By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – It’s been eight months without visible changes to Tupelo’s West Jackson Street, giving the appearance that the $2.9 million city redevelopment project to improve the blighted neighborhood has stalled.
But project leaders believe that in spite of snags along the way, with some tweaks, the effort to remove crime and rundown property that threatens the high-traffic area’s future vitality as well as nearby middle-class neighborhoods can stay on track.
Plans discussed last fall called for 27 property purchases in December along West Jackson Street and Chapman Drive, areas of high crime and safety concerns in recent years. That same plan called for acquiring the properties this year through September as tenants in rental property found other places to live.
These efforts fit into an overall master plan created by local architects in late 2013 that includes adding and improving infrastructure of city sidewalks, underground utilities and landscaping on two streets in the area west of Gloster Street to Joyner Avenue.
Ultimately, the intent is to replace blighted properties with desirable, attractive houses geared toward young families and professionals in the $90,000 to $120,000 price range.
Most residents of the area have heard of the redevelopment project but are waiting to see improvements actually happen. The last sign of change, demolition of two West Jackson Street houses in August, hasn’t been followed by any additional demolition or other work.
The timetable for the real estate deals planned for last December keeps stretching out. Board members of the Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit working on the project for the city, didn’t anticipate property owners unwilling to sell houses mostly in the $17,000 to $20,000 range.
NDC started with more than $1.7 million for buying property, demolition, reconfiguring the land for new development and marketing the project to private builders.
But slow-going on buying houses has caused a snag.
“The architect had plans for a big dream but we weren’t able to get all of the properties,” Duke Loden, NDC board president and a commercial real estate broker, said last week. “So, we’ll do it in segments.”
NDC’s board voted Wednesday to demolish five more houses within a month, a move intended to provide assurance that the project remains on track.
While the project from the outside seems to have slowed, NDC’s actions show a flurry of behind-the-scenes negotiations to advance the redevelopment. However, some decisions facing NDC remain uncertain and detailed plans have not yet been made public.
To date, NDC has purchased 16 properties and has options to buy on six others, Loden said. All but one of the houses bought are rental properties. Four NDC board members are still working to convince other property owners to sell. However, some owners see little incentive to sell real estate they value higher than the city will pay.
This setback has forced NDC to regroup and go back to the planning stages. In the next month, a revised master plan will reflect that inability to buy all houses identified for the project.
Instead of buying longer sections of land to use for the project, NDC will strategically buy three or four houses in a row.
“We’re not going to force out anybody and we’re not going to pay an outrageous price either,” Loden said.
However, likely properties acquired for the project should number close to 27, the number NDC first named as likely acquisitions.
Beyond buying property, plans related to two apartment complex units have changed, or at least evolved.
An empty apartment complex and former crime magnet at West Jackson Street and Clayton Avenue was originally planned for razing, but NDC has backed away from that idea.
First, the structural soundness of the complex persuaded NDC to consider it for possible condos. Now, board members have decided they’ll accept ideas from developers who have voiced interest in the property that could include keeping or removing the building. Requests for proposals from developers interested in the property are due May 16.
Among project requirements is a maximum of two residential rental units. Developers also can use connecting city-owned property at 1105 West Jackson St. as part of the project.
City-owned land farther down on Clayton Avenue which housed the former Blair Street apartment complex no longer seems destined for a park or other green space as first envisioned by the city.
“Neither our plan nor the city’s plan has a park there,” Loden said. “We’d rather have houses there.”
NDC still anticipates a walking trail that would connect the area to future sidewalks on Joyner Avenue that follow to nearby Rob Leake City Park.
Mayor Jason Shelton has invited builders and developers to City Hall on Monday for a meeting to encourage consideration of projects in the city limits. NDC members will attend hoping to attract interest in the West Jackson redevelopment area. After all, the city will provide underground utilities, sidewalks and landscaping at no cost to developers.
Even with delays and a change of plans, Loden said he still feels confident in the plan to create attractive housing opportunities in an area that has been a risk for owner-occupied real estate.
“I think it will be as much of a success as any of the city officials or we envisioned,” he said.
Locations below show known properties acquired by the Tupelo City Council and NDC for neighborhood redevelopment. Click the top right corner of the map for full-screen view, and zoom in and out of the map with controls on bottom right.