The public announcement September 21 that Piedmont Housing Alliance would option its right of first refusal to purchase the land and housing complex of Friendship Court has the potential to forever change the landscape and fabric of downtown Charlottesville. The fully occupied 150-unit complex, designated as lower-income housing, sits sandwiched between the increasingly popular Ix Art Park and the Downtown Mall. Although the proposed acquisition won’t happen until the end of 2018, plans are already underway to redesign the 11.75-acre property.
Frank Grosch, CEO of PHA says, “We are absolutely committed to keeping the Section 8 housing, and to preserve the community and families that live there.” Although none of those families were invited to attend that announcement, Grosch explains that PHA is still keeping everything internal.
PHA has received a $500,000 challenge grant from the Donovan Corporation in New York to help facilitate the planning process. Like matching funds, this is a dollar-for-dollar grant to help with design and planning only. Heavy-hitter David Dixon, a Boston architect and recipient of an American Institute of Architects Jefferson medal for “a lifetime of creating livable neighborhoods,” leads the charge. Marc Norman, a former Deutsche Bank banker and Harvard-educated planner who worked on the revitalization of Skid Row in Los Angeles, and Liz Ogbu, an internationally recognized architect who consults on projects throughout Africa, South America, England and the U.S. and whom Grosch refers to as “sort of a rock star,” are also on board.
Dixon’s enthusiasm spills out of the phone. “This is an entirely new demographic,” he says. Citing the upheaval and uncertainty in the real estate market, coupled with young professionals without children and empty-nesters as the impetus for a new kind of American Dream, he states, “one size does not fit all.” Cultural differences, ethnic backgrounds and economic variations are no longer seen as impediments to overcome, but guidelines to strongly embrace, he adds.
“I don’t know if people have become more tolerant, but they will do what it takes to have the urban lifestyle,” he says. Current residents at Friendship Court are essential to making this work, he emphasizes, because “you don’t want a white bubble.” Dixon advocates for full participation to make sure everyone receives the same information, to help residents understand what their options are and to foster constructive feedback.
Brandon Collins, a staffer with Charlottesville’s Public Housing Association of Residents, suggests PHA may have jumped the gun a bit. “They should be working with PHAR,” he claims, and by not notifying it of future plans have “already bypassed resident engagement.”
Todd Niemeier is operations director of the Urban Agriculture Collective, a nonprofit that uses the land surrounding Friendship Court to grow produce, educate residents, stimulate dialogue and supply families with fresh vegetables. He says he invited himself to the Omni Hotel announcement. “They said they were going to invite me but they lost my e-mail address,” he says. Niemeier remains hopeful that it’s early in the process yet, but laments, “The garden doesn’t exist without the community.”
The Strategic Investment Area plan, a comprehensive and somewhat exhaustive document, has been in the planning stages for more than 10 years. The plan, which encompasses roughly 330 acres of prime downtown real estate from the south end of the Downtown Mall to the eastern edges of Ridge Street and Avon Street Extended, puts Friendship Court smack in the middle of land slated for development. Foremost on the SIA to-do list is to rebuild and preserve public and assisted housing, and promote mixed-income residential development without displacing current residents.
The Residents’ Bill of Rights further pushes home the point. Among the tenets listed, there must be a meaningful and enforceable resident participation that guides all substantive decisions regarding redevelopment. There will be at least one-for-one replacement of all affected units with newly built or renovated public housing units. If displacement occurs, each household has the right to return to the redeveloped site.
Where those households will go during redevelopment is a concern for Friendship Court resident Jvonna Clore. “It’s hard to find housing,” she says. “Everywhere you go there’s a waiting list, and this is 150 units.” There’s a waiting list to get on Section 8 as well, she says. “That would be a concern.”
Thus far participation from Friendship Court renters remains minimal. Clore says she did not attend a meeting at the community center. “I’m not planning on being here long,” she says. And several residents say they weren’t aware of the plans at all. However Darryl Rojas, a visitor at the complex, says he thinks mixed-income housing is a good idea, “rather than pockets of low-income housing” as it currently is.
Maybe it all feels too far in the future to make a difference, but even Dixon acknowledges that sometimes you have “to force people to make this work.” Perhaps taking these planning meetings and public announcements behind the wrought iron fence of Friendship Court will help persuade the residents to get involved and stay involved. Any groundbreaking is a long way off and that leaves a lot of time for tweaking the process.
Spearheading the coordinating efforts of so many disparate groups rests squarely on PHA’s Grosch’s shoulders. When pressed about residents of Friendship Court’s involvement, he says, “I’m really trying hard to do this right.”