As one traverses the neighborhoods that surround downtown, vitality or ambitious plans for same abound in all but one direction. The sole detraction from this picture of a robust center city lies to the east, especially in the Five Points area.
The Five Points Village Plaza that was built with more than $4 million of public funding to spur development in the area now sits largely vacant—an unfortunate symbol of failure rather than success. Recent acquisition of its failed grocery store by Eternal Life Church will at least make the building a locus of community activities envisioned by the church’s charismatic pastor, James Davis. But as uplifting as his efforts may be, they are no substitute for the transformative changes that are needed to extend the center city’s well-being to its downtrodden eastern perimeter.
In assessing the failure of the Five Points Village Plaza, the president of Knoxville’s Community Development Corp., Alvin Nance, believes that planners got it backwards when they tried to put commercial development ahead of fundamental changes in the area’s residential character. He points to the way in which KCDC went about transforming Mechanicsville as the model that should have been and should yet be followed.
There, KCDC, as the overseer of the city’s public housing, started with the demolition of dilapidated College Homes amid a lot of trauma on the part of dislocated residents. But at the end of the day, what arose in its stead has proved to be a boon for all concerned. An eclectic mix of attractive public housing rental units interspersed with owner-occupied dwellings on the former College Homes site has converted Mechanicsville into an almost idyllic neighborhood. And the $46 million federal grant, under a program known as Hope VI, that went into the conversion has begot more than $100 million in private investment in its environs, Nance says. In turn, all of this diverse residential growth has contributed to commercial development as well. A new Food City store anchors a Mechanicsville shopping center that is reportedly doing well.
The counterpart to College Homes in Five Points is the Walter P. Taylor public housing complex. Its 225 rental units are cramped and getting shabby, and the entire complex is perceived to be crime- and drug-infested. Nance envisions replacing it with a Mechanicsville-like development and believes that will serve as a stimulus for the Five Points area as a whole. But he’s not yet clear on how to fund it.
The Hope VI program has been cut back to a fraction of the size it was when KCDC got its $46 million grant, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has made any allocation of the remaining money conditional on its being leveraged with local dollars. Nance says, “We can’t just sit back and wait for Hope VI; if we do that we’re only perpetuating poverty.” So to prepare for relocation of Walter P. Taylor tenants in order to raze the site, he’s seeking to acquire a nearby apartment complex, Townview Towers, with $4 million derived from the sale of yet another KCDC property.
The city’s Department of Community Development is also pushing ahead with Five Points redevelopment efforts of its own. While many of the area’s modest homes appear well-kept, there are also many blighted properties and vacant lots that detract from the area’s appeal. With funds derived mainly from another HUD program, the city has managed to acquire 14 such parcels and contract with not-for-profit developers for construction of new houses on them. The city subsidizes the typical $130,000 cost of these houses to make them more affordable to modest income buyers.
Beyond that, under the able leadership of its director, Madeline Rogero, the city department is now in the process of allocating $1.9 million from its federal Empowerment Zone grants for similar blighted property. While Rogero stresses that other neighborhoods also have reclamation needs, an initial award of $1 million last month went entirely for construction of seven new houses in the Five Points area. The awards take the form of construction loans from which proceeds (less the subsidy to buyers) will be recycled into more of the same.
As a further contribution to the area’s livability, the city is also investing several hundred thousand dollars this year in improvements to Union Square Park and in a sidewalk on Selma Avenue where several of the new houses are going up. Low-interest and, to some extent, forgivable loans are also being made available for rehabilitation of several existing homes in the area under yet another federally-funded program.
As meaningful as all these programs are, Rogero is quick to acknowledge that “government can’t do it all, but as has proven to be the case in other areas, strategic investments by the public sector will encourage private investment in a synergistic way.”
Still, a Walter P. Taylor makeover is integral to Five Points’ transformation, and that may require a much larger commitment than the city has so far been prepared to make in order to qualify for a Hope VI-scale federal grant.