Gonzales Gardens redevelopment stalled, neighbors ponder its future

Gonzales Gardens, on Forest Drive in Columbia, is waiting to be torn down. Residents have moved of the complex, one of the oldest affordable housing projects in the nation.
Gonzales Gardens, on Forest Drive in Columbia, is waiting to be torn down. Residents have moved of the complex, one of the oldest affordable housing projects in the nation. File photograph

A dozen modest new homes in Columbia’s Lyon Street neighborhood are a taste of what’s soon to come – relatively speaking – in the deserted Gonzales Gardens housing complex a block away.

But the long-planned redevelopment of one of the nation’s oldest public housing communities has been bogged down by delays.

The Columbia Housing Authority had hoped to begin demolition at Gonzales Gardens last year, after the last of its more than 600 residents were relocated in the fall. But the project is stalled by a state requirement to document the history of the 76-year-old site, according to the Housing Authority’s Julia Prater.

Apartments, owner-occupied homes, housing for the elderly and green space are planned for the site at Millwood Avenue and Forest Drive. A commercial or other community-use component could be considered, too. The vision is to model the community after the redevelopment of Columbia’s Celia Saxon and Rosewood Hills communities, also once home to public housing complexes.

But even as new life looms at the Gardens, some longtime residents of adjacent Lyon Street see both pros and cons in the unfolding development.

Marvin Heller, president of the Lyon Street neighborhood association, said he’s pleased to see new houses that might attract young families and owners who will take pride in the community. He wants a walkable area with nearby amenities for residents.

But new development in the area so far isn’t totally aligned with the neighborhood’s vision, Heller said.

The new crop of homes with selling points in the $115,000-$140,000 starter-home price range is “an improvement in the housing stock, on the one hand,” Heller said. “But on the other, it kind of boxes us in for the future. It’s just not going to allow for anything that’s going to attract a more diverse population, more diverse income. It’s troubling for us right now.

“We, like any other neighborhood, would like to have a diverse (community) in terms of income, culture, ethnicity, age,” Heller said. “We’re getting what somebody else wants us to have. And that’s not a good thing.”

But if the new Lyon Street homes are a glimpse of Gonzales Gardens’ future, it will be welcomed compared to the scene of blight and frequent crime at the old housing complex, Heller said.

“It wasn’t a good situation for the folks who lived there as well as the people who lived around it,” Heller said. “So, yes, we’re happy to see the closing of Gonzales Gardens.”

The Housing Authority hopes to cover the roughly $2 million demolition cost at the Gardens with federal dollars the state and the city distribute, Prater said. It could be summer before that money is certain – and if it doesn’t come through, “we’ll be desperately seeking other funding,” Prater said.

If the funds come through and the 19.5-acre site is razed by the end of this year, mid-2018 might actually see some new construction come out of the ground, Prater said.

“(T)earing down the old residential units gives the neighborhood its opportunity to create the kind of future we’ve been working hard for years to create,” said Richland County Councilman Seth Rose.

The Housing Authority hopes to finance its $60 million redevelopment plan with borrowed money through the state bond program, Prater said.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.