Sunday, June 16, 2024

Housing authority pitches proposal to revitalize Wilmington’s Hillcrest community

Plans to revitalize Wilmington's Hillcrest community were presented in a meeting   Thursday morning with members of the Wilmington Housing Authority, city council and other stakeholder groups. Photo by Jonathan Spiers.
Plans to revitalize Wilmington’s Hillcrest community were presented in a meeting Thursday morning with members of the Wilmington Housing Authority, city council and other stakeholder groups. Photos by Jonathan Spiers.

The Wilmington Housing Authority is pitching a multi-phase plan to transform its Hillcrest public housing community into an integrated neighborhood of mixed-income housing—a revitalization that community leaders hope will help in addressing poverty and crime.

At a meeting held Thursday in Hillcrest’s community center, the authority’s board of commissioners and a team of consultants presented the plan to members of Wilmington City Council, New Hanover County officials and other stakeholder groups to drum up support for a grant application that could provide $30 million for the redevelopment effort.

The grant—awarded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhoods program—would require local funding support and detailed plans that convey the city’s commitment to transforming Hillcrest over several years.

“The only way we can go forward with the revitalization of this area is if the city, county, education, nonprofits—the entire community—comes together and sets aside any sense of territory and cooperates,” said Jeff Hovis, chairman of the housing authority board. “It will not happen if we don’t work together.

“A lot of people have looked at this neighborhood as a housing issue. It’s a community issue,” he said. “And the poverty issues that we have are something that the community has to have solved.”

Hillcrest, as seen from along Dawson Street, is bordered by 13th and 16th streets and railroad tracks to the south (See map below).
Hillcrest, as seen from along Dawson Street, is bordered by 13th and 16th streets and railroad tracks to the south (See map below).

The plan would see Hillcrest’s housing units demolished and replaced with a variety of housing options that would be more aesthetically pleasing and designed to reduce opportunities for crime. Public, affordable and market-rate housing would be blended in a way that would make them indiscernible.

“The goal is not to make this an area you want to drive around,” Hovis said. “You should be able to walk through a public housing neighborhood and not know it’s public housing.”

Council members questioned how residents displaced by the project would be relocated—an aspect of the plan that Hovis acknowledged is not yet known. Residents would be given opportunity to return, but some may choose not to, as presenters said was the case with the nearby Jervay housing development just west of Hillcrest along Dawson Street.

Councilwoman Laura Padgett said she was disappointed with how Jervay ended up compared to initial proposals. Authority board member Bo Dean said the Hillcrest plan would accomplish what Jervay did not, citing a similar transformation he witnessed in Raleigh.

“They took this neighborhood and they transformed it into this mixed-income neighborhood. You have public housing units next to affordable housing, and then you’ve got people who are living in market-rate,” Dean said. “You would never know who’s living in what units, and they’re the most gorgeous places you’ve ever seen.

“People are killing themselves to get into these units. They want to live in these places,” he said. “And they increased the density hugely in that area. But because they invested also in the area around [the community], they really increased the value of the entire neighborhood around it.

“What Jervay wasn’t able to do, this can do,” Dean said.

Presenters said the plan would require multiple grants over multiple years, none of which would be guaranteed, as funding is competitive. The program provided $109 million for implementation grants in 2013. Of 42 applicants vying for funds the previous year, only four were awarded, said Rhae Parkes of EJP Consulting Group.

“The housing authority has been quite successful over the years securing state tax credit financing and has a formula that has worked, so we think the odds are good,” Parkes said, “but certainly, no guarantee.”

“The housing authority cannot do this alone. Part of the reason for that is this is not a redevelopment of a public housing site. This is about the ability to fundamentally transform a neighborhood,” Parkes said.

“The housing authority only controls the public housing side, which means then that the city, the families who live in the community, as well as council, other interested parties, have to be able to come together to form a collaborative to agree on a set of big ideas about how this community is transformed.”

Parkes said planning for different aspects of the project would need to be completed by May of next year, as that is the time of year when applications for the grants are typically accepted. The project would be phased over several years, with each grant funding one area of Hillcrest at a given time.

Attendees at the meeting included District Attorney Ben David, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous and Mayor Bill Saffo, who said he thought the plan “has a lot of potential.”

Saffo said after the meeting that council would need to look at the proposal further to determine how funding could be accommodated.

“It’s important to upgrade your public housing stock,” he said. “This is an area that needs to revitalize, and this is an opportunity to partner—the city, the county, the housing authority.”

Jonathan Spiers is a reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at (910) 772-6313 or jonathan.s@portcitydaily.com. On Twitter: @jrspiers

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