Officials try to avoid pitfalls with new development
BY CHAD CALDER
Advocate business writer
August 25, 2012
When a 50-home Plank Road subdivision billed as The Gardens came before the city-parish Planning and Zoning Commission last November, its demise was as swift as it was unexpected.
The commission unanimously rejected the tax credit-funded affordable housing development just south of Hooper Road after Metro Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards told the commission she feared The Gardens would consist of cookie-cutter rent houses crammed together on small lots.
She and Commissioner Audrey Nabors Jackson raised the specter of a notoriously run-down development in north Baton Rouge, one where Nabors Jackson said the tightly packed units there make her “sick” when she sees it.
Commissioner James Gilmore denounced the practice at some affordable housing developments of luring renters with the prospect of rent-to-own opportunities, only to revoke the privilege after a single late rent payment in 15 years.
The opposition blindsided Robbie Cangelosi, who was there representing the developer of The Gardens, Shreveport-based Hinton Construction.
In April, The Gardens failed before the planning commission once again.
But in the months since, Hinton met with Edwards and churches from the surrounding neighborhoods and ironed out a community benefits agreement, a detailed list of commitments from the developer to give the community confidence that The Gardens won’t become another albatross for the area.
The agreement with The Gardens was signed last month, and it now has critical support to move forward. If the planning commission approves the development when it comes back before the agency, construction could begin by the end of the year.
These efforts mirror those by the East Baton Rouge Housting Authority, the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority and other agencies to upgrade the quality of affordable housing in Baton Rouge.
Edwards, who has now played a role in getting two community development agreements signed in Baton Rouge and is working on a third, said her main concern is the role poorly planned developments play in concentrating poverty. Affordable housing developments have to be located where they are needed, but if they don’t provide access to social services and aren’t held to a high design standard, they become a dead-end street, she said.
Edwards estimated about half of the recent affordable housing tax credit properties in the parish have been in District 5, and while that’s great for people looking for work, there are pitfalls as well.
“I still don’t believe in concentrated poverty, and when you build those kinds of developments, you need to put in support services so low- to moderate-income families can improve.”
Over the course of a handful of meetings with nearby churches and other stakeholders, the 10-page community benefits agreement was hammered out to ensure The Gardens would offer a computer lab, summer activities, public health and job-training referral services, wide sidewalks, a playground, garages — not carports, security lights, alarms and energy-efficient lighting and windows. Rules were put in place to prohibit loitering and loud music, outdoor alcohol consumption and accumulating junk cars. There is even a prohibition on having more than three small holes in each interior wall.
Edwards said the agreement can be a model for developers in other communities.
“I believe at the end of the day you end up with a better product and I think that’s what happened in this case,” she said. “Families will be served better because of the improvements they’ve made.”
SJB Group’s Cangelosi, who represented Hinton before the planning commission and helped arrange the public meetings that produced the agreement, said Hinton always felt it was going to deliver a quality development. But, Cangelosi said, the new version represents a compromise that gives everyone what they need to move forward.
It was always going to have a community center, but it now will have some computer stations and classes. Street connections were an issue addressed when a church behind the property agreed to allow a link to Ford Street. Hinton will take steps to hire locally.
Cangelosi said some design-related requests could not be accommodated due to cost, but the development will incorporate different building types and brick facades.
“There’s always got to be a back and forth,” Cangelosi said. “Neither party can get everything they want, but both parties get what they need out of it. Both parties walked away happy.”
The Rev. Donald Hunter, pastor of New Beginning Baptist Church, said that he and about 10 other pastors who have churches near the proposed development can now support the project and believe it will elevate the standard of living in the area.
“We want to make sure that property is kept up and that their neighbors are good neighbors, that they don’t sell drugs and do things contrary to the culture of that particular neighborhood,” Hunter said. “That’s the challenge with Section 8 housing right now.”
“At the end of the day, what we are seeking to accomplish is an environment to allow our children to be safe, our families to grow and develop, our neighborhoods to be drug-free and our community to be without violence,” he said. “What this investment does is allows us to have a target area that creates a new environment that will be infused from families, primarily from this end of the parish.”
During the first planning commission meeting, commissioner and Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker noted that a recent bus tour of north Baton Rouge showcased affordable housing developments — notably Cedar Pointe and Urban Gardens — that are getting it right.
Just north of Hollywood Street, Urban Gardens offers 1,500-square-foot homes for sale at about $134,000 and are marketed toward families making 60 percent to 80 percent of median family income. Qualified buyers end up with financial assistance in the range of $60,000, which can put them into homes they could not otherwise afford.
The homes are built by the Urban Restoration Enhancement Corp. and designed by the Southern University School of Architecture. There are eight homes built, one under construction and 12 more planned.
Henry Earl Spain, 65, has been living at 2555 Amarillo Drive for about a month. The retired roofer and his wife were the fourth family to move in. It’s the first home he’s ever owned.
“It’s a beautiful place and we’re going to keep it beautiful,” he said. “We’re going to make it a place where people are going to want to bring their families and raise their kids. We’ve got to make people realize this is the American dream. You’ve got to appreciate what you’ve got. I know I do.”
Spain, who previously rented in Scotlandville, said many of the housing opportunities are substandard.
“They can’t compare to this,” he said. “These are beautiful homes. The rest of them they are smaller …. These are real homes, just like the ones in the suburbs.”
Richard Murray, chief executive officer of the East Baton Rouge Housing Authority, said improving Baton Rouge’s stock of affordable housing — be they homes for sale or rental units — has been the goal since the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s $18.6 million Hope VI project in Old South Baton Rouge last decade.
Murray’s office has been taking stock of which developments can be rehabilitated and which need to be torn down and replaced. In the last eight years, his office has overseen three comprehensive renovation projects, demolished four properties and replaced them, and built on two new sites.
Murray said developments that mix income levels, encourage community and provide access to services that promote upward mobility are crucial components of the next generation of affordable housing.
And he said the issue of aesthetics is not a trivial one, important not only for a development’s residents but the larger community as well.
“Just think about your community: how would you want your community to look?” he said. “And other people visiting, how they would perceive you.”
In redevelopment, he said, “You don’t want to just come back with a row of houses that all look alike. We want to bring back the neighborhoods that are beneficial to the community as a whole; something that isn’t like, as they said in the old days, the projects.”
The homes at The Gardens will be rent houses for 15 years, Cangelosi said, though they will be available for purchase after that point. If the development maintains its initial standards and transitions to owner-occupied, its residents will likely sound like Spain does when he describes his new home at Urban Gardens.
“I still got butterflies in my stomach,” he said.
“I still gotta walk outside and feel the bricks. I still haven’t gone to bed early since I’ve been here. I walk around outside at night. My wife says, ‘Why don’t you come to bed?’ and I say, ‘I’m going to feel the bricks again, maybe lay down in the grass.’”
Advocate staff writer
Kimberly Vetter contributed
to this report