Housing demolition put off

Decision means Park Avenue redevelopment could be delayed for years
Wednesday, May 30, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:28 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

After almost two years of debate between Park Avenue residents and the Columbia Housing Authority, the agency has indefinitely postponed the proposed redevelopment and demolition of 70 public housing apartments.

Housing authority CEO Phil Steinhaus said the project has been placed at the end of the authority’s priority list for several reasons: a decline in HOPE VI funding for such projects from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, his own need to focus on the authority’s basic operations and CHA’s transition to asset-based property management, a new mandate from HUD that requires a reorganization of the way housing authorities do their work.

Park Avenue resident Jerry Green said he thinks the project fizzled because of the opposition the authority faced from many Park Avenue residents.

“They didn’t expect someone to fight them,” he said. “We gave them a lot of hassle.”

The CHA Board of Commissioners voted at its May 15 meeting to disband the Housing Authority Task Force that was established in 2002 and was working with a consultant on the proposed Park Avenue redevelopment. Steinhaus said the task force thought the Affordable Housing Policy Committee established by Mayor Darwin Hindman last year could take over the work the task force was doing.

The ultimate fate of the Park Avenue homes remains unknown, but the planning process won’t restart for several years, and even then, it’s a long process from start to finish, Steinhaus said.

“There are no plans for any project right now,” he said, “but we would like to re-engage that conversation in the future. Our properties need to be looked at, one way or another.”

In the fall of 2004, the task force began exploring options for redeveloping the Park Avenue complex. It worked with Swope Community Builders and the Applied Urban Research Institute, two branches of Swope Enterprises, to come up with six options for the street. The consultant’s recommended plan was to demolish all 70 public housing apartments and five privately owned houses, and then build 88 town homes and apartments, a 12,000-square-foot community center, a 60-space parking lot and 16 commercial structures. The consultants would also work with CHA to secure funding for the project through the HOPE VI program.

HOPE VI was created to replace blighted public housing with mixed-income developments.

After Swope submitted its first report, which explained why Park Avenue needed rehabilitation and its recommended plan, GRO-Grass Roots Organizing compiled a response intended to defend the interests of many Park Avenue residents and to correct what GRO said were errors in the Swope report.

The CHA task force met once more in August 2006 to discuss the Swope report. No decision was made, and the task force did not meet again before its disbanding earlier this month.

GRO lead organizer Mary Hussmann said she was relieved that residents along Park Avenue would have more time.

“This is a fresh breeze of sunshine for these folks,” she said. “The dark cloud of demolition looming over them for the last few years created stress and instability in these homes. This allows them to take a deep breath.”

Mayor Darwin Hindman said that although the decision to halt discussion of the Park Avenue proposal is ultimately up to CHA, he would like to see it moved up on the agency’s priority list. Hindman cited the Park Avenue project as one reason for appointing Realtor Richard Mendenhall, a task force member and advocate of the redevelopment, to the CHA board last week.

Hussmann said that even in five years, demolition won’t be the right solution.

“Park Avenue residents will still maintain that a good remodeling is the best option,” she said.

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