November 9, 2017 11:27:48 AM
Over the last two years, when people said the Burns Bottom revitalization project was dead, Columbus Redevelopment Authority President John Acker didn't correct them.
Acker knew they were wrong, he said, but he figured the results would eventually speak for themselves. Now patience seems to be paying off for Acker and the rest of the CRA board.
On Tuesday, Columbus City Council approved a resolution to fund urban renewal bonds of up to $3.2 million for CRA to revitalize five blocks of the Burns Bottom area near downtown -- a plan that would include 73 lots of vacant properties or low-value housing into a large plat that could be marketed for higher-value development.
CRA developed initial plans for the project in spring 2015, and Acker said it has moved slowly, but steadily, ever since. Originally, the city appointed CRA wanted to also partner with Lowndes County for the Burns Bottom project, but the county declined.
When CRA issues the bonds and has its money in-hand for the project in the next month or so, Acker said it would be "put up or shut up time" for CRA.
"That's not a negative thing," Acker said. "We believe in this project, and we're excited more than anything."
The lots included in the project area are the five blocks from Second Avenue to Seventh Avenue, between Third and Fourth streets, Acker said. Of the 73 properties, he said 39 are vacant lots, while 34 have structures -- mostly single-family homes.
Only five of the homes are owner-occupied, he said, while the rest are either occupied by renters or not at all.
The city will raise the money for the bonds through a special 2-1/2-mill ad valorem tax increase over three years. The council budgeted the first mill for this fiscal year. It plans to add 3/4-mills each for the project in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, and the tax will be retired after the bonds are repaid -- which Acker expects to take between 12 and 15 years.
For a property owner with a $100,000 home in the city without a Homestead Exemption, the 2.5-mill bump would amount to $25 in extra taxes per year.
Acker said CRA would use about a third of the bond money for property acquisition and professional fees, while the rest would go toward structure demolition and infrastructure improvements.
"We'll do whatever needs to be done to package this up for a developer to come in," he said.
While Acker said CRA is open to listening to pitches for residential or commercial development at Burns Bottom, he believes the higher demand will be for residential -- whether its single- or multi-family. The goal for the project, he said, is to raise property values in the area to generate more tax revenue for the city.
What will happen to the people who live in Burns Bottom now, however, is still an open question, Acker said.
Once CRA acquires properties used for rent houses, he said the authority would honor the term length of the existing lease before expecting occupants to find another place to live.
For the owner-occupied homes, however, it may be more complicated.
Since the project uses public money, Acker said CRA can only pay a property owner market value plus administrative fees. According to county records The Dispatch reported in 2015, the average value of lots in the project are was a little more than $12,000 -- but that included the vacant lots, so owner-occupied home values would be higher.
Still, Acker admitted it likely would not cover the value of a new home elsewhere, and CRA is looking into multiple relocation options -- such as property swaps or moving the elderly residents of owner-occupied dwellings to senior living facilities and paying the rent for a limited time.
None of those options, he said, have been finalized.
If any owners refused to sell to CRA, he said, that would provide another obstacle. He stopped short, however, of endorsing eminent domain -- a function where the city could forcibly buy property for projects of public need -- as a solution. If that happens, the city council would first have to approve it.
"We've got a glass half-full mentality, so in my mind, I don't think that will be necessary," Acker said. "Everybody down there (property owners) has been pretty reasonable so far. Heaven forbid, if it gets to that point (of eminent domain), then we'll deal with it."
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones, who represents the Burns Bottom area, said he supports the revitalization project but not the idea of forcing people out of their homes.
A better option, he said, might be for at least some of the new development to be dedicated to "affordable" single-family housing, possibly something a few of the Burns Bottom residents could move back into.
"It would be tough to consider (eminent domain) because of the spot it would put those people in," Jones said. "As far as what we can pay for the property, it's a no-win situation for everybody. (By law) we can't pay them enough to outright buy a new home, and so they will probably go from a house that is paid off to one where they have to make a payment.
"Any time you can revitalize an area like this, it's good for the city," he added. "The city needs this property, but (the homeowners) are getting the short end of the stick."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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