Taking sides: Liberty District redevelopment, BTW relocation at center of dispute among city's political leaders

The Liberty Theatre area, once the heart and pride of Columbus' African-American community, is today only a shell of what it used to be.

Gutted buildings, empty lots, overgrown weeds, the miry clay surrounding the historic Liberty Theatre -- all tell the tale of a community that once thrived, but eventually succumbed to abandonment, decay and neglect.

Now that area of town, barren for decades, is at the center of a bitter debate about its future. Some black residents see revitalization of the area as the most significant project in their community in 40 years. The roots run deep and emotions run high.

The controversy is pitting the mayor against some African-American leaders, land and business owners against city officials, and some public housing residents against some of the most prominent black politicians in the community. Even the chairman of the Liberty Theater board and his vice chairman see it differently.

On Friday, the controversy boiled over at the Liberty District stakeholders meeting, where both sides passionately debated the issue. Two more meetings will be held at the Mildred Terry Library April 15 and 19 at 4 p.m.

Douglas Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia, said Columbus is struggling with an age-old problem of cities trying to balance the needs of poor people with the interests of the business community.

"This comes under the rubric of urban development and it's real problematic for the people who live there," he said.

"Just drive around Atlanta and look at all the Ritz-Carltons and all those high rise developments and upscale apartments and shopping centers. They were in some real poverty-stricken areas.

"It's a real dilemma, if I had the answer I wouldn't be working for the University of Georgia," he said. "I guess what you need is a Solomon over there. You can't cut the baby in half."

Population density

At the center of the firestorm is a 2003 Liberty District Master Plan that calls for revitalization of the area. Both camps have different interpretations of the plan: one focusing on population density and the other on commercial development.

On one side of the debate are Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, City Manager Isaiah Hugley, the Housing Authority of Columbus, Liberty Theater Board Chairman Robert Anderson, some local pastors and some public housing residents. They want 100 mixed-income apartments to be built around the historic Liberty Theater, which once showcased legends like Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington.

The project is an essential part of plans to demolish the old Booker T. Washington public housing complex at the intersection of Victory Drive and Veteran's Parkway. The Housing Authority plans to replace the 392 units with less dense, modernized housing similar to Ashley Station and Arbor Pointe.

Tomlinson said the city has already committed more than $3 million and three city blocks to the project, as well as about $37 million in flood abatement work. She said the Housing Authority is contributing another $8 million.

In order to finance the project, the Housing Authority will have to submit an application for federal tax credit financing by June. But first the agency must receive City Council approval to rezone three blocks surrounding the Liberty Theater for residential development. The Planning Advisory Commission approved rezoning for two of the blocks in February. But last week, after hearing from opponents, commissioners rejected a proposal to rezone the third block. The zoning request will go before the City Council on April 23.

If plans are implemented, BTW apartments would be replaced with commercial and residential development at the current location and the 100 apartments near the theater. A majority of the residents would end up on Section 8 vouchers, as was the case with Ashley Station and Arbor Pointe, to seek housing in other parts of the city.

Tomlinson said building mixed-use housing just a few blocks north around the Liberty Theater would create a population base that could help attract businesses. It would also open up space for commercial development on the corner of Victory Drive and Veterans Parkway, a major thoroughfare, which will bring jobs to the area, she said.

The Columbus Civic Center, the Columbus Ice Rink and the South Commons Softball Complex also sit at the intersection.

"There is no present known private investor or even lead to finance any type of residential development in the Liberty District," she said in a recent interview. "The only present hope, or immediate future hope, we have for residential development is this public investment. If this does not happen, the Liberty District will sit dormant for at least a decade."

Len Williams, the Housing Authority's chief executive officer, said he's surprised by the opposition to the project. He said several opponents were aware of the Housing Authority plans since February 2012 and raised no objections. And plans were unanimously approved by the City Council in January. If the City Council denies the project, the Housing Authority will have to return to the drawing board.

"This would be a tremendous loss for the community in revitalizing both the BTW and the Liberty District neighborhoods," he said. "We will try to locate an alternate site, but it is likely that we will have to delay the redevelopment for at least another year."

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, who helped develop the 2003 Master Plan and has pushed economic development in the area, told the audience Friday that he liked the concept when the Housing Authority presented it to him in December and believes it fits with the master plan. He put his full support behind the project once funding was approved by the City Council. Now, he hopes it moves forward.

"If opportunity knocks and you don't open the door," he said, "it may never ever knock again."

Focus on commercial development

On the other side of the controversy are Tax Commissioner Lula Lundsford Huff, councilors Jerry "Pops" Barnes and Bruce Huff, Planning Advisory Commissioner Zeph Baker and grassroots activists. They oppose the plans to rezone three blocks near the Liberty Theatre for the BTW redevelopment project. They see it as a violation of the 2003 Master Plan, which calls for a Liberty Center around the Liberty Theatre. While the plan calls for some residential development in that area, opponents believe 100 apartments is too dense and the focus should be on developing the area into a commercial, entertainment and recreational center.

Lula Lundsford Huff, whose family has a long history of entrepreneurship in the Liberty District, said the plans to move BTW residents around the theater violates a plan that was developed with input from stakeholders who wanted the three blocks used for mixed-use development. She said she's not against housing in the area, but 100 units is too many.

Huff said opponents of the proposed project want to preserve the district's history as a well-balanced community.

"In order to sustain that and make it a viable neighborhood, an open neighborhood, it had to have within those three blocks commerce, recreation, entertainment," she said. "It had to have open space in those three blocks. So if you bring 100 of anything in there, in those three blocks designed as the Liberty Center, you have now destroyed the whole concept of what was supposed to happen there."

Councilman Barnes has also been at the forefront of the opposition despite voting in January to approve a resolution that authorized the city to spend $3 million for the project. The document spelled out the plan for 100 apartments to be built around the Liberty Theater. And it provided "an option to acquire city-owned Liberty District properties for the purpose of the Booker T. Washington Public Housing Project Development."

Yet, on Friday Barnes told residents he was diametrically opposed to the project. He said he would be going door to door to tell the other side of the story. He also voiced strong opposition Wednesday at a community meeting and encouraged residents to call their councilmen and tell them to vote against it. The meeting, held at the Columbus Public Library on Macon Road, was organized by a group opposing the project called Concerned Citizens.

Barnes said Friday that he voted for the project in January because he didn't have all of the information. He wasn't aware of the 2003 master plan, he said, and when it was brought to his attention he immediately opposed it. Bruce Huff also voted for the resolution in January.

"The housing (authority) wants to put this completely in an area that negates the 2003 plan Liberty Center," Barnes said. "What the city said would be the Liberty Center, not Lula Huff, not Pops Barnes, not Councilor Bruce Huff, what the city said, they're violating and ruining the trust of the city."

Rallying support

The controversy escalated last Monday when Tomlinson went to the BTW housing complex and rallied support among 100 residents. She told the group that there were five people trying to block the BTW redevelopment project, and encouraged them to call their city councilors and flood the April 23 meeting. Housing Authority officials agreed to provide bus transportation and a resident offered to start a petition.

Lisa Johnson, 55, a BTW resident, said she was fired up and ready to go. She saw a group opposing the BTW project at the Planning Advisory Commission meeting on TV and didn't like what she heard.

"My understanding is they think that these people down here is going to come in their neighborhood tearing up because the people at BTW don't give a damn about where they staying," she said. "I want an upgrade. I'm tired of concrete walls. I'm tired of having no carpet on my floor."

Three days later, opponents of the project went door-to-door at the public housing project, telling their side of the story. The group included Huff and Baker, a planning commissioner who led the vote against rezoning for the project at last week's planning meeting. While visiting BTW, Baker said he was concerned about gentrification.

"When Peabody was torn down, Ashley Station was put back where Peabody was," he said. "When Baker Village was torn down, Arbor Pointe was put back where Baker Village was. So when they rebuild BTW they need to put it back where they found it. It does not need to be placed around the corner, in the back by the jail and the railroad tracks."

Anderson, who chairs the Liberty Theater Board, attended the Planning Commission meeting in favor of the project. But J. Aleem Hudd, vice chair of the organization, was among those opposed. Both claimed to speak on behalf of the board.

Anderson said he's shocked by the controversy.

"I'm not sure what the folk that are complaining want the city to do," he said. "I mean, they're not going to give them any public money to build private enterprise with, and the fact that we're trying to build some houses around there, maybe somebody will think, 'Well, maybe there's a chance to invest in this area and build some businesses in here. I can understand that. But to fight the fact that we're trying to improve the area when nothing has happened in 20-something years is beyond belief."

Anderson, who grew up in public housing, said he's also concerned about the message that it's sending about BTW residents.

"It seems like they don't want the folks that live in BTW to move out of BTW," he said. "I don't know why they wouldn't. There are great people who live and come out of that area. So, I don't understand that.

"My grandmother lived in BTW. So I don't like the fact that they're talking about BTW bad."

But Huff said at the meeting Friday that people have unfairly characterized her opposition to the project as a rejection of BTW residents.

"BTW residents, you should not be taken from your area," she told the audience. "The plan was that both areas are supposed to be developed. Not one or the other, we want both."

"It's not a split," she said to a standing ovation. "Don't pit me against my people. Please don't do that to me."

A matter of interpretation

The 2003 Liberty District Master Plan is a flexible guideline that can be modified depending on "changing circumstances, and values, and perhaps to take advantage of opportunities not foreseen during the planning process," according to language in the document.

While the plan calls for mixed-use development around Liberty Theater, it also includes a housing component. The plan also recommends that housing density be highest on the north side of the district and less dense to the south where BTW is currently located.

"The key to early success will be to build up a threshold population to support resale trade," the document says.

"That will require a shifting of BTW residents over time, the sequential sale and redevelopment of BTW property for housing and housing-over-commercial development along Victory Boulevard and Veterans Parkway."

Tomlinson said there is no magic wand to get economic development to the area and creating a population base is the best way to make progress.

"We're talking millions of dollars," she said of what it would cost for economic development. "So when you say, 'Well, where is the city putting commercial?' Well, we're not necessarily putting the commercial anywhere. We've put in millions of dollars to create an infrastructure, with flood abatement, so other people can come in. But right now, as this plan very clearly says, population is the first thing you have to have. You've got to get the population up. You need more people. That's what the plan says."