Fred Gregory is proud to show off his spiffy new apartment in an attractive frame duplex on Chestnut Street, cater-cornered from Union Square Park in the Five Points area of East Knoxville.
It's two blocks removed from the Walter P. Taylor public housing complex where Gregory, a 67-year-old widower, had lived for 14 years after sustaining a disabling leg injury. But Gregory feels like he's now living in a world apart.
"There's peace and quiet here, whereas at Walter P. you never felt safe crammed in with all those wild young people," he says. It's still public housing, but the apartment's handsome oak flooring and cabinetry are also a sharp contrast with shabby Walter P., which hasn't been remodeled since it was built in the early 1970s. All-new appliances include a dishwasher, which Gregory never had before.
The duplex is the first completed of 12 similar dwellings that Knoxville's Community Development Corp. is building at several infill sites on Chestnut Street. And these are just the bare beginnings of what could become one of the largest residential building projects the city has ever seen. KCDC's President Alvin Nance envisions a transformation of the Five Points area involving total replacement on a much more dispersed basis of the 500 housing units that are now crammed into Walter P. and its adjoining Dr. Lee Williams Complex for the elderly.
Already, work is underway on another 85 units on the site of the former Eastport School, across Bethel Avenue from the complex. Twenty-five of these will come from renovations of the school itself, and 60 more from construction of four new apartment buildings on its grounds. The $14.5 million project is being funded by grants from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Tennessee Housing Development Agency.
But that pales by comparison with the $80 million estimated cost of the total makeover. To get the biggest part of the balance, KCDC has set its sights on winning a fiercely competitive $31 million grant under a new HUD program known as Choice Neighborhoods. Only two such grants are due to be awarded this coming year, and Nance figures that big cities like Chicago and Boston have the inside track on them. But the program is also offering 12 to 15 grants of up to $250,000 to help select cities prepare their applications for six more of the $31 million grants that are scheduled to be rolled out in the next two years (barring HUD budget cuts).
Nance's strategy is to apply now for a planning grant that addresses all of HUD's extensive criteria for neighborhood transformation in the belief that, "If we're successful, it should line us up well for an implementation grant because we will have met their terms."
These criteria go well beyond those applicable to HUD's HOPE VI program, which Choice Neighborhoods is intended to succeed. Under HOPE VI, the total emphasis was on housing revitalization, and it was the source of a $22 million grant that KCDC used to transform Mechanicsville's blighted College Homes into the vibrant, mixed-income community that Mechanicsville is today.
HUD's announcement of the new program states that, "The Choice Neighborhoods initiative will transform distressed neighborhoods...into viable and sustainable neighborhoods by linking housing improvements with appropriate services, schools, public assets, transportation, and access to jobs. A strong emphasis will be placed on local community planning for access to high-quality educational opportunities, including early childhood education."
Nance believes a comprehensive master planning process can demonstrate, "Five Points has all the attributes that makes for a choice neighborhood." To wit: "We've got KCDC that's going to be taking care of the public housing. We've got a city government that's already doing some infill housing and has identified more than 700 vacant or blighted lots that could be candidates for more. Knox County has contracted with Cherokee Health Systems to provide primary health care at the Hardy Professional building in the neighborhood. And we know there's going to be a strategy for the school system to use Race to the Top federal grant funds to address needs at the three magnet schools that serve the area (Green Elementary, Vine Middle and Austin-East High). So a master plan bringing in all of these stakeholders will really position us to show that we have a comprehensive effort to present that will be truly transformative."
The planning process will also include site selection and design for some 200 more residential units (in addition to the 100-plus on which work is already underway) to be built outside the confines of the present Taylor-Williams complex. As these are completed and residents are relocated to them, KCDC will commence demolition of the 500 units now crammed into the complex. The result of this de-densification will be a neighborhood that looks a lot more like Mechanicsville, instead of its current barracks-like appearance.
The demolition and reconstruction will take place in stages so that no one will be forced to leave the area while it's underway—unlike what happened in Mechanicsville, when College Homes was demolished all at once.
In addition to the $31 million Choice Neighborhoods grant, KCDC is looking to a number of other funding sources to cover the balance of the cost of the total undertaking. The city of Knoxville has pledged $8 million, and KCDC anticpates landing more HUD and THDA grants similar to the ones that have funded the work that is already underway.
Prospective federal budget cuts could impinge on all of this. But if it comes to pass, the transformation of Five Points could become Knoxville's biggest success story of the 21st century to date.