New housing appointees share mayor's vision
DANVILLE — An almost entirely new board will be in place soon at the Danville Housing Authority, and the Danville mayor hopes his new appointees will lead the way to a transformation of public housing in the city.
Businessman Lou Mervis, retired Danville Police Chief Carl Alexander and business owner Pat O'Shaughnessy have been appointed to the seven-member public housing board in Danville along with Don McLaughlin, who is being reappointed. The foursome will join two existing board members, retired educator Lon Henderson and Rick Strebing, who also serves on the Danville City Council, and another newcomer, Dorothy Townsend, who will replace Terry Kobrich as the public housing residents' representative.
For years, Mayor Scott Eisenhauer has been lobbying for the federally funded housing authority to redevelop the aging, high-density multifamily public housing complexes in the city. The largest of those is Fair Oaks, 1607 Clyman Lane, on the city's east side, where 41 row-style apartment buildings were built in the 1940s and contain a total of 326 family units. Similar, though much smaller, is Beeler Terrace with 51 family units in row-style brick buildings, near the city's center at Washington and Seminary streets.
Fair Oaks has struggled with crime and drug activity for years on a 10-acre site that's isolated on the outskirts of town and vulnerable to trespassing by non-residents. The site has access to mass transit services, but is far from grocery stores and other shopping and service-related amenities in the city.
In the last several years, Eisenhauer has studied other public housing redevelopment projects in Illinois cities and toured one in Springfield, and more recently, has had city planning employees meeting with housing authority officials to chart some type of course for redevelopment.
Like many other housing authorities in the state, the Housing Authority of Champaign County has demolished older-style public housing and developed new mixed-income apartment complexes, like Oakwood Trace and Douglass Square apartments near Fourth Street and Bradley Avenue in Champaign, which replaced the former Parkside Apartments and Burch Village.
For the last several years, Eisenhauer has been recommending individuals for the housing authority board who share his vision of redevelopment, and this round of appointees, which was approved by the city council Tuesday night, is no different.
"I think what was important about these particular appointments is, as we move forward with the demolition of public housing, we needed individuals on the board who are familiar with the process of developing or redeveloping properties, and there's no question that Carl, Pat and Lou are very familiar with the development process," Eisenhauer said.
The mayor said his No. 1 priority continues to be a reduction of density in public housing and redeveloping in a way that's appropriate to today's living standards.
"Barracks-style housing and a large number of units all in a small area is no longer acceptable anywhere and shouldn't be here," said Eisenhauer, referring to a nationwide initiative in public housing in the last 15 years to demolish older, high-density complexes, like high-rise apartment buildings, and replace them with more modern facilities that can be mixed-income, meaning units are not occupied by low-income residents only, and can also be scattered-site developments, meaning housing spread over larger areas.
Greg Hilleary, executive director of the housing authority, said he assumes the new board members will be seated at the agency's June 19 board meeting, and he knows they are all well-respected members of the community.
"I'm very pleased that we are moving forward," he said.
While the housing authority board has been discussing the possibility of changes, at this point, there are no major plans for demolition or redevelopment.
Hilleary said the agency is working on a special application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to demolish three of the 41 buildings at Fair Oaks, which would reduce Fair Oaks 326 units by 27 or 28. He said the application is 26 pages and requires an abundance of information that must be prepared in advance.
"And of course, it is (HUD's) decision as to how and what happens. The housing authority is a managing agent for HUD for these properties," he said.
After retiring almost seven years ago from a 34-year career in law enforcement, including eight years as Danville's top officer, Alexander agreed to a role on the housing authority board. He said he just believes there's a better way of doing public housing than the way it's being done now.
"This is a board that I think can do a lot of good things for the community," he said.
O'Shaughnessy is an owner of Vermilion County Title Inc. in downtown Danville and is, or has been, part of numerous community boards and initiatives. He said there's a place for public housing and Section 8 housing, but it needs to be done right.
"There is a lot of redevelopment potential on the east side of Danville that (Danville Housing Authority) needs to be a catalyst in, and I don't think they have been," said O'Shaughnessy, who added that mixed-rate housing and other redevelopment must be evaluated and strongly considered for Danville. "I feel strongly about it, and I just think it's time for DHA to make a difference in the community."
Mervis, O'Shaughnessy and Alexander are replacing three outgoing board members whose terms expired months ago but still continued to serve while Eisenhauer searched for replacements. They are Vermilion County Assistant State's Attorney Sandy Lawlyes, City Comptroller Gayle Lewis and Alderman Mike Puhr.