EXCLUSIVE: Columbia pursues redevelopment of housing complex plagued by violence

dhinshaw@thestate.comNovember 3, 2013 

— The Columbia Housing Authority is making plans to demolish and rebuild Gonzales Gardens, a 73-year-old public housing complex where residents say rival gangs have been fighting over turf for the past year.

CHA Director Gilbert Walker said Thursday he expects to name a developer by mid- to late November from among five firms submitting proposals to finance and oversee transformation of the city’s largest subsidized housing complex. Gonzales Gardens, with 612 residents living in 280 apartments, is across Forest Drive from Providence Hospital.

“We’re pushing it,” Walker said. “We’ve been trying to figure out a way to do it for quite some time.”

Rosewood Hills, across town, with mixed-income housing, is the model Walker said he would like to use in redeveloping Gonzales Gardens.

But there’s one big difference: The housing authority is asking prospective developers of Gonzales Gardens to handle financing, based on bid documents found on the housing authority’s website. Proposals do not include the cost to demolish or redevelop the site; all that would be negotiated later.

Walker said he’s aiming to have the redevelopment accomplished largely with private money, perhaps by selling the property to a developer who could resell parcels.

“Based on what I hear coming out of Washington, I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot of funding for these kinds of projects anytime soon,” Walker said. “So I’m not going to just sit back and wait.”

Leaders of the Lyon Street and Forest Hills neighborhoods nearby are in the loop and uniting to support the redevelopment plan, which Walker said would rely on “at least $5 million” in city funds for water and sewer lines.

Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman said he’s been helping bring together city leaders, housing authority officials and residents to discuss the proposal in recent weeks.

“We are trying to remain creative in finding alternative sources of funding we can use to better the neighborhood,” he said. “I expect we’ll have a specific plan together by the end of the year.”

‘A war going on’

Residents of Gonzales Gardens, meanwhile, said last week they’re uncertain about the future but were told the first families could start relocating to available spots in 25 other public housing communities in nine to 12 months. Walker confirmed that he mentioned July as a target date at a meeting of residents last week.

Nine-year resident Toni McKinnon said they were told the redevelopment would begin on the west side of the complex, at Forest Drive and Lyon Street. “When they start moving people out, they’re going to start with the ‘A’ building and work their way on up through the alphabet.”

McKinnon and two other Gonzales Gardens community leaders said last week that gang activity has ramped up in the past year. Gunfire can be heard day and night.

“In the last year or so, our community has gotten worse,” said Keysha Johnson, a mother of two who has lived at Gonzales Gardens for six years. “I think there’s no control at this point.”

“You could say war, a war going on right here,” added LaShonda Williams, who has only lived at the complex for six months. She said she once had to hide in the hallway after hearing gunshots and the “ting-ting-ting” of shells falling to the sidewalk just outside her apartment.

“Half the time your kids can’t play outside,” said McKinnon, also the mother of two and head building captain.

“They’re teaching them gang signs at my son’s age, and he’s 4.”

The three women said they volunteered to be building captains to support the children of Gonzales Gardens. There’s a captain for each letter-named building, and as a group, they organize special events.

Said Newman, who represents the area on City Council: “The reality is our crime statistics are down ... but there are still incidents that occur that go unreported, and if we have residents who don’t feel safe, we need to address that issue. If there are areas we feel are haboring fugitives, and if there’s a way for the city to step in, that’s what we need to do.”

Interim police chief Ruben Santiago, meanwhile, said the planned relocation of Gonzales Gardens residents will cause problems if rival gang members end up living next door to one another.

Gonzales Gardens is a known location for the Bloods gang, Santiago said. The Bloods have an ongoing feud with the Folk Nation gang.

Santiago said he has only heard rumors that plans were in the works for Gonzales Gardens, and he mentioned his concerns to a housing authority police officer. But the chief said he has not been included in any discussions about relocating residents.

He said he would want to be involved, to share the department’s information on gang locations “so we don’t create conflict in other areas.”

Some feeling hopeful

Marvin Heller, head of the Lyon Street community, is among citizens who have been asked to serve on a panel that will review developers’ proposals for Gonzales Gardens.

“I’m feeling hopeful,” he said.

“We all have the same concerns,” added his counterpart in Forest Hills, Roy Laney.

“The goal, I think, would be to take care of the people who are there and make it a better environment. Because you can ride by and see the state of Gonzales Gardens now. It’s not what I would consider adequate,” Laney said.

“We can do better than that.”

Stewart Mungo, whose Mungo Co. was the builder at Rosewood Hills, said Gonzales Gardens is a location ideal for a mixed-income housing, town houses, medical offices and other businesses.

“This is a pretty good piece of property,” he said. “It has a lot of potential.”

Johnson, one of the Gonzales Gardens building captains, said she likes the looks of the homes at Rosewood Hills.

“They look quiet,” she said. “You don’t see a lot of people hanging out.”

Reporter Noelle Phillips contributed. Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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