex off Benning Road in south Columbus.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said the Liberty Housing District is a vital part of Columbus.

The community has been trying to revive the area for about 20 years and she believes the BTW apartments could help speed up the process.

"What the Housing Authority is proposing is bringing new BTW units to that area in the same vein that they have with Arbor Pointe, which is such a lovely community," she said. "And once the residential units start coming in, we'll have the opportunity to introduce neighborhood commercial so there could be shops and also things that are conducive to the entertainment district."

BTW sits across from the Columbus Civic Center, the Columbus Ice Rink and the South Commons Softball Complex. Plans for redevelopment could also bring commercial opportunities for the Victory Drive side of the property, Tomlinson said.

"As they redo the BTW housing units, you're going to see some pretty good commercial property become available that's been residential for some time," she said. "So there's a real opportunity for the city, the Housing Authority and other stakeholders to put something quite worthwhile, perhaps something that creates jobs, that people can walk to, maybe that serves the tourist industry and maybe that which makes our civic center even a more viable facility."

Tomlinson said the city would have to consider other alternatives if tax credit financing doesn't come through, but that efforts to rebuild Liberty District will continue.

"We would have to regroup and formulate a new plan to make something like that happen," she said. "It would certainly make the road a lot longer, but I'm sure we'll come back to the table to see how we might be able to come up with an alternative strategy to make the Liberty District plan a reality."