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VOL. 130 | NO. 31 | Monday, February 16, 2015

Alternative Ending

Critics of Foote Homes demolition plan unveil a different idea

By Bill Dries

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The city of Memphis secured $6.7 million in federal funding last week to improve and rehab public housing.

The Vance Avenue Collaborative has unveiled its latest efforts to save Foote Homes, Memphis’ last major public housing site, as Mayor A C Wharton’s administration begins to ramp up its Heritage Trails project. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Meanwhile, the city’s application for a much larger federal grant to demolish the city’s last large public housing development was making the rounds at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And the local group led by University of Memphis urban planning professor Ken Reardon was unveiling its plan to restore and rehabilitate the same housing project – Foote Homes.

The Vance Avenue Collaborative had initially been working with the city on public input for the future of Foote Homes in 2008. But in 2009, the collaborative opposed the demolition planned by the city. The two parted company.

“We ran into a slight difference of opinion,” Reardon told those at the meeting last week at the St. Patrick Learning Center near Foote Homes. “There was a substantial voice in this neighborhood who said we should do something different (from demolition) – a different kind of plan.”

The city stopped using the collaborative as its partner in the project but talks between the city and the collaborative continued, Reardon said, until about 18 months ago when the collaborative began pitching its alternative to federal officials in Washington.

HUD last year rejected the city application for funding to demolish Foote Homes under the “Choice Neighborhoods” plan. But the collaborative can’t submit an alternative because it doesn’t own the property.

However, several Foote Homes residents at last week’s town hall had the impression that the collaborative’s plan was the city’s plan.

“Once it’s completed will we be able to come back with our rent based on exactly what we are paying now?” a woman asked. “So this is the plan?”

“Who gets paid,” a man in the crowd asked. “Who’s getting robbed around here?”

Reardon argues that residents of the housing development don’t want to be displaced permanently with only a percentage returned to live in the mixed-use mixed-income developments that have replaced the other large public housing projects in the city.

He has been the most vocal and persistent opponent of demolition since then.

The alternative to the city’s plan to demolish Foote Homes was developed by planners from the University of Catania, in Sicily, Italy. It includes removing the wrought iron fencing around the development south of FedExForum, larger porches in the units, new engineering to eliminate what the planner say is a mold problem and returning a bayou feature to the property as a drainage measure.

Foote Homes is the last large public housing development in Memphis. The Vance Avenue Collaborative has proposed an alternative plan to keep the property from being demolished.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

It involves relocating residents for four months and then their return to what would remain a public housing development.

The group puts the cost estimate for their approach at $63 million, about $20 million less than what they say the city’s demolition plan and mixed-use conversion would cost.

If the Wharton administration is turned down by HUD officials again for Choice Neighborhoods funding, Reardon hopes talks between the collaborative and the city can resume and an alternative no demolition plan might be submitted by the city.

In his Jan. 29 State of the City address, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. touted what he hopes will be movement in 2015 on the Heritage Trails project. Heritage Trails takes in a larger area south of FedExForum into South Memphis that includes Foote Homes and relies heavily on federal funding to demolish Foote Homes.

Wharton listed it as one of his administration’s priorities this year that will “strengthen the backbone of our city by leveraging that neighborhood’s rich history and heritage as vehicles for community development.”

The mixed-use mixed-income development that would replace Foote Homes is a catalyst for further private investment in the area, according to the administration, which has continued the ambitious effort that began during the administration of Wharton’s successor Willie Herenton under the name Triangle Noir.

The neighboring Cleaborne Homes project, across Lauderdale Street from Foote Homes, is the most recent conversion to mixed-use mixed-income housing.

Heritage Trails would accent the area’s rich history and culture tied to the modern civil rights movement and the struggle that preceded that movement through the Jim Crow era and racial segregation by law. It would take in an expanded Beale Street as well as the National Civil Rights Museum and other similar historic sites and areas.

Robert Lipscomb, the city Housing and Community Development director and director of Memphis Housing Authority under Wharton and Herenton, this month linked the demolition of Foote Homes to “a template to tackle the other big problem we have in our community – and that is poverty.”

Lipscomb also used the phrase at a Feb. 5 press conference on the local effort to end homelessness that has defined the approach of both administrations to public housing’s conversion.

“If we can tackle public housing and end public housing as we know it in 15 years … then we can end poverty,” he said.

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