August 2, 2014

Redevelopment lags for Columbia’s oldest public housing

Public-housing officials say there’s no schedule for replacing Gonzales Gardens and Allen Benedict Court, both built in 1940

The Columbia Housing Authority continues to lay the groundwork for redevelopment of its oldest public-housing complexes, bringing local developer The Mungo Co. on board for site planning.

Residents of the 524 apartments at Gonzales Gardens and Allen Benedict Court — told months ago that the first of them could be moving this summer — are disappointed with a lack of progress.

The Housing Authority has no money for demolition and reconstruction of the two high-profile sites, nor a timeframe for the dual redevelopment projects. Julia Prater, deputy director for affordable housing, estimated each project at $60 million to $75 million.

“All we have is money for planning,” Prater said last week. “It’s still a quest to find funds to implement the plan.”

Gonzales Gardens is a 280-unit apartment complex on Forest Drive, across from Providence Hospital. Allen Benedict Court, with 244 apartments, is on Harden Street at Laurel Street.

The public housing complexes were built simultaneously in 1939-40, one complex for white families and the other for black families, Prater said. They are by far the city’s oldest public housing units and among the oldest in the country.

Prater declined to speculate when work might begin. “We’ve done that before and ended up with egg on our face,” she said, “because we don’t know.”

Over the past decade, federal money for housing has become increasingly scarce, she said. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doles out 12 to 15 planning grants each year, she said, and just four or five grants to implement those plans.

Earlier, the Columbia Housing Authority planned a phased approach. In November, director Gil Walker shared a “really, really ambitious” schedule with residents. Then agency officials realized it would be foolish to leave behind boarded-up buildings with no money to demolish them, Prater said.

Stewart Mungo with The Mungo Co., which is serving as co-developer and contractor, said work is overdue.

“This could make a transformational change in that whole area between downtown and Forest Acres,” said Mungo, who was involved in the redevelopment of the housing authority’s Hendley Homes on Rosewood Drive. Hendley Homes was torn down in 2000 and completed in 2008.

Like the complex now known as Rosewood Hills, the new communities are expected to be a mix of single-family homes and apartments – but likely no retail, Prater said, even though retail was mentioned earlier. The Housing Authority does not have a good track record with retail, she said, and is going to stick with what it does best.

The Mungo Co. has partnered with Ray Nix, a Washington-based expert in financing urban redevelopment.

“This is our home; we want to do a good job,” Mungo said. “There’s not going to be any secrets. There’s not going to be any shenanigans. This is going to be something the community’s going to be proud of.”

In those remarks, Mungo was making a veiled reference to Greenville businessman Jonathan Pinson, whose conviction last month in a closely watched federal corruption case left the project under a cloud of suspicion.

Testimony showed that Pinson schemed with Florida developer Richard Zahn in 2010 and 2011 to give Zahn an edge in winning the contract to demolish and rebuild Gonzales Gardens. Witnesses and secretly recorded telephone conversations played in court also showed that Mayor Steve Benjamin and Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine worked to help Zahn land the contract.

Ultimately, though, the Columbia Housing Authority rejected all the construction bids and started over.

The Housing Authority is not an office of city government, though the City Council appoints its seven-member board.

Prater said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has advised the Housing Authority to re-work some details of the plan, assuming it would not get any HUD money. Revisions are due in September.

Dabney Faust, a community leader at Gonzales Gardens, said she was skeptical about the schedule announced last fall because residents had gotten conflicting information.

“Most people are very discouraged,” Faust said. “In the beginning, we heard we could possibly be moving in the summertime, before the kids go back to school, and now they’re just submitting something.”

Prater said the revisions, in part, scale back the Gonzales Gardens project, which had extended into the nearby Lyon Street neighborhood. That’s the most realistic approach for now, she said.

Reporter Clif LeBlanc contributed. Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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