The Fight Against Blight: City seeks investors to redevelop former Wade Street crime 'hole'

When Renee Short gives directions to her house, she just says "The Hole" and people know exactly where to find her.

Short, 44, lives on Wade Street, an area off Fort Benning Road notorious for drugs, prostitution and violence. Most of the crime was associated with the Wade Street Apartments, nicknamed "The Hole" because of its reputation as one of the worst crime areas in town.

"There was plenty of police activity," said the Habitat for Humanity recipient who moved to the area five years ago. "Cars would be lined up and down both sides of the street. But I figured if I didn't bother them, they wouldn't bother me."

About a year ago, the city purchased the two-acre lot and tore down the cinderblock apartments in an effort to eliminate crime and revitalize the neighborhood. City officials said the property is now ready for private investors to redevelop the site.

"We are currently gathering the information and everything that we need for a developer's proposal," said Amy Carbajal, the city's community reinvestment director. "We're looking for a pioneer project to come in and set the tone for redevelopment."

The Wade Street redevelopment plan is just the latest in a series of projects city officials have launched to turn around blighted and crime-ridden areas, mostly in predominantly black neighborhoods where private and commercial development have been lacking.

Columbus Council has approved dozens of improvement projects for south Columbus, according to information released by the City Planning Department. The projects, which include streetscape, transportation and infrastructure improvements, are in varying phases of completion, with some yet to be initiated. They amount to about $399 million in public and private investment, according to information released by the planning department.

Deputy City Manager David Arrington said a private developer has yet to come forward with a proposal for the Wade Street property. In the past, the city has worked with NeighborWorks Columbus and Habitat for Humanity, and he hopes something will materialize soon.

But Wade Street has a reputation that's not going to be easy to shake. The street is in one of the city's most crime-ridden zones, according to statistics recently released by public safety officials. In six months, the zone had 79 crime reports that included five armed robberies, three aggravated assaults, 27 burglaries, 14 auto break-ins, three auto thefts and 27 other thefts.

The statistics don't tell the full story, said Maj. Julius Graham, the man in charge of bureau patrol services for the Columbus Police Department. He said crime has dropped significantly in some areas of the zone. As examples, he mentioned the Baker Village public housing complex, now Arbor Pointe, and streets with homes built by Habitat for Humanity.

He said there have been no major crime incidents at Arbor Pointe or on Wade Street since January 2011.

"These are locations that may be surrounded by areas with high crime, but it doesn't mean the crime is on those particular roads," he said. "Because (the properties) are located in the zone, there still may be implications from that stigma."

Lingering perceptions

Last week, a group of men sat across the street from "The Hole." They stared at what is now a plot of gravel and weeds, and wondered what would be there next.

"Anything but apartments will do," said one man, who didn't want to be identified. "It's going to go back to the same thing they tore it down for."

Short, who lives in an area with a cluster of Habitat for Humanity houses, said the apartments attracted a lot of unwanted visitors on weekends, and it was difficult driving down the block on her way home from church. She said she's not sure why the property was originally called "The Hole," but she thinks it's because criminals would run from police and disappear through bushes at the back of the property.

"We still have our share of prostitution, and if they can get that under control we'll be all right," she said, looking at the site from her front porch. "Even with new houses coming in, it's still going to be considered 'The Hole' no matter what they do. Why would anybody move into this neighborhood? It carries a bad vibe."

Attracting investors

But the Wade Street project is part of a bigger plan to position Columbus for future growth and economic development, and city officials believe they can change the negative perceptions by sprucing up the area.

After being elected to office, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson created a Real Estate Investment Initiative Commission to identify underutilized areas of the city and investment opportunities. The commission, which included local bankers and developers, issued a 2011 report with recommendations.

"The population of Columbus has increased just 2 percent over the past 10 years," the report said. "Harris County increased by about 35 percent, Phenix City increased by 16 percent, and Lee County increased by over 22 percent. If Columbus is going to remain the economic hub for the region, it must slow the population shift by attracting new long-term residents. A successful integrated branding effort would increase local pride as well as attract inside and outside investment in the city."

Commissioners toured such blighted areas as Wade Street, Second Avenue, Illges/Rigdon Roads, Arbor Pointe, Beallwood and East Highland, and they found many impediments to plans for economic development.

"One recurring issue that was discussed is the actual and perceived additional risk associated with investing in underutilized areas," the report said. "The Commission affirms that a strategy to encourage stability by fighting and preventing disorder in distressed/underutilized areas of Columbus would offer a catalyst for reinvestment opportunities.

"There should be coordinated policing and prevention efforts at the neighborhood level, as well as aggressive prosecution of crime. This coordination should also include an increased emphasis on code and enforcement and city infrastructure investment resources in the targeted areas of renewal."

Carbajal said the city is not in the development business but can create an environment that will attract private investors. She said current projects on Wade Street and the surrounding area will revitalize the neighborhood. The list includes:

A street realignment project at the intersection of Fort Benning and Brennan roads, which will include a roundabout to improve transportation flow.

A streetscape project on Fort Benning Road.

The transformation of an abandoned rail line off Fort Benning Road into a linear park.

The city also purchased a substandard, 17-acre trailer park on Brennan Road and is in the process of right-of-way construction to open up the property for redevelopment. It has also been assembling more than 30 acres on Fort Benning Road for redevelopment purposes. Arrington said the property was originally slated for an urban industrial park, but the city changed course because of the redevelopment of Baker Village. The city wants to turn the area into a mixed-use commercial and residential development.

On Wade Street, residents like Ethel Mae Hudson, 76, see some changes but are not expecting any miracles. "It will be fine with me whatever they do, as long as they don't bother me," she said, sitting on her screened porch watching TV. "I've been in this neighborhood 40-something years."