OUR OPINION: Firm hand needed at Azalea Gardens

The city of Tupelo’s purchase of the long-troubled Azalea Gardens apartment properties on Lawndale and Ida streets holds the potential for a measure of control and new policies that could stabilize the neighborhood, one of the chief reasons the City Council voted 5-1 to spend $2.15 million for the 7.8-acre parcel.

Ward 2 Councilman Lynn Bryan, a general contractor who specializes in housing remodels and upgrades, said the purchase price is $11 per square foot for 185,000 square feet. The property, under plans so far unofficially discussed, would remain an income producer with tenants.

However, Bryan and city attorney Ben Logan said structures in Azalea Gardens in a flood plain will be demolished, ultimately lowering the residential density of the neighborhood, providing new green space and improving the quality of life.

Logan said plans could include some development of single-home, owner-occupied residences on the site, but nothing has been finalized. Logan and Bryan both said public-private partnerships are envisioned.

Bryan and Logan said the units, under strong management (the Neighborhood Development Corporation is seen as a manager but not an owner), can become a stabilizing influence for the neighborhood and begin to reduce creeping blight that has developed over a span of 30 years or more.

The property was purchased from South Carolina-based Southeastern Development Group.

Logan said the city is scheduled to close on the 1518 Ida St. property at 11 a.m. Friday.

Councilman Willie Jennings of Ward 7, which includes part of Azalea Gardens, voted against buying the apartment complex because he said buying up properties in areas with crime and code enforcement problems is the wrong, unaffordable approach.

Bryan disagrees. He said income from well-managed properties can repay the note owed the city’s reserve fund, and then perhaps be used in additional housing upgrades yet to be determined.

None of the current tenants will be kicked out of the apartment complex, but they could be required to relocate to another unit in the indefinite future.

Bryan said if the city sticks to a firm plan for managing the apartments it could attract new residents who have a stronger stake in the larger community and their neighborhood.

Some Tupelo leaders warned decades ago that clustering apartment complexes in such close proximity would eventually invite problems, and they were correct. The past won’t be undone, but the existing situation can be improved to everyone’s benefit.