Q: Why is the City leading the revitalization effort in Laney Walker/Bethlehem? Shouldn’t this be done by the private sector?
A: The blight and disinvestment in Laney Walker/Bethlehem has happened slowly over several decades, with little to no investment by the private sector. At the request of community leaders, the City stepped in, with the Housing and Community Development Department serving as master developer, to jumpstart revitalization and create opportunities for private investment in these neighborhoods. The Housing Department has selected over two dozen developers, contractors, engineers and architects to work on priority projects within the revitalization area.
Q: What is the bond funding for the Laney Walker/ Bethlehem revitalization being spent on?
A: The fees generated from the hotel/motel tax bring in about $750,000 a year for the Laney Walker/Bethlehem revitalization effort. Initially, funds were used for planning and design, including conducting a market analysis to decide where to concentrate development activity, drawing up a master plan, developing design guidelines and creating a marketing strategy. That’s all important foundation work, necessary before any construction begins. Currently, funds are being used for land acquisition, construction, and financial incentives for developers, home buyers and existing property owners—which is resulting in houses being built at Heritage Pine and other areas throughout Laney Walker/Bethlehem.
Q: What progress has been made to date?
A: It takes time to turn around 40 years of neglect and disinvestment. While the visible signs of redevelopment such as Heritage Pine have only recently become a reality, many unseen steps had to be taken to set the revitalization plan in motion. Over the past three years, the Housing Department has developed a master plan and development guidelines for the area, set up a financial incentives program for developers and home buyers, selected a team of development partners, and created a marketing strategy to promote the overall effort. The department has also been busy acquiring and assembling land in priority development areas. The City’s approach is to purchase property rather than to take land by eminent domain, and this process—which includes third-party appraisals to assess fair market value—requires care and patience. And before the acquisition process even begins, the City works with property owners to encourage them to keep their property and invest in improvements. All of these activities take time.
Q: Isn’t the revitalization of Laney Walker/Bethlehem going to result in gentrification, with current residents and people looking for affordable housing pushed out of the neighborhood?
A: Gentrification is always a cause for concern, but the sheer size of the revitalization area (over 1,000 acres) provides ample space for a range of housing types and prices. A good example is the City’s pioneer development, Heritage Pine, located between 11th and 12th streets (east and west) and Florence and Laney Walker Boulevard (south and north). When built out, single family home prices in this development will range from $90,000 to $200,000, and the City has provided financial assistance to make these homes affordable for a broad segment of the market. The development also includes rental duplexes targeted to the workforce population. The overall objective for Laney Walker/Bethlehem, which came out 16 months of meetings with the community, is mixed-income, mixed-use, green development that enhances quality of life for all.
Q: Won’t the emphasis on affordable housing result in further “slummification” of the community?
A: The vision and plan for Laney Walker/Bethlehem is to provide a strong mix of housing types—multifamily, duplexes, rentals, and single-family—to address a broad range of market needs and demands. Heritage Pine is a good example of how the overall Laney Walker/ Bethlehem revitalization effort will likely play out. In addition, the Housing Department offers assistance to existing homeowners and neighborhood businesses to improve their properties and help reduce blighted conditions.
Q: Why is the Housing Department using so many outside consultants?
A: The Housing Department has hired two consultants to assist with the Laney Walker/Bethlehem revitalization: one to assist with land planning, property acquisition and project management, and the other to create and implement a marketing strategy. Both firms were hired through the competitive process overseen by the City’s Procurement Office. Beyond these two firms, all other companies assisting with the revitalization (developers, builders, architects, engineers, realtors) have gone through the competitive procurement process and compete for various projects as they become viable. The private firms on the Housing Department’s list of development partners are simply “pre-qualified,” meaning they meet the standards established for various jobs associated with the redevelopment effort.
Q: Why is so much of the work in Laney Walker/Bethlehem being handled by non-local contractors?
A: All of the construction work to date is being handled locally. J&B Construction Services, which currently is handling most of the work in Heritage Pine (recently joined by the Laney Walker Development Corporation) is from nearby Harlem, Georgia, and all of their workforce is local. Antioch Ministries has handled the construction of duplexes on Florence Street in the Heritage Pine development. Of the roughly two dozen pre-qualified vendors for Laney Walker/Bethlehem, 15 are local.
Q: Why is so much of the work in Laney Walker/Bethlehem being handled by one contractor?
A: Whenever a new construction project is ready to be teed-up, the Housing Department typically approaches a handful of its qualified vendors for price proposals, with the idea of spreading the work around while also ensuring competitive bidding. Thus far, most of the construction work has fallen to three companies (J&B Construction, Laney Walker Development Corporation, and Antioch Ministries). As construction activity in Laney Walker/Bethlehem increases, we fully expect to see a broader array of companies working in this area. Part of the current challenge has to do with accelerating the pace of construction and part of the challenge has to do with banks being very conservative in providing residential construction loans to contractors in this economic recession.
Q: Why is it taking so long to build houses?
A: First, even if we had an environment in which numerous houses could be built all at once, that wouldn’t be desirable: Given the current economic recession, it would be bad for all concerned, including the success of Laney Walker/Bethlehem, to have a lot of completed houses standing vacant. So the current pace of construction, while on the conservative side, is good in terms of the overall success of the revitalization project. Factors contributing to the current pace of construction include: a deliberate land-acquisition process and addressing an outdated zoning ordinance that calls for us to seek variances on a case-by-case basis.
Q: What is the City doing to address crime in the area?
A: Part of the Urban Redevelopment Plan for Laney Walker/Bethlehem (March 2010) focuses attention on six priority development areas, areas that would likely serve as the catalysts for revitalizing the entire 1,100 acres comprising these two neighborhoods. The six priority development areas had been historically blighted with elevated crime levels. The message was clear: get these areas looking sharp and the overall revitalization effort would be well on the path to success. Fast-forward to the present and we see the map [http://spotcrime.com/ga/augusta] of crime statistics for the current week. The map speaks for itself: crime in Laney Walker/Bethlehem, while not incident-free, is low relative to almost all other areas in Augusta’s urban core. And we are confident that this positive trend will continue as the Housing Department continues to acquire and/or demolish problematic properties in these neighborhoods.
Q: Why have new neighborhood organizations, such as the Heritage Pine Homeowners Association, been established when longstanding neighborhood associations already exist?
A: A neighborhood association is an organized group of neighbors and business owners who work together for changes and improvements such as neighborhood safety, maintenance of property values, beautification and social activities. A Home Owners Association (HOA), on the other hand, is a group of property owners with the legal authority to enforce rules and regulations focusing on building, landscaping, safety and other property issues within a specific development area or subdivision.
Neighborhood associations are more likely to be formed in older, established neighborhoods, whereas HOAs are generally established at the time a residential neighborhood is built and sold, and the developer hands over operational management to the new home owners. The Heritage Pine Homeowners Association – and others that will come on line with the redevelopment of Twiggs Circle, Foundry Place, East Mill Village, and other priority development areas within Laney Walker/Bethlehem – is an HOA. In many cases, neighborhood associations exist simultaneously with HOAs, and members of an HOA may also be members of the larger neighborhood association. Working in concert together, neighborhood associations and smaller HOAs ensure that the social, political, and economic interests of the community are being satisfactorily addressed.
Q: What kind of assistance is available for purchasing a new home in Laney Walker/Bethlehem?
A: For a limited time, the Housing Department will help with gap financing, closing costs, and down payment costs. A potential buyer needs to come to the table with two things in hand: 1) the capacity to qualify for a mortgage equal to the purchase price of the home minus the subsidy assistance, and 2) the ability to provide at least $1,000 upon purchase of the home. The specific amount of this incentive depends upon the financial capacity of the purchaser. More details can be found by contacting the Housing Department at 706-821-1797 or on the Financing page of the Heritage Pine website at heritagepineaugusta.com/financing.
Q: What other types of financial incentives does the City provide for development activity in Laney Walker/Bethlehem?
A: The City provides a broad range of incentives for development activity, as outlined below. For detailed information about these programs, contact Hawthorne Welcher, Augusta Housing and Community Development Department, 706-821-1797 or email.
- Pre-qualified developers: Payment of construction interest for up to 6 months, land write-down (when appropriate), 25% of construction loan amount, project-based.
- Homeowners rehabilitating an existing home: $20,000 max. ($200,000 available for a total of 10 units).
- Retail: Façade improvements: dollar for dollar match, 0% to 3% interest for 5-20 years, deferred first payment up to 18 months.
- Businesses: Laney Walker/Bethlehem, as a designated Opportunity Zone, allows businesses with at least two employees $3500 state tax credit per job credited against business income tax.
- Tax abatement: As a designated Enterprise Zone, Laney Walker/Bethlehem provides the opportunity for businesses with at least five employees and residences to receive a tax abatement on ad valorem taxes (excluding the millage rate for schools) for close to ten years.
Q: Who provides financial oversight of expenditures on the Laney Walker/Bethlehem revitalization effort?
A: The Housing Department has approximately $750,000 each year to spend on the revitalization effort, the source of which is bond financing through a hotel/motel fee. An independent Urban Revitalization Agency (URA) board was set up to ensure accountability and to oversee the Housing Department’s efforts and expenditures. The Housing Department reports to the URA several times each year.
Q: How will I know if the City is interested in acquiring my property?
A: The City’s Department of Housing and Community Development’s Office of Property Acquisition will send you a Notice of Interest (NOI) via regular mail, notifying you of the City’s interest in acquiring your property. This NOI informs the owner that the City must conduct an appraisal of the property to establish fair market value, and that the owner has the right to accompany the appraiser. The NOI will also provide contact information for the appraiser. Once the NOI is sent, the Laney Walker/Bethlehem Property Acquisition Agent will contact the owner and begin to make initial determinations regarding relocation needs and benefits.
Q: If the City acquires my property, how will it determine how much to offer me for my property?
A: Before making an offer, the City will obtain an appraisal of your property by an independent, competent real property appraiser who is familiar with local property values. The appraiser will inspect your property and prepare a report that includes his or her professional opinion of its current fair market value. After the initial appraisal has been completed, a review appraiser will examine the appraisal reports to ensure that the estimate is fair and the work conforms to professional appraisal standards. The City will then make you an offer of just compensation based on the appraised value.
Q: How will the Laney Walker/Bethlehem revitalization project affect the Fair Market Value of my property?
A: It should not affect the Fair Market Value. Appraisers must conform to specific appraisal standards. The appraiser has to disregard any decrease or increase in the market value of the real property caused by the project for which the property is to be acquired.
Q: What should I do if I receive a letter from the appraiser that states that I do not have to be at home during the appraisal process?
A: The appraisers will contact and give the owner an opportunity to accompany him or her when inspecting the property. If the owner is unable to meet with the appraiser, the owner has a choice and may wish to have a person who is familiar with the property represent him or her. In the event the owner does not want to let the appraisers in the property, the appraisers will still conduct their appraisal of the property and will note in their report that the interior was not inspected. At any given time, the owner may inform the appraiser(s) of any special features that he or she believes may add to the value of the property.
Q: What if I am not happy with the amount offered and I don’t agree to the purchase offer?
A: You are entitled to present your evidence as to the amount you believe is the fair market value of your property and to make suggestions for changing the terms and conditions of the offer. The City will consider your evidence and suggestions. If fully justified by the available evidence of value, the offer price will be increased.
Q: How long does the property acquisition process take?
A: Property acquisition takes approximately 6 to 8 months, and sometimes longer, from the date a property is place under contract to purchase. It will take longer if there are problems with the property title or liens or a mortgage that exceed the appraised value.
Q: Whom do I talk to about purchasing a home at Heritage Pine?
A: Meybohm Realtors provides real estate marketing services for Laney Walker/Bethlehem. Gayla Moore, senior VP with Meybohm, oversees the sales effort and can be reached at 706-790-5828, 706-399-4288, or email. If you have another real estate agent representing you, that person should contact Meybohm. You can also visit the Heritage Pine Model Home (1228 Pine St) from 2:00-5:00 p.m. on weekends or call Meybohm for other scheduled events.
Q: Whom do I talk to about renting a home at Heritage Pine?
A: The affordable rental duplexes on Pine Street and Florence Street are owned and/or managed by two separate entities. The Augusta Housing and Community Development Department manages several of these, and the contact person is Shawn Edwards, who can be reached at 706-821-1797 or email. Antioch Ministries has several duplexes as well. Antioch Ministries’ contact is Scylance Scott, who can be reached at 706-724-0995 or email.
Q: I’d like to buy a home at Heritage Pine but they are all sold? When will more be available?
A: Despite the downturn in the market, the homes at Heritage Pine are selling as fast as they’re being built. We currently have five homes in our building program that are open to purchase.
Q: City owned properties within the Heritage Pine development area, particularly along 11th Street, need to be better maintained or demolished, to ensure that the revitalization effort continues to enhance the look and value of all this investment. How can the Housing Department step up its efforts in this regard?
A: The Housing Department is well aware of this issue and is using whatever resources it has to address this important issue. We’ve recently contracted with a landscaping company to assist with overall aesthetics and curb appeal – so that should help to a certain extent. New owners are being provided with a homeowner’s manual that serves as a guide to assist with upkeep. We’ve demolished around 53 dilapidated properties to date, with another 17 slated for removal shortly. The one issue we struggle with is that there are properties in disrepair that the Housing Department has tried to purchase but the owners are unwilling to sell. These properties have issues regarding code enforcement, which regrettably do not fall under the purview of the Housing Department.
Q: I understand that Twiggs Street is another priority redevelopment area within Laney Walker/ Bethlehem. What are the plans for this area?
A: The Twiggs Street area, in the vicinity of Wrightsboro Road and James Brown Boulevard, is a priority redevelopment area. Current plans call for road re-engineering (resulting in the construction of two traffic circles along Twiggs) the construction of approximately 16 duplex homes and 8 single family homes by the Housing Authority of Augusta for seniors, the construction of a mixed-income, green, single family homes on vacant lots, and the rehabilitation of several historic homes.
Q: When will the Housing Authority’s development in the Twiggs Street area happen?
A: The Augusta Housing Authority’s Board of Directors has authorized the acquisition of the land from the Augusta Land Bank Authority that is needed for the development. There has been no date established for the start of design work and construction; however, construction is expected to begin the first quarter of 2012, with completion slated for the end of the year.
Q: I understand that the Laney Walker/Bethlehem revitalization effort was based on the idea of promoting African American history in these communities. What’s going on with that?
A: Yes, the initial legislation by the Augusta Richmond County Commission in 2008 that began this whole revitalization effort was based on promoting African American culture and history. As part of the revitalization effort, a heritage trail is being planned to 1) promote the historical legacy of the community, 2) help bring tourism dollars into the area, and 3) enhance general walkability, health and wellness, and connectivity.
Q: What’s the status of this Heritage Trail?
A: In early 2012, the Housing Department assembled a steering committee of knowledgeable community stakeholders to shape a program for the Heritage Trail. From that initial planning work, research is now being conducted into the history of the area, with an eye toward how best to highlight this history and develop a layout for the Trail. The committee will prepare a Request for Proposals for the selection of a firm, through public procurement, to do the work associated with the Heritage Trail. The selected firm would study and recommend: 1) route options, given historical context as well as issues such as leveraging current greenspace, recreation, and mobility; 2) design options; and 3) funding strategies.
WHAT’S GOING ON WITH…?
Q: What’s going on with the Famous Door Supper Club located at Laney Walker Boulevard and 9th Street?
A: The Augusta Housing Department has purchased this property as part of the overall revitalization effort. The plan is to construct new offices for the Housing Department on this site.
Q: What’s going on with the historic Penny Savings Bank building at Laney Walker Boulevard and James Brown Boulevard?
A: In September, 2011, the Augusta Land Bank Authority took ownership of this property. Discussions with the Housing Department regarding re-use of this property are currently underway. Solicitation packages were recently sent to the procured developers, with final selection likely to occur in the fall of 2012.
Q: What’s going on with the cleared property along the south side of Wrightsboro Road and 12th Street?
A: This site is being redeveloped by the United House of Prayer as a multi-family, senior residential development. We will post updates on this project as development work progresses.
Q: What’s going on with the area along the north side of Wrightsboro Road between 12th and 13th Streets?
A: The City of Augusta and the United House of Prayer are in final discussions to build 12 new single-family rental units along this corridor.