The words scrawled on the poster beside a plan to turn the Southtown housing project into a “mixed use” retail and residential development, sum up what some expect to happen: “You all are going to line your pockets with extra money.”
City officials have called Southtown — a housing area bordering the south side of University Boulevard near St. Vincent’s Hospital — some of the most prime real estate in Birmingham. As the process of planning for redevelopment begins, Southtown residents showed up to Thursday’s community forum to voice their concerns over potential displacement and rent increases.
Semonia Southall, a mother of three, said that she wants to feel like her family is safe.
“Right now I feel like I’m living in a box,” Southall said, referring to her World War II-era apartment in Southtown where she has lived for two years. Southall’s biggest concern: She and her family will not be able to afford to live in the new mixed-use Southtown proposed Thursday night.
Lakenya Bend, director of modernization with the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District, said she wants “Southtown to be a choice, not a last resort. Improving the quality of life for the people living here right now is our main priority.”
Bend said that reaching that goal would not be possible without federal funding: “We’re not doing what [Mayor Larry] Langford was trying to do.”
In 2009 the board of the HABD unanimously rejected Langford’s $28 million plan to move Southtown residents to the condominiums and homes built on city property in Ensley and other neighborhoods. The Trinity Steel site in Titusville was another proposed location for subsidized housing.
Langford’s plan for the Southtown site included plans for mixed-use, retail and hotel accommodations. The plan would have displaced residents indefinitely. Representatives with the HABD have stressed the current plans are focused on keeping current residents where they are.
After the HABD failed to secure a $30 million federal Choice Housing grant, it went in a different direction with a Chicago-based economic development firm. “We decided to take a different approach and procure Camiros and get with the community and develop a plan instead of applying for another grant without a plan,” said Dontrelle Foster, the interim executive director at HABD.
HABD intends to resubmit a grant proposal after a plan is in place.
Thus far, the city has not yet committed any funding to the project. Where the money will come from remains one of the biggest unanswered questions. “Unofficially, we started this planning process about three years ago,” Bend said. “We saw the opportunities that were here in Southside and we wanted to participate in that.”
As for the concern raised among current residents about displacement, Foster said that is HABD’s chief priority. “If we obtain the grant money for implementation, all the current residents are going to be offered the chance to return so there will be no displacement,” Foster said.
During Thursday’s meeting, Camiros representative Adam Rosa presented several different variations of plans for the possible redevelopment of Southtown. Children on the front row buzzed with excitement over the plans for a pool and “splash pad.”
One example of a plan: The “Food Hub,” which would make the area into a “food destination” with restaurants, housing and community gardens.
After the presentation, Rosa opened the floor for questions and comments from the audience. Nearly everyone who spoke voiced their concern over how this new plan for Southtown would impact them. Many felt that they would be forced to move.
Birmingham City Councilor Steven Hoyt assured residents that there would be a unit-for-unit replacement, “whether it’s a house, apartment, whatever.”
“I want you all to know the idea for this is not to do it alone. We know that Congress is cutting funding to public housing,” Hoyt said. “That’s why it takes public and private partnerships. That’s the intent of this project as well as Park Place and Tuxedo Terrace,” Hoyt said, referring to two Hope Six projects already in place.
Southall, the mother of three, said the ideas being presented seemed to focus more on the retail aspect of the development. “The big question is does this really have to do with housing people?” she said. “The building, the rooms are so tight as it is now. It makes it hard to breathe. I just want to know what the plans are to address that.”
To secure funding, the HABD has said Southtown redevelopment will need to be a “public-private partnership.” Asked who would be the lease holder of the new properties and buildings that could be built, Bend said, “The [HABD] owns the property itself. It is our intention now to get input from the community with what they want. What we are trying to do is improve that prime piece of real estate that we have.”
Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin told those in attendance that the city is committed to moving this project forward with the current residents’ best interests in mind. “The council supports the best interest of the people here,” he said.
“What I want is to feel safe and for my kids to feel safe,” Southall said as she gathered her children after the meeting. “I don’t care about having shops or restaurants. We just want a better life for ourselves and to feel like the people in charge of providing that opportunity for the community, have our best interests in mind and not how they can make some money off this spot.”
Many residents mentioned the Park Place development that was opened in 2005. The city gave $7 million to fund improvements to the mixed income, affordable apartment community that replaced Metropolitan Gardens, a housing project demolished in 2002. The Department of Housing and Urban Development gave $49.2 million to fund the project as well.
“They tell you what kind of money you have to make to live there,” a woman in the audience said during the meeting. “They’re supposed to be for the public. But the public can’t afford it.”
As the meeting came to a close, Austin tried to alleviate some of the tension by reminding those in attendance that the plans will not move forward unless there is a consensus among the community.
“You don’t need to jump on him,” Austin said, referring to the Camiros representative. “You don’t need to get your blood pressure high. Unless we all agree here, nothing is going to happen.”