West side rise is slow but steady

Montgomery Advertiser (AL), 2014-07-13


July 13 --The streets of west Montgomery remain dotted with the signs of blight, but more and more, there also are signs of new life and new development.

Residents and nonprofit groups have been working with the city to rebuild and reimagine the west side as a vibrant and economically thriving environment.

It has been a long, slow process, and several of the plans set forward in the city's West Montgomery Initiative remain in the planning stages.

"We're making progress. It is never fast enough for anybody, including me, but we're getting there," Councilman Arch Lee said.

The initiative was a wide-ranging and long-term plan focused mainly on the area around West Fairview Avenue between Interstate 65 and Court Street .

One part of the plan included having developments conform to Smart Code , which dictates among other things that businesses locate on the street with parking lots on the side or in the back.

The Montgomery City Council recently voted to return the area to its original zoning after several potential developments fell through.

"It is the name of the game. When players don't want to play, you kind of change the rules," Councilman C.C. Calhoun said.

Meanwhile, residents and organizations are getting involved to improve things as well.

The nonprofit group All Collaborated to Serve Community Development Corporation has been working on revitalizing E.D. Nixon Avenue and encouraging more home ownership.

"We'll have people who are low income who are in housing that they now own. And it's a different mentality when you have skin in the game," said Bernard Lee , co-chair of ACTSCDC.

The group recently renovated a house at 1621 E.D. Nixon Ave. , which soon will have a tenant who will be renting with the possibility of one day owning it, said Bernard Lee and the Rev. Robert Wagstaff , also co-chair of the group.

The city also has moved to a rent-to-own model at the Lanier Place development, where three houses have been built and more are planned, said Anita Archie , Mayor Todd Strange's chief of staff.

The homes originally were on the market to be sold, but it was difficult to find anyone who could qualify for financing to buy them, Archie said.

Bernard Lee said that while West Montgomery has plenty of problems, including unemployment and crime, the focus should shift to the area's possibilities.

"If we don't take the initiative and talk about the positive things that are happening on the west side, it is going to continue to go in that (negative) direction, and we're trying to take it in the other direction," Bernard Lee said.

Planting seeds

Voncile Gregory grew up in the house she lives in on Emerson Street , so the revitalization of the area is of particular importance to her.

In 2010, Gregory started a community garden at Emerson and Broughton streets with the help of Clare Watson , community economic development coordinator for the city.

"I love watching things grow, and especially things I can eat," Gregory said.

She said the garden has increased interest in the neighborhood.

"It adds beautification, for one thing, and amazement for another," she said. "Because a lot of people are amazed to see the garden in the neighborhood."

There also is a wall in the garden with a mosaic mural that includes the name of the garden, "Full of Life."

Enid Probst , owner of E&M Mosaics, was working on the mosaic Friday morning.

She said that while she takes care of the more intricate designs, people throughout the community have contributed. The mosaic includes depictions of people who are actual residents of the neighborhood.

"We've probably had a hundred youth, adults and small children help with the wall," she said.

Pulling weeds

A big part of the revitalization of west Montgomery is the clearing out of old, abandoned eyesores, and Watson said the city has been busy doing that with as much expediency as it can.

"Not including the different apartment units, we have probably torn down well into the 200s of structures in this West Montgomery Initiative area," Watson said.

One of the bigger projects involving demolition was the tearing down of the old Avon Court on Wade Street behind the Cleveland Avenue YMCA and the building of Heritage View Apartments .

The run-down Avon Court buildings took up three blocks and consisted of 55 units.

Watson said the effort to have the buildings demolished began in 2003 and wasn't realized until 2010 after the owner took the city to court over the issue.

The project was a collaboration between the city and Summit Housing Partners .

All in all, the city used about $900,000 in federal housing money it acquired, and Summit put in about another $7 million in funds it assembled, Watson said.

Nearby, another set of dilapidated apartment buildings on Bellview Street is set to be torn down, likely in the next 45 days, Planning Director Robert Smith said.

That space is not ripe for redevelopment, however, because it is partially in a floodplain, which means no federal funds would be available, Smith said.

The lot will be a green space and a possible "pocket park" for the neighborhood, he said.

Genetta Park

Work is in progress to beautify Genetta Park , an environmental project whose primary purpose was to clean stormwater in Genetta Ditch but also to beautify West Fairview at I-65 .

Phase One of the $3.5 million project has been completed, and Phase Two is set to be completed in October, Public Works Director Chris Conway said.

The second phase is the part of the project when it starts to more closely resemble a park, although it won't be a typical park, he said.

"It will be more of an environmental park. It will certainly be somewhere people can visit and relax," he said.

The area previously had been a vacant piece of property overgrown with grass and weeds.

The site now is surrounded by fencing, and landscaping and other above-ground work is continuing.

"It will look a lot better and be more aesthetically pleasing when they are done," Arch Lee said.

Clearing space for business

The city bought the old Sears building for $400,000 and demolished it in 2012 with the hope of selling the property to a private developer, and for a while, it appeared that that would happen.

A major national retailer was looking at locating there, but the deal ultimately fell through, Arch Lee said.

The problem was not Smart Code in this case, as the development likely would have complied with Smart Code . Instead, it was just a business decision to locate elsewhere, he said.

Hopes are higher for a development across the street from Genetta Park at the former site of National Linen Service, which also was demolished.

The development will consist of a gas station and at least one fast-food restaurant, Arch Lee said.

Calhoun has said he would prefer development along that stretch of Fairview to include something besides gas stations and fast-food restaurants.

"It is right off the interstate, so a good, sit-down restaurant would be ideal there," he said.

Restaurants that already exist on Fairview , meanwhile, have received facelifts with recent improvements to their facade, including Joe's Buffalo Wings and Rib City, and McDonald's.

Streetscaping on Fairview is, however, still about a year and a half to two years away, planning director Smith said.

The long-term plan remains to change West Fairview from a street with two lanes on each side to one with one lane on each side and a center turn lane, Smith said.

The city also still plans to have sidewalks on both sides of the street and to move the power poles to the south side of the street, he said.

Although the city has abandoned Smart Code on West Fairview, Smith said it still will be used in other parts of the city.

Buildings and businesses that existed before Smart Code passed were grandfathered in and were not subject to Smart Code , so only about 5 percent of the new development would have been affected, he said.

Wagstaff said that whether it is business or residential, the success of the community lies in the engagement of its residents.

ACTSCDC has an advisory board made up entirely of people who live, work or worship in the community, and Wagstaff said that kind of involvement is what will lift up the area.

"We want people to say I'm proud of where I live because of the interest that individuals are taking in the community," he said.

WEST MONTGOMERY INITIATIVE PROJECTS

-- Genetta Park : In Phase Two of its development, which will make it more aesthetically pleasing and a place where people can stop and relax.

--Former site of National Linen Service: A development is in the works that will include a gas station and at least one fast-food restaurant

-- Lanier Place : Development is moving forward, although properties now will be available on a rent-to-own basis rather than being for sale.

--Former site of Sears building: A development with a major national retailer fell through, and the city continues to look for potential buyers.

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