DANVILLE — It’s a demolition site now. But Verity Shepard can already picture a green space at the south end of Fair Oaks, where one of the original apartment buildings in the public housing complex is being razed.
“I think having these open spaces will make it feel like more of a community, where our kids can be outside and play,” said Shepard, a 15-year resident and mother of 11, five of whom still live with her.
“I’ve already noticed a difference since they emptied some of these buildings out,” she continued. “It’s a lot calmer.”
The Danville Housing Authority’s long-awaited project to tear down six apartment buildings scattered throughout Fair Oaks kicked off this week.
“It’s a little bittersweet and a little surreal that we’re finally here,” Executive Director Jaclyn Vinson said, adding the work leading up to this point has taken well over a year. “This is not something that has happened overnight. We knew there was a need to think strategically about these buildings.
"And there’s a process we’ve had to follow — including residents in our planning and gathering feedback on our thoughts and vision and ultimately, working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to gain their approval on that vision.”
The federal agency’s approval finally came in November.
Fair Oaks was one of the first public housing complexes built by the housing authority. About half of the two-story row house-style buildings were built in 1941, and the other half — which brought the number of units to over 300 — were constructed 10 years later.
The demolition project aims to reduce the concentration of poverty in the high-density complex that has been plagued with drug activity, shootings and other violent crime — the majority of which is committed by nonresidents, according to authorities.
“Density is a quality-of-life issue,” she said, adding Fair Oaks is the most dense neighborhood in Vermilion County.
“With the concentration of poverty like we have here,” Vinson continued, “you can only anticipate the issues such as those we’ve experienced here. Our five-year plan will work to curtail the issues our residents and community have been experiencing here over the past few decades.”
Vinson added that the cost of renovating the units “greatly” exceeds the cost of razing them. She said HUD approved the demolition “on the basis of physical obsolescence,” adding there were a variety of factors that made them obsolete.
Vinson said the project required the local agency to relocate about 130 residents in 57 units. She said the majority requested a voucher to live in Section 8 housing.
“About seven families ended up staying with us in public housing,” she said. “We just transferred them to the next available appropriately sized unit.”
The three-person Danville Public Works crew started demolishing a brick structure, at 1639-1653 Fairchild St., built in the early 1940s.
“It’s going well,” Director Carl Carpenter said Tuesday. “This is one of two brick buildings we’re tearing down. We’re peeling all of the red bricks off and recycling them. Then there’s concrete block, which we’re taking down and recycling also. We’ll scrap all of the metal and haul all of the rest to the dump.”
Carpenter estimated the two brick buildings — the other of which is at 940-956 Lewis Lane — will take 10 or 11 days to raze. He said the entire project should be finished in six or seven weeks.
Vinson said the other structures — all stick-frame — are at 900-918 and 924-942 Wakely Drive and 901-919 and 922-940 Belton Drive.
She said the city will cover each demolition site with topsoil. Then the housing authority will maintain them as green spaces until they decide how to further improve them.
“We’re going to assess the property once the demolition is done. Then we’ll plan for some of the investments we’ll make to improve it,” Vinson said.
Shepard looks forward to seeing some new amenities. But, she said, she already appreciates the measures the housing authority, city of Danville and police have done to improve Fair Oaks.
“Now, if (nonresidents) are standing around on the sidewalks (on Fairchild and Fowler Avenue) causing problems, they’ll be removed,” Shepard said of the enforcement, made possible when the city transferred the sidewalks to the housing authority. “Having more open spaces will help even more.”