The New Gilpin 

While the city's largest public housing complex gears up for redevelopment, the housing authority confronts the ghosts of Blackwell.

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Jimmy Miller has a problem most property managers would welcome. He regularly gets calls from families asking to buy one of his colorful row houses, which sit across the Quinnipiac River from a development where condos cost as much as $300,000.

But Miller, deputy executive director of the housing authority in New Haven, Conn., must tell them the homes are not for sale. They're public housing units.
That's the goal for the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority's re-imagining of Gilpin Court, the city's largest public housing development: to build a place open to pubic housing residents in which anyone would want to live.

The housing authority took the first public step toward that end last week when it introduced its planning consultants from Icon Architects — who also created the development in New Haven — to the community during three meetings at the Calhoun Family Investment Center in Gilpin Court.

The forums presented options and preliminary plans for the Gilpin area north of Interstate 95 at Belvidere Street. The presentations mark an effort to not only revitalize Gilpin, but also reinvent the housing authority's public image.

In 1997, the authority secured $27 million in federal funding to help turn the South Side neighborhood of Blackwell, then a crime-ridden stretch behind Hull Street, into a mixed-income neighborhood.

The authority bulldozed 440 public housing units in Blackwell. But shortly after the demolition, the federal government curtailed funding, and it took nearly a decade to resurrect the first replacement housing.

Forty percent of Blackwell's families moved into other public housing projects, according to research by Lallen T. Johnson-Hart, who received a doctorate from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2006. She found that another 40 percent used housing-choice vouchers and moved into “places featuring high poverty rates” — essentially moving poverty to other parts of the city.

Blackwell has become the poster child for how not to reinvent public housing, and this time around the housing authority promises different results.
“We've learned from it,” authority spokeswoman Valena Dixon says. “It's a different administration, a different time, different funding requirements. Resident involvement is very key for us.”

The authority's executive director, Anthony Scott, tells a crowd during one of the meetings last week that the authority wants to replace all of the public housing demolished in the name of redevelopment — a total of 4,100 publicly subsidized apartments and homes.

The meetings represent a new theme for the housing authority, which is trying to dispel the notion that it's “planning behind your back,” Scott says. It's an accusation that hasn't always been merited, he says, but “that's been the criticism that we've always had in the past.”

While observers may still view Blackwell with a jaundiced eye, the housing authority has some key allies.

At the second night of public meetings, Gilpin residents Connie Stepford and Aisha Scott peruse color photos the consultants have hung on the wall showing different housing models. The sisters are tall and poised, but the Albert Hill Middle School students were in diapers when the Blackwell redevelopment started. They point to a picture of a red home with a front yard, similar to those in the New Haven development.

“It makes the community look more professional,” says Scott, who is no relation to the housing authority director.

“It's pretty,” Stepford agrees. “It looks like [new] Blackwell. It doesn't look like the projects.”

They, along with two dozen other Gilpin Court residents, sit attentively while the Icon architects review a rudimentary outline. Gilpin houses 783 units and Fay Towers, a home for senior citizens, holds 200 more.

Projecting digital illustrations on a screen in the Calhoun center, the planners restore the street grid that Gilpin's original planners ignored and envision a mix of apartment buildings, homes, restaurants, shops and public parks.

They also show bridges that would connect north Jackson Ward to the city, which is also consistent with the ongoing city master plan that seeks to connect Manchester to downtown, stitching the city together across the river.

 “If there is truly some direction in North Jackson Ward, life in historic Jackson Ward will completely change,” says Ron Stallings, a prominent local developer.

Stallings envisions working with the housing authority to build a 200-unit development, with the majority of space being subsidized public housing for the elderly and the physically challenged who will be displaced from Fay Towers.

“The building needs to be a place people can live,” he says, “but on the first floor provide services and jobs to handle the needs of people in the neighborhood.”

Stallings also owns the St. Luke's building where Maggie L. Walker's original Penny Savings Bank was established in 1903. He wants to renovate it so the National Park Service can make the ground floor a tour stop, opening the second floor for community meetings, with VCU's School of Social Work occupying the third floor.

The Gilpin redevelopment is a shift from the federal housing initiative known as Hope VI, which aimed to change public housing across the country from cramped, concentrated projects to economically diverse developments. But those funds have largely dried up, which means the Gilpin redevelopment must rely on a mix of federal, state, city and private funds. 

The agreement between the authority and Icon includes a financial planning component — a treasure map to go along with the redrawn Gilpin. Nestled on the northern rim of where I-95 cuts through historic Jackson Ward, the land value of Gilpin has increased as Philip Morris built its new research facility on Leigh Street, the crown jewel of the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park. 

T.K. Somanath, chief executive of the Better Housing Coalition, says the authority is taking the right approach.

“I think they learned from Blackwell and are sensitive to the issue of mass displacement. The challenge is to gather the resources,” he says. “This community has gone through many of these [planning] sessions. It's important for the housing authority to deliver on the promises they're making to these residents.”

That the more than 780 families living in Gilpin Court will return to the new development, for example, is “an impossible dream,” Somanath says. “But if there's a way to do it, intelligently find housing on site and with section 8 [housing choice vouchers to subsidize private rent], it can be done.”

Dixon and Scott stress that no family will be moved out of public housing without a resettlement plan — which could include a private arrangement, housing vouchers, a house in the authority's home ownership program or, as a last resort, moving to another public housing project in the city.

Cora Hayes, a public housing resident and advocate, says the right to return is particularly important to her.

“We really want to get across one-for-one replacement,” she says. “We want to make sure people who move out will be able to get back in without having to pay another security deposit or requalify.”

So far, she's encouraged. She says she's so far been impressed with Scott, the housing authority's executive director since 2005. “I like what I'm hearing so far,” she says. S


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