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Thursday, May 5, 2011 03:56 pm

Neighbors shut out of decision on low-income apartments

Despite objections, council approved 44-unit $7 million project at Laurel and Taylor


Artist’s rendering of the proposed Velma L. Carey Pace to be built by Daveri Development Group of Chicago

Gina Whitener has a vision for her east side neighborhood. Her vision includes improved streets, sidewalks and lighting. Her vision includes enforcing city standards for property upkeep, helping current residents transition from renting to home ownership, educating children to give them more options and opportunities and creating businesses to develop wealth within the community. Whitener believes in helping people who already live in her neighborhood. She questions the wisdom of building 44 efficiency apartments for very-low-income people – whose life histories include mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness, and sometimes incarceration – in a neighborhood already struggling with drugs and violence.

Her husband, William Whitener, shares her concerns. Mr. Whitener, owner of a construction business that rehabs and then sells homes in the community, says he once offered to buy the lot at the corner of Laurel Street and Taylor Avenue that is now the proposed site for Velma L. Carey Place. “I was going to clean it up, make it look nice. I was going to probably rehab that house, maybe sell it, use the back portion as my construction company. ’Cause I like staying in this area. I’ve been here 40 years. I stay here because I want to. I pay kids to clean up the neighborhood. I do a lot.”

Carol Meeks, the owner of a Habitat for Humanity home near the proposed development, has lived near the corner of Laurel and Taylor since 1998. Meeks expresses concerns about the impact of the development on safety and quality of life in her neighborhood. Meeks, a mid-shift worker, worries about additional foot and car traffic at night. She also expresses concerns about bringing in people with a history of substance abuse.

Meeks describes her neighbors as a group working together to improve the appearance of their neighborhood by helping one another with lawn care and flower gardens. In the summer, Meeks says, grassy lots owned by Springfield Housing Authority and Habitat for Humanity become a playground for children on Perkins Court. She also suggests the lots, which will become a parking lot for Velma L. Carey Place, could be used for a community garden. Looking across the grassy lots, Meeks recalls Velma Carey. “She would never have done this. Velma was for the people. She wouldn’t have done this.”

Carol Meeks, who lives near the proposed development, expresses concerns about bringing into her neighborhood people who have a history of substance abuse.
Sylvia Jordan built her home in 2009. Jordan, who also lives near the proposed site for Velma L. Carey Place, says she has wrestled with the idea of the development. Jordan indicates that, before building her home in this community, she drove through the neighborhood at various times of the day and night. She felt that the lot she chose for her home was a safe place to raise children. Now, Jordan is concerned about the safety of children who walk to and from Southeast High School and Ball Charter School.

The Whiteners, Meeks and Jordan all agree that low-income people deserve safe, clean, affordable housing. However, they also express a deep frustration with a decision-making process that excluded them, and an alderman they say failed to represent their concerns. Jordan articulates their frustration when she says she told Alderman Gail Simpson, “You’ve set us back years, you took our voice away.”

William Whitener believes that the community wouldn’t have known about Velma L. Carey Place until demolition began had he not become aware of the proposed development in early January 2011 and called Ward 2 Alderman Simpson. Following his call, Simpson arranged a Jan. 15 meeting for representatives of Daveri Development Group – a Chicago-based company specializing in building affordable housing – and concerned community members. Community members characterize the meeting as a “presentation” rather than an opportunity for them to air their concerns and play a role in the decision-making process.

In addition to raising concerns about Velma L. Carey Place at the Jan. 15 community meeting, neighbors went door to door in harsh February weather to gather more than 300 signatures opposing the development. These signatures were presented to the Zoning and Planning Commission when it met Feb. 16 to consider a zoning variance request that would reclassify a set of properties at the southwest corner of Laurel Street and Taylor Avenue from single-family residential to Neighborhood Commercial and Office District. The rezoning request also included a conditional permit to allow residences on the first floor of the building and a reduction in required parking spaces.

The commission considered documents describing the properties, the proposed development and Daveri Development Group. They also considered information about residents who would occupy the 44-unit development, the screening process for residents and a statement indicating that case management and resident support services would be provided by Helping Hands of Springfield. Ultimately, the commission recommended against the request for rezoning saying, in part, “the evidence adduced at the hearing did not support the proposition that the adoption of the proposed request is in the public interest.”

In spite of Zoning and Planning Commission recommendations and the presence of citizens speaking out against the project, on March 15 the Springfield City Council voted 6-3 in favor of Velma L. Carey Place. On April 6 the council passed an emergency resolution agreeing to provide Daveri Development Group with a letter of support, removing the last obstacle to Daveri’s application for Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) tax credits that will ultimately lead to construction of the $7 million project. Alderman Simpson voted “yes” on both council actions.    

For her part, Simpson acknowledges that it was a “mistake” not to involve community members in the decision-making process. Simpson says she learned that the properties, owned by Springfield Housing Authority, Habitat for Humanity and Joe Davis, owner of Davis Mechanical Systems, Inc., were under consideration when she was contacted last fall by Sandy Robinson, director of the Springfield Department of Community Relations. Simpson met with representatives of Daveri Development Group several times and toured a Daveri property in Peoria. In the process, all of Simpson’s concerns about the proposed Springfield development were addressed. In a Feb. 16 letter to the Zoning and Planning Commission, Simpson wrote in support of the project: “The proposed development will eliminate some of the growing blight, beautify the area, and provide a place to call home for 44 individuals. I am confident that this development will provide jobs for area residents during construction and after.”

She indicates that she supported the project based on her awareness of the need for new business and housing developments across the ward. In hindsight, Simpson said she is unsure at what point community members might have become more involved in the decision-making process. Instead, she says she would like for the community to give Velma L. Carey Place a chance. “It was never a project that was meant to cause harm to the community,” she says.  “It was a project that was meant to bring an infusion of new growth in that area with the hope that once people saw this that it would spur them to want to do something better.”

Grace Sweatt lives, works and writes in Springfield. Contact her at writtenbygrace@yahoo.com.

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