February 17, 2016

Beyond Bethel: Residents and City Officials Urge Redevelopment

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Residents and community members left feeling unsatisfied on Feb. 2 after a meeting with Bethel Midtown Village’s management company gave them no solid picture of the apartment complex’s future. Except, that is, no major changes are planned anytime soon.

The meeting of the Bethel Stakeholders group—which comprises residents, community leaders and representatives of community organizations such as Family Connection-Communities in Schools and the Clarke County School District—was called with present management company H.J. Russell to share ideas for the future of the low-income housing complex off College Avenue near downtown. Located on 14 acres and within walking distance of downtown, the University of Georgia and transportation lines, residents have watched as student-oriented apartment buildings have sprung up nearby—and wondered if they were about to get the boot for a similar development.

Atlanta-based H.J. Russell, which manages the 50-year-old apartments but does not own the property, is beginning the process of re-applying for its U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development tax credits next year, and residents thought this was a good opportunity to present a plan—or, at least, offer some guidance—on how tax credits and other incentives could be used to improve Bethel.

“As a community, we would like to be aware of the plans, because there are rumors,” said resident Keoshawn Maddox. “The community group would like to help with the planning, and if there’s a plan B, how we can get in on the planning of that, and make sure there is a safe place for us to go.”

But the response from the management company was simple: It’s too soon to tell. “I hear you, and all of your concerns are legitimately voiced,” said Jocelyn Smith, project developer for H.J. Russell. “We’re looking at our entire portfolio, and… once we finish the mapping, we’ll come back to you and let you know.”

The mapping process is the first step in H.J. Russell’s tax credit reapplication process. The company manages more than a dozen low-income properties around the state, and so, said Smith, it’s looking at tax-credit opportunities among all of them.

The low-income housing tax credit program allows a property owner to sell tax credits of either 4 percent or 9 percent to cover the costs of developing or operating the property. The tax credit, which is good for 10 years, allows investors to deduct the amount they’ve invested in the project over the life of the credit.

But, said Smith, getting the 9 percent tax credit is a competitive process, and it’s the only kind of credit H.J. Russell would consider if redeveloping Bethel were on the table. And because the state recently awarded a 9 percent tax credit to the new Columbia Brookside development off Hawthorne Avenue (which is replacing the Jack R. Wells public housing project, also known as Pauldoe), she seemed doubtful that there would be another opportunity for a similar tax credit in Athens.

Athens-Clarke County officials at the meeting disagreed. “Georgia has a team that rates applications, and they get extra points if they partner with the community,” said Rob Trevena, director of the Athens-Clarke County Department of Housing and Community Development. He cited the city’s partnership with Columbia Brookside, which brought an additional $1.5 million to the project from the city’s general fund. “So unless these guys engage the county, it’s hard to get the tax credits.”

After the “towers in the park” model of low-income housing proved to breed intergenerational poverty and crime, housing authorities are now moving toward mixed-income developments, and Columbia Brookside, a public-private partnership, could be a model for Bethel’s redevelopment. Once all three phases are completed, Columbia Brookside will include more than 300 units, including 100 set aside for seniors. One-third of the units will be market rate, one-third subsidized and one-third public housing.

Earlier in the meeting, Mayor Nancy Denson addressed H.J. Russell representatives directly. “I was expecting Mr. [Jerome] Russell to be here, and I’m disappointed he’s not,” she said. “Right after H.J. Russell died, I saw his son [Jerome] interviewed, and he talked about leaving a legacy in his family. This could be his legacy. This could be a jewel in this community.”

The morning’s presentation included testimonials from residents; results of a UGA-led charrette of the property; results of several resident surveys about the apartment complex; an overview from the Athens-Clarke County Police on how the complex could be better designed to be safer; and the perspective from Athens-Clarke County government, given by Commissioner Kelly Girtz, outlining the ways a re-imagined Bethel could complement other ongoing plans for downtown, including streetscaping projects, increasing commercial space and adding to downtown’s density. “We have some tools in our economic development toolbox that can help with redevelopment,” he said. “This is an enormous area of magnitude that can have a large influence on this area and the area beyond.”



Ken Dious challenges H.J. Russell representatives on Bethel's ownership.

At one point, a back-and-forth between meeting attendees and H.J. Russell representatives became heated when local attorney Ken Dious noted the circumstances under which H.J. Russell came to manage the property—which, according to some accounts, split ownership of the property between the management company and the Greater Bethel AME Church. “Who owns Bethel Homes?” he asked the three H.J. Russell employees at the meeting. “I’d like to know who owns Bethel Homes. The city of Athens would like to know, who owns Bethel Homes?”

“I cannot answer that,” replied Smith.

In addition to managing low-income properties, H.J. Russell has developed dozens of commercial and residential projects in Atlanta and across the country. More recent residential projects include Central Park Lofts in Atlanta, where two-bedroom condos sell for $200,000, and the Washington at Westside Village, a $75 million mixed-use, transit-oriented development in Atlanta’s historic Westside. Whether that kind of revisioning of the Bethel property will trickle to Athens is a question that remains to be answered.

Residents, though, are eager to embrace a change—even if that means bulldozing the buildings and starting over. “We should do a full redesign,” said Maddox, noting that the plumbing and general infrastructure is outdated and has reached the end of its lifespan. “If you can fix the main stuff, it will help with the smaller stuff.”