Ida Street apartments have history of city involvement

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town_tupelo_greenBy Robbie Ward

Daily Journal

TUPELO – City leaders’ recent $2.15 million purchase of a 220-unit low-income apartment complex marks a continuation of 16 years of the city trying to eliminate crime and deteriorating housing conditions in the Ida Street area.

Specific plans haven’t yet taken shape for the Azalea Gardens Apartments, a 7.8-acre property at 1518 Ida St., but the goal remains the same as in 1998 – to revitalize the Ida Street area where deteriorating housing and increasing crime have persisted.

Current ideas for the property include tearing down all or most apartment buildings to create green space and possibly have private builders construct duplexes or condominium units. But city officials say it’s too early to know for sure.

“That’s something that will have to be evaluated,” Mayor Jason Shelton said last week. “In the real world, stuff will have to go at the natural pace.”

Shelton and other city officials have noted that the city had only a narrow window of opportunity to purchase the property and had to move quickly to be able to determine the future of the area.

Tupelo has focused on redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods and revitalization in recent years. Shelton announced a tentative revitalization plan for the city last week that includes a number of different options. He said the plan remains a work in progress as he receives input from the community.

Previous effort

Similar to 16 years ago, city government foresees a public-private partnership to improve the property. Back then, the Tupelo Housing Authority created a subsidiary and partnered with a private company as part of a $6.38 million improvement project.

That project involved buying, combining and improving five apartment complexes into what’s now known as Azalea Gardens. The project never reached fruition. It resulted in THA and its subsidiary company, Tupelo Apartment Homes, the California-based property management company, O’Malley’s Property Management, and the city of Tupelo sued in bankruptcy court for default on the bonds, a total of $9.4 million owed in loans and interest.

This time around, Tupelo’s City Council has agreed to use money from city reserves to buy the property from a South Carolina-based company that bought the apartments through the same bankruptcy proceedings dating to 2007.

Southeastern Development Group, a company specializing in revamping low-income housing, paid $800,000 for the apartments and made a $1.35 million profit with the sale to the city earlier this month.

The city’s partner with redevelopment of the West Jackson Street project, the nonprofit Neighborhood Development Corporation, has voiced interest in planning and redevelopment efforts related to the property but the all-volunteer group hasn’t decided if it wants to enter the property management business. Costs associated with demolishing buildings on the property and other work needed before proceeding with future plans aren’t yet known.

“We just need to look at it and see,” said NDC chairman Duke Loden. “We haven’t seen the numbers.”

In the meantime, five remaining employees at Azalea Gardens received their first paychecks Friday since the city bought the property. TRI Inc. Realtors now manages the property on behalf of the city as part of a contract agreement without a definite ending date. Among 43 tenants at the apartment complex, the last lease should expire in October.

The fact that immediate steps aren’t clear bothers some council members. Councilman Willie Jennings opposed the city buying the property, some of which is in Ward 7 that he represents.

“It was just too many unanswered questions for me to make a decision with taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Jennings also has expressed discomfort with the city’s redevelopment efforts focusing on predominantly black areas.

Other council members who supported the purchase, which was approved 5-1, said their main concern was to prevent the former apartment complex known for gang activity, murder, drugs and other crimes from resuming full-scale operations.

Council President Nettie Davis, whose Ward 4 also includes part of the land occupied by Azalea Gardens, supports the project, and said she anticipates a return on taxpayer dollars.

“I think it will end up benefiting the people who live in the area and also the entire city of Tupelo,” she said.

robbie.ward@journalinc.com