Is it time to wipe slate clean in Bristol Place?

City officials fear best way to clean up neighborhood is to level it — and at least some of the residents agree

CHAMPAIGN — Two months ago, a FedEx carrier tried to deliver a package to a white, two-story home with a good view of the Canadian National railroad tracks and an Ameren Illinois substation. No one was home.

That is what is revealed by the first of two messages stuck to the lonely home's front door, just a few steps across a porch whose boards threaten to give way when they're stressed by the weight of anyone who approaches.

The other is an April 24 message from the city of Champaign: The grass is too long, and the owner needs to cut it before the city does it for him and bills him for the cost. Many of the homes here are more than 100 years old, and a high proportion of them are occupied by renters instead of their owners.

This is just another notice in a long line of property code violations that plague the neighborhood.

This year, the home at the corner of Roper and Chestnut in the Bristol Place neighborhood was assessed at just under $14,000, and it is one of the more extreme examples of how crime and property maintenance problems can devalue a neighborhood.

And it is one of the reasons city officials want to level 76 homes and start fresh.

In the city's lowest-valued area with one of the highest crime rates, Pat Posey lives on the neighborhood's worst corner at Clock and Bellefontaine. In 1998, police estimated a drug transaction went down in the Bristol Place neighborhood every two or three minutes.

Posey owns one of the neighborhood's nicer homes, a blue one-story house that Habitat for Humanity built five years ago, but she and her husband have been awakened by a bullet driving itself through the bedroom drywall. It is not so much the neighborhood's residents that drive the crime rate, Posey said, but the people who come into the neighborhood from other parts of the city.

But she has lived on Bellefontaine Street since 1967, and she still cannot figure out why it is an attractive neighborhood for crime.

"I lived here 40 years, and I still can't answer that question," Posey said. "But it's the best place for a good fight."

The Rev. Eugene Barnes, who operates the Metanoia Centers kitty-corner from Posey, has a theory: "It appears no one cares."

Let a neighborhood seem to disintegrate, Barnes said, and criminals see an opportunity in the lack of the residents' and the city's concern.

The city has addressed Barnes' concerns in abbreviated steps over the years, but officials are starting to roll out their biggest plan yet: Buy all the homes — through eminent domain, if necessary — and tear them down.

What is left will be a blank canvas.

"We wanted to be pretty sure if it needs to go that way," said Greg Skaggs, the city's community development specialist. "That was the last resort."

Buying, demolishing and preparing the seven blocks for redevelopment will cost $7.4 million. That includes the required assistance the city — and likely the Housing Authority of Champaign County — will provide to help relocate the neighborhood's residents.

What will rise from the dust is not clear yet, but city officials know they are not going to rebuild 75 to 100 single-family homes. They also do not want to build exclusively low-income housing.

"We're not interested in building islands of poverty any more," said Kerri Spear, the city's neighborhood programs manager.

It is also unclear if the neighborhood's residents will want or be able to return.

"What is being proposed is the breakup of a community," Terry Townsend, an activist and former Housing Authority commissioner, told the city council last month.

Townsend worries about gentrification — the displacement of the poorest of residents to make way for those who are more affluent. The focus, he said, should be on affordability and accessibility.

"Clear and simple, you're going to gentrify that neighborhood," he said. "This is the breakup of an African-American community."

Barnes said he sees it differently. He has been in the neighborhood since the demolition of the infamous "green apartments" at the corner of Market and Bellefontaine streets, one of the havens for much of the area's drug activity.

He said the area is much improved since the green apartment days, and the residents who remain deserve better.

"These people are part of the city," Barnes said. "They're part of the citizenry. They deserve the same kind of attention as the people down in Devonshire."

City officials are using it as reminder of what can happen while a neighborhood decays.

"One of our goals is to not ever have to do this again," Spear said. "We think we can do that with Garwood. We think we can do that with Garden Hills."

Meanwhile, Posey is getting ready to move — she was disappointed when she learned that she would have to leave her home and the neighborhood, and she does not want to think about her next step yet. She doesn't know where she'll go, and she doesn't know if she'll come back.

But she is not resisting the change. She thinks it's about time.

"We need to see something different in this neighborhood," Posey said. "It deserves it."

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Sid Saltfork wrote on June 17, 2012 at 8:06 am

Who are the owners of the properties?  The city is going to buy the properties from the owners who do not maintain their properties; and spend a chunk of money to demolish the houses?  The renters are the ones who suffer.  Who are the slum landlords?  Why does the city have to buy the properties instead of condeming them, and confiscating them?  If the city cannot legally do that; the names of the owners should be public information.  The owners should be the ones responsible; not the city, or the renters.  The owners should not get one dime out of this deal if the city has to do it.

rsp wrote on June 19, 2012 at 3:06 am

http://www.co.champaign.il.us/ccao/Assessors.htm

You will find some of the same names repeated. There are only a few who own multiple properties. To buy a house to rent unless you have cash the bank requires a much larger down payment. And with the bubble bursting not as many people think real estate is a good investment. Some of the listings are just empty lots, and I didn't read all of them but it looks like most are local people. Including one team who regularly solicit to buy more houses through the mail. 

Just to play devil's advocate, I've rented before from a lot of different people and met landlords through others. Sometimes people get in over their heads, don't really know what they are doing or what the laws are. They've been taken advantage of so they stop caring. And the same can be said of some tennants. It's just as easy to call them slumlords as to talk about section 8. A lot of times it's people who don't even live there who are the problem.

Joe American wrote on June 17, 2012 at 9:06 am

Townsend worries about gentrification — the displacement of the poorest of residents to make way for those who are more affluent. The focus, he said, should be on affordability and accessibility.

"Clear and simple, you're going to gentrify that neighborhood," he said. "This is the breakup of an African-American community."

 

Looks like Terry Townsend is looking for another 15 minutes, and with his ridiculous, illogical statements he made a fool of himself in the process.  Does he really think that keeping this neighborhood "black" is worth the crime and destitution that plagues it?  Does he really think that keeping a neighborhood "black" is any way morally superior to those who try to keep a neighborhood "white"?

Is he equating frequent drug deals, occasional random gun shots and dilapidated real estate with the (black) "community"?   Why can't the current residents (the law-abiding ones, anyway) return to the new community?

Get over it, Terry.  It's not an ethnic thing.  It's an urban blight thing.

Mark Taylor wrote on June 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm

That's absolutely right. He obviously and transparently said he wants to make sure no white people move in. Well, okay, he didn't actually say it, but we all can plainly read his mind and we just know in our guts that's what he meant, whether or not we have any of your elitist evidence to prove it or not. When you're as adept at knowing what people really mean as me and "Joe" are, then you don't need people to actually say something to know what they're really thinking.

Joe American wrote on June 17, 2012 at 8:06 pm

I make it a rule to not respond to the trolls, but in this case I'll make an exception.  "Mark Taylor", as your moniker states,  as usual, you criticize the messenger and not the message.     I can't recall a single conversatoin where you offered any legitimate answers, and what you likely think is a sense of humor is actually quite bizarre.  It's apparent that you didn't read the article as the quotes attributed to Townsend made very clear his message.  Whether he misspoke or not, and whether parts of his discussion were omitted, I don't know, but he was very clear in what was was attributed to him. You can spin it and tell us what he really meant any way you like, but you've shown your hand and the only chance you have is a bluff.  

Mark Taylor wrote on June 18, 2012 at 9:06 am

I KNOW, I totally agree with you. The plain meaning of that quote is "Keep out, white people." Any fool can see that.

rsp wrote on June 18, 2012 at 8:06 pm

We are talking about folks who have lived near each other their entire lives, their parents have lived near each other most of their lives. When your family history can only be traced back to your great grandparents those ties are everything. 

Joe American wrote on June 17, 2012 at 9:06 am

".....but she and her husband have been awakened by a bullet driving itself through the bedroom drywall."

I understand the concept of creative license, but for the record a bullet doesn't "drive itself" into anything, namely the wall of a house.  It usually takes two-bit thuggery to do that, and clearly it did in this case.

Mark Taylor wrote on June 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Amen, brother. I'm so dang sick of these dang lei-berals abusing the American language to get their subtle anti gun ideology into our brains unawares. Guns don't drive bullets into people's drywall, two-bit thugs (we know who they are) do.

alabaster jones 71 wrote on June 17, 2012 at 10:06 am
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Townsend has some legitimate concerns, but I don't hear him mentioning any solutions.  Whether he wants to admit it or not, the area is a crime-ridden eyesore. 

OK, you got your complaining in, now what's your plan for the neighborhood?  Just leave it like it is and hope that the residents show some gumption and community spirit and turn things around?  Good luck with that.

pattsi wrote on June 17, 2012 at 12:06 pm

According to this article, Ms. Posey lives in a 5-year old, Habitat-built home along with living in the area for 40 years. She is preparing to move. As part of this process, I do hope that the city plans to move this 5-year old home to a location of her choice.

MSJ66 wrote on June 17, 2012 at 12:06 pm

That's right lets tear it down, displace the curent residents as they did at Dorsey Homes complex. That way we can send all these people elswhere in the community so that we can turn other good neighborhoods into areas where there will be an increase in crime and problems. Has anyone seen the increase in crime and issues out by Kaufmann Lake north of Springfield avenue over the last year or two? I'm sick of the city spending taxpayer money to "redevelop" problem areas of the city and in the process they disperse and extend the problems and crime to a broader base of the community. This in turn creates problems and crime in other neighborhoods or subdivisions where none existed prior to the "redevelopment" of the areas like the ones mentioned in this article.

Mark Taylor wrote on June 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm

That's ding dang right. You're absolutely right to compare these people to vermin who will infest other good and clean areas of the city if they are not contained in their designated areas.

jerrysbear wrote on June 17, 2012 at 11:06 pm

I think you are sarcastic in your replies but I hope you know people can't really tell b/c it is written.

Anyways, the original poster is correct. When you break up a crime ridden neighborhood, you spread the problem. It is better to try to fix the problem rather than break it up.

Mark Taylor wrote on June 18, 2012 at 6:06 pm

I know; I totally agree. It's totally totally fine and normal to compare fellow human beings to vermin that will infest other areas of the city.

Amen, brother.

ddf1972 wrote on June 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm

I am not sure what the solution is, but the answer is not 50s/60s style scorched-earth slash and burn "urban renewal", which usually succeeds in pushing those who are often poor and minorities out of their homes and gentrifies the area, assuring that they can no longer afford to live there.  Examples of this are everywhere in St. Louis and Chicago, and they failed.  I would hope Champaign would be a little bit more visionary than that.

welive wrote on June 17, 2012 at 3:06 pm

this area has alway been bad i lived on clock st for over three years had lots of great parties the cops never came.And i am White.and my neighbors were great.BAck in 96 they called it FLEETs turf he is sitting in prison doing life for drug dealing.At that time the city was going to clean it up and take over the place.They tore down the green apartments and built a playground.Awesome.However the same stuff goes on as it did before you just cant see it from the road now.And why the one ways back there? And for the Poseys they are just one of the good people who live back there.

rsp wrote on June 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm

No it hasn't always been bad. It's had decades of neglect where you couldn't get the police to come to a call, where landlords haven't had to do repairs, etc. When nobody cares about the people in a neighborhood this is what you end up with. So they want to divide up people from the ones they know and can count on. There are a lot of good people who live there who can't afford to live anywhere else. 

bmwest wrote on June 18, 2012 at 7:06 am
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$7.4M to clear 76 properties.  That's just under $100K per property.  I have no idea what the true condition of those properties is and I'm not an expert on housing law but I'd sure think the city could get more bang for their buck through owner-occupied property improvement incentives.  For example, the city could provide a 50% downpayment grant up to $20K for owner-occupied residents who stay for at least 5 years.  That will help bring stability to the neighborhood, a pair of eyes to watch for trouble, and give residents a stake in the outcome of neighborhood improvments.  In addition, the city could provide up to $30K for exterior improvements (paint, repair roof/porch, etc) to owner-occupiers.  That will ensure that the properties don't further degrade and it will improve the appearance of the neighborhood.  That leaves almost $50K per property that can either be saved or invested into a grant to fix interior code violations.

These grants, coupled with increased police patrols, more strict enforcement of property ordinances, and increased social services and job fair outreach, should have a significant impact.  You won't be able to turn over every property immediately but the properties that are improved via this means will put pressure on the rest.  This avoids the need for eminent domain or forced relocation.  I've seen a similar transformation occur in my own Champaign neighborhood as more stable families move in and keep rowdy neighbors in check.  Drug arrests have been replaced by police asking the neighborhood kids not to bother the old lady on the next block over.  Our house in particular has, with some city assistance, had a major transformation from overgrown vegetation, leaky roof, and appliances in the yard when we bought it eight years ago to newly painted, a new roof, clean and simple landscaping, and many interior improvements.  This appears to have spurred (or coincidentally timed with) improvements made to five other properties on our block all made with private investment.

An existing neighborhood can be improved.  I've experienced it first-hand and it doesn't have to radically disrupt the properties or people.  It also doesn't have to cost a lot to taxpayers.  The $15K invested in us 5-8 years ago has yielded an additional $20K investment on our own, probably another $10K in sweat equity, 5 additional properties improved, and a more family-friendly neighborhood with a marked reduction in police calls.

Champaignite wrote on June 18, 2012 at 9:06 am

In a neighborhood with a decent percentage of owner-occupied properties, that totally makes sense.  Unfortunately, I don't think that that is the case with this area.  It's pretty unlikely that landlords will invest a huge amount in these properties without substantial assistance.  Without it, there simply won't be a lot of change in the area.

I hadn't thought about the math of $100,000 per property which is way high.  I haven't seen much up there sell for more than $50k and most of it is far less than that.  I assume that there might be substantial costs in leveling the houses.  I would hope that the city is planing to pay fair but not planning to pay premium prices for these properties.