Starkville Housing Authority board chair Loren "Bo" Bell, left, and consultant Johnny Taylor address the attendees of a public forum Thursday evening. The forum focused on a potential land swap and new development on Highway 12 that would see Pecan Acres relocated to Highway 182. Photo by: Alex Holloway/Dispatch Staff
July 13, 2018 10:37:22 AM
Citizens pressed Starkville Housing Authority officials during a Thursday evening forum for details about a proposed land swap development that could see the public housing complex relocated.
Christopher Dobbs, a Tuscaloosa, Alabama-based developer, is looking to build a replica of the 70,000 square-foot Pecan Acres low-income housing development on land on the north side of Highway 182, west of Reed Road. That new facility would then be swapped with Pecan Acres' current location on Highway 12 across from KFC, which is being eyed for commercial development.
Local attorney Johnny Moore, who is representing Dobbs, presented the redevelopment proposal to the Starkville Board of Aldermen in April. At past forums, Moore has said a hotel company is interested in the site, along with some restaurants and an entertainment venue such as a bowling alley.
At Thursday's forum, which a few dozen people attended, citizens asked questions about tenant reception to the proposal, as well as about how the new housing would fit onto the land that's being considered on Highway 182.
Loren "Bo" Bell, chairman of the SHA board, said multiple times tenants have shown "overwhelming" support for the move. He said 40 out of 50 tenants signed a petition in favor of going ahead with the proposal at three tenant-focused meetings about the project.
Pecan Acres has more than 100 residents.
Johnny Taylor, a consultant who is working through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requirements on behalf of the housing authority, told The Dispatch after Thursday's forum that had there been significant opposition to the proposal, the board would have stopped the project.
He also said that, for now, the Housing Authority won't seek a broader consensus from Pecan Acres residents.
"We won't go door-to-door," he said.
Taylor said the input the Housing Authority has received about the project will go into a disposition application, which will go to HUD and the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. He said those comments will play into federal decisions on whether to allow the project to proceed.
Taylor further said he wasn't sure how the board would handle a shift in resident opinion if one arose.
"If we had 50 residents come up tomorrow and say, 'We don't like it,' I don't know what they'd do because they've already said they're in favor of it," he said. "I don't look for the residents to be upset at all."
The proposed location for the new Pecan Acres is farther away from a grocery store than the present location. Pecan Acres is currently almost directly adjacent to Vowell's Marketplace and within easy walking distance of Walgreens.
At the meeting, several citizens expressed concern about the accessibility of food for residents who don't have their own transportation.
Cindy Melby, a resident speaking at the forum, said she has a friend in Pecan Acres who's opposed to the move because she doesn't have her own transportation.
"She has two sons who walk to work," Melby said. "She has to catch a ride -- and she does because she's in a great spot to catch a ride. That's (the proposed new location) not necessarily a catch-a-ride place."
Bell contended that a majority of Pecan Acres residents have their own transportation. For those who don't, he said SHA is working to get a SMART bus stop at the new location, and failing that, may look into buying an additional van to drive residents.
Bell said he understood concerns raised during Thursday's forum. However, he repeatedly contended that the project is an opportunity for Pecan Acres residents to get new housing. He also said it is, as far as he knows, the only way SHA can go about getting new housing.
"We can't go buy it. We don't have the funds," he said. "We can't go totally tear it down and rebuild it. HUD doesn't allow it -- they don't do bricks and mortar anymore. So this is the one opportunity -- I'm not saying the one location opportunity, but the one type of opportunity -- we have so that our tenants and Housing Authority can get new property."
But resident Pete Melby said he thought the important thing -- Pecan Acres' tenants -- was getting lost in talk about facilities.
"We're talking about the facility, but really it's people who are important," he said. "People can walk to schools (from the current location). The trees, the winding streets -- I saw your design (for the new location) and there's no winding streets in there. You can walk to a historic district, grocery store, six restaurants -- including one that will make boiled shrimp on the spot -- a drug store and there are jobs, jobs, jobs all around. That's people. It's not facilities.
"I would hate for the people to lose that wonderful urban experience and be put out there on a hillside," he added.
More than half the work remains to be done for the land swap to happen, according to officials.
Taylor told The Dispatch the next immediate goal, which is getting completed drawings of the proposed new property, could be done as early as this month, or it could take several months, depending on what the developer presents in those drawings, and for SHA to approve them. Once they receive SHA approval, he said they have to go to HUD and FHEO for additional approval.
In the long run, Taylor said the project had an estimated construction start date of March 2019, with an 11- to 12-month construction period and move-ins in 2020. He said those dates are subject to change.
Bell said the properties being considered in the swap still need to be evaluated to determine if they can be traded for equal value. He said there's some flexibility, in how the new property's value can be brought up to meet that of the property on Highway 12, through getting more land or in the value of the new units built on the property.
Eugenia Stark Thomas, a lawyer representing the landowner of the proposed property, said up to 346 acres are available for purchase. However, she said talks are a "long way" from reaching a conclusion.
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