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After a year of building, 99 new homes are poised to transform a blighted neighborhood into a thriving community. 

From Blackwell to Bloom

It is a sweltering day in Blackwell, but Jeffrey Levine doesn't seem to mind. Scouting the area regularly has helped condition him to all kinds of climates.

Levine is the principal architect for the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority's $27 million urban-revitalization project, which for four years has been promising to pump new life into a limp and languishing Blackwell.

That promise soon could be fulfilled. By the end of the summer, the first residents start moving in. What they will find, says Levine, is a new neighborhood dubbed The Townes at River South, and a very different Blackwell.

The block of 10th Street he strides is a ghost town of Italianate- and Georgian-style houses so run-down it's difficult to imagine them possessing any energy or life at all. Rotted and neglected, some of the houses have to come down. Others might be saved if preservationists and developers agree they're worth the time and money to restore them.

Since the project began, 152 public-housing buildings and abandoned houses have been demolished, leaving vast patches of idle unkempt earth. Weeds grow fast when no one is there to cut them back. Trash collects, too, lining the streets and scattered about in yards. But Levine doesn't notice any of this.

And when he talks of Blackwell, the neighborhood's recent history, dubious and dangerous, seems nearly forgotten. In its place, Levine envisions a neighborhood teeming with people happy to live here. Stepping around the corner, he points toward the river and the hazy city skyline. "There's a lot to see around here, a lot of potential," he says.

South of the James River, Blackwell, a neighborhood that once conjured drugs, murder and mayhem, has waited for a $27 million makeover that has long promised to change the face of public housing and rebuild Blackwell.

That's a tall order. But by the end of the summer, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority plans to show new and returning residents that HOPE VI has kept its promise -- with the help of a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city's $7.5 million Neighborhoods in Bloom project.

Just northwest of the intersection of Commerce Road and Maury Street, rows and rows of townhouses jut up against the horizon. Here, several units of Blackwell's first new multifamily housing are nearing completion. In a little more than a month, occupants will start moving in. When they tell people where they live, they'll say: "The Townes at River South."

Blackwell residents picked out the name. "It's still the Blackwell community," says Tyrone Curtis, the housing authority's executive director. "But it's not public housing as we know it. We're trying to create a diverse community that's spread out so that the public, hopefully, won't be able to distinguish who's in public housing and who isn't."

HOPE VI is the sixth project of Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, the urban renewal program that has helped rebuild impoverished and crime-plagued areas in Baltimore, St. Louis and Chicago.

In September of last year construction began on the first of 34 buildings that will house 99 multifamily units at a cost of $9.4 million. Completion of those units, and residents returning or moving to the neighborhood, will help set the stage for Phase II, 62 additional multifamily rental units.

Building of the second wave of townhouse-style apartments originally was scheduled to begin a year ago, but those plans depended on funding not covered by the federal grant. The housing authority submitted a tax credit application for Phase II to the Virginia Housing Development Authority and, recently, that application was approved. The state has awarded the project $4 million in tax credit. The tax credits give investors incentive to lend money for the development of the housing.

The HOPE VI project's planners tout the development as the latest in a relatively budding concept called new urbanization. The rental townhouses are two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments that range in size from 1,000 to 1,400 square feet. Each is air-conditioned, landscaped and equipped with a porch and off-street or rear parking. After the rental units are built, it's likely construction will begin on 188 single-family homes that will be for sale. But what makes this project different from so many housing revitalization projects is its effort to involve the community. Hopes are, say the project's planners, that HOPE VI will provide residents with the tools and support they need to get off government assistance.

The mission of HOPE VI is to convert Blackwell into a mixed-income neighborhood where there are no visible differences between rented apartments and owned homes. "We want to minimize the us and them," says Levine.

In less than two years 438 dilapidated public-housing units have been demolished. The 540 new units that eventually are to replace them are a combination of rental apartments, townhouses and single-family homes. But as groundbreaking as the construction is, says RRHA's Curtis, it is only one part of the project's goal.

Those who return to Blackwell must participate in a self-sufficiency training program, the second mission of HOPE VI. The program provides training and resources for residents who want to improve more than just their housing options, but the overall quality of their lives. When they can afford it, they can pay rent or purchase the house or apartment they are living in.

"We never intend public housing to be a permanent thing," Curtis says. It's why he says the training is important.. So far, 142 families have participated in the self-sufficiency programs.

But not all of them will be able to return to Blackwell and many don't want to. Surveys taken last year from Blackwell residents indicate that only a third of the 364 families relocated during demolition and construction want to return to the neighborhood.

Fifty of the 99 multifamily units are earmarked for public housing, with priority given to previous Blackwell residents.

Still, Curtis and Levine insist the Blackwell model will be a success. They point to Randolph and Carver communities, though not public-housing neighborhoods, as proof. "This has been really different because of the hands-on approach we've had with residents," says Curtis. "We're looking at Mosby Court and Gilpin Court, exploring the feasibility of doing another project like this on a smaller scale. Our goal is not to re-create public housing."

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