Parents were still picking up their kids as Five Points residents filtered into the gym at the Walter P. Taylor Boys and Girls Club on Monday night. Calls of “Hey, I’m glad you made it!” filled the brightly lit room, which was lined with posters of what the Knoxville Community Development Corporation hopes the neighborhood will look like in 10 years.
Alvin Nance, executive director of KCDC, and the representatives of the planning team for the Five Points revitalization project were optimistic in their overview of the final draft of the Five Points master plan, though they hedged that tone with the reminder that it will take 10 to 12 years, and, as Stan Harvey, a principle at Urban Collage, a design firm in Atlanta, and a member of the planning team, said, “I can guarantee you it won’t look the way these pictures look.”
Though Harvey explicitly said “This is about more than the Walter P. Taylor Homes and the Williams Complex. This is about the Five Points neighborhood,” the plans he and Nance focused on revolved around improving the housing situation for residents of Walter P. Taylor Homes and the Dr. Lee L. Williams Senior Complex just outside the Boys and Girls Club, and less on surrounding areas like Magnolia Avenue.
Beginning in 2012, KCDC held community meetings to discuss the changes they hoped to make to the neighborhood, particularly the public housing. That August, 86 units of the Walter P. Taylor Homes and 97 units of the Williams Senior Complex were demolished. As Nance emphasized repeatedly throughout the night, the residents who had to move out of those units either now live in the Residences at Eastport, one of the new single-family homes or duplexes built on vacant lots throughout the neighborhood, or received a Section 8 public-housing voucher. In all, KCDC built 122 new units of public housing in Five Points, and spent about $20 million of the total $85 million budget it’s set for the Five Points revitalization project.
KCDC began developing this master plan last fall, when it held two public meetings in order to receive input from residents and stakeholders about what improvements they’d like to see in Five Points. The draft, Harvey said, incorporated residents’ wishes for “safe, affordable, and yes, warm housing.”
The master plan to revitalize the public housing in Five Points will ultimately reduce the number of units on the footprint that Walter P. Taylor and the Williams Complex occupy from 500 units to about 285-355 units. But Nance was quick to point out that though the density of the 37 acres currently occupied by the public housing apartment buildings will be reduced, KCDC’s goal is to make people move only once, and only when a unit is available to move into immediately.
“We’re trying to make certain that, before we knock down, we’ve already built,” Nance said. “We want people to be a part of this transformed community. Why leave now?”
Residents whose buildings are set to be torn down will also be given the option of a Section 8 housing voucher if they wish to get out of public housing.
In addition to the new housing on the footprint, KCDC will continue to fund and build public-housing units in existing vacant lots throughout the Five Points neighborhood, with the goal of completely replacing the 500 units. Since demolishing part of the Walter P. Taylor Homes, KCDC has built two multiplex buildings that will house 12 families and two duplexes and a single-family home that will house five more families.
Harvey showed plans for the Walter P. Taylor footprint that will include newly created street blocks, which would be lined with single-family homes and duplexes, a couple of rows of small townhouses, an apartment complex, and a seniors-only building equipped with “modern amenities,” including an elevator and support staff. Though the specific designs of the houses are still undetermined, Harvey said the plan is to have them blend into the surrounding neighborhood by orienting the front doors toward the street, which also offers a natural safety measure.
“If you look at the neighborhood, what you see is all these houses facing the street,” Harvey said. “This idea is that there’s natural security by people facing the street, seeing people walking around. You’re in your living room and seeing it. We can build into the housing methods to keep a safe and secure neighborhood.”
Townhomes will also face the street, Harvey said, and the apartment complex could be broken up into smaller buildings so that people who live there won’t be confined in one spot. Breaking up the buildings also allows for more greenspace, he said. The planned greenspaces and small parks throughout the neighborhood will make the area feel more open and community-oriented, Harvey said, and adding new street blocks into the current footprint will also make the area more walkable.
“You start to have blocks,” Harvey said of adding streets. “If you look at the rest of the blocks, for the most part they’re very small. You don’t have to go far out of the way [to get anywhere]. One of the ways we make it more pedestrian-friendly is to have more streets.”
More streets also mean more opportunities to have housing facing the street.
After moving quickly through an overview of what all the different home options could look like—Harvey pointed out that in previous public meetings, residents said they liked the idea of porches, which put them out into the community—the attendees were reminded that Five Points will, unfortunately, not happen the way Mechanicsville’s redevelopment happened (all at once and within just a few years, thanks to a federal block grant). There will be several phases, which the master plan will lay out once complete, that will guide KCDC as the organization finds funding for projects. And those phases, Nance and Harvey repeated, could take 10 years to complete.
“This is not Mechanicsville. We don’t have a grant we’re sitting on,” Nance told the audience. In fact, the only money KCDC has locked in is $8 million the city of Knoxville has pledged to contribute over 10 years.
Funding for each phase of the revitalization project will have to be procured as it becomes available. Nance and Harvey said the most likely first phase to be completed would be a senior building, since about half of the Walter P. Taylor residents are seniors.
That timeline did not sit well with Walter P. Taylor resident Ngina Blair. Blair, 36, has four kids between the ages of 12 and 18, and wants to see improvements in the very near future so that her children can enjoy their neighborhood.
“I want to improve [the neighborhood] for the kids,” she said. “Right now, there’s nothing for them to do but come to the [Boys and Girls] Club, and half of them are older, and they have nothing to do. There needs to be something for the teens around here, as well as the younger ages.” The long-range planning makes those improvements seem out of reach for her own children. “In 10 years, all my kids will be grown.”
Blair was also concerned about the number of new units that would be able to accommodate larger families like hers, and whether KCDC will have the appropriate space for her as her family size changes.
“By the time they might get the money in—because there’s no guarantee—my family size might change. If it’s 10 years from now, I might be on my own,” she said.
And change in family size will absolutely change the space people will qualify for when new housing is built, Nance said.
“If you’ve got five kids when the building is done, you’re going to get a five-bedroom unit,” Nance said. “But here’s the thing that people might not understand—if you are a mother who had kids, and you were in a five-bedroom unit, and you only have one kid [when the new units are available], you aren’t going to get a five-bedroom unit, because we have to put you in the unit you qualify for. Because Walter P. Taylor was such a challenge, HUD allowed us to over-house people. This wasn’t the most desirable place where people wanted to live. So you’ve had people who’ve aged in place. They’ve got to go into the unit they’re eligible for now. That’s one of the drawbacks, but they’re going to have a better unit and a better environment.”
But Blair is still unsatisfied with the possibility that she and her kids may not see their new home while they all live together.
“I want to move into a new home,” she said. “I’ve been to every new little home they have out here—either one of my family members or friends has got one. So I know what each one of them look like except for Eastport. It makes me feel sad because I look at my home, and then I look at my friends’ home, and it just makes people feel bad. I’m not holding my breath. If something is offered to me, I would be grateful and happy, but I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. It’s just a wait, and I think that’s what everybody’s frustrated about.”
Longtime East Knoxville community organizer Umoja Abdul-Ahad was also at the meeting, and expressed his frustration that there seems to be less focus on bringing jobs to Five Points than housing, and asked that KCDC begin taking action sooner instead of asking for more and more suggestions.
“Economic development can be part of the housing. Also, who’s going to build these houses? The people in the area? The carpenters, the plumbers? Will they be hired? That should be starting tomorrow morning—getting in touch with someone and saying we’d like to build X amount of houses in this area—can you help us do this? And here’s a contract. Not next time we meet, another suggestion about what we can do. There are people in this area who are builders, and our legacy should be that this is not done with [other people]. We need entrepreneurs with grocery stores and clothing stores selling apples and peaches and pears in this community. I don’t think we should ever meet again without finding out how we can do that.”
Nance said it’s impossible to start awarding contracts without funding, but asked Abdul-Ahad to record his suggestion to hire Five Points-based contractors for KCDC’s consideration.
“What we’re showing you is a plan so we can go out and find funding to implement these phases,” Nance said. “That’s a key thing I think people need to keep in mind. Once we secure funding, we can start talking about creating jobs, or awarding contracts. It’s premature for us to be awarding contracts when we don’t have funding to pay for it.”
Becky Wade, the director of the city’s community development department, said on Tuesday that she was pleased with the master-plan draft. “I think it provides a variety of housing types … scattered throughout the neighborhood. I especially like the fact that it creates small, walkable blocks and reestablishes the grid pattern,” she said.
Wade also said that the planning range of 10 to 12 years is as realistic as possible for KCDC. “They have to deal with the reality that they don’t have all the funding right now. The only way they can achieve [their goals] is in phases.”
Nance was optimistic about securing funding, probably through low income–housing tax credits from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, though he said the application process for those tax credits is competitive.
“Last year THDA had 119 applications for tax credits submitted. They funded 23,” Nance said.
He said KCDC will apply for those credits next month, and will be notified by the summer whether they’ll receive them. KCDC still has to determine a budget for its first project, which will have to be finalized before the application is due in two weeks. If the organization gets the tax-credit funding this year, Nance said they’d probably be able to start on the new senior building by the fall.