Apartment plans strike fears among neighbors Developers cite need for homes

Published 11:50 am Thursday, April 12, 2012

Developers who plan to remodel the Carr Central building on Cherry Street and build apartments on U.S. 80 in Warren County say each would be hot properties for low- and moderate-income renters, though neighbors and others at separate public hearings Wednesday voiced fears over crime and property values.

Village Oaks Apartments, the 72-unit complex planned for the Carr site, could be completed at this time next year, Jeremy Mears, of Houston-based Brownstone told 14 people at a public hearing at Jones and Upchurch Realty. Comments will accompany the development’s application for housing tax credits, or HTCs, from the Mississippi Home Corporation.

“I think it will be a very sought-after apartment unit,” he said, adding the total price tag to refurbish Carr should approach $14 million. “We’re going to do our best to run a very nice, clean facility.”

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Another potential HTC-financed developer, by Arkansas-based Rich Smith Development LLC, plans to purchase five acres just east of Pear Orchard subdivision to build The Ridge, to feature three, three-story buildings and a clubhouse.

MHC expects to announce tax credit awards statewide by early September.

“We take pride in our product and we’re here for the long haul,” Kristina Knight, Rich Smith’s assistant vice president of acquisitions, told the 20 people who attended The Ridge public hearing.

A property manager and security officer will live on site and the company will own the complex, as it does 45 to 50 similar developments in five states, Knight said. A perimeter fence could also be built, she said.

In September, Brownstone won nearly $750,000 in income-based tax credits to renovate the old Aeolian apartments at Cherry and Clay streets into a complex for seniors. Mears expects to start work on the $8 million job in June, pending more federal tax credits for refurbishing historic properties.

Drawings showed the complex would be built in two phases with living spaces spread over the existing building and at least two new structures. Each unfurnished unit would be 700 to 1,300 square feet. Inside, the units would be electric-powered and feature such energy-efficient utilities as tankless water heaters. Outside, they would include a business center, a playground and 152 parking spaces.

Rent for all tax credit-financed complexes is based on a sliding scale tied to income. At a renovated Carr, monthly rent would be between $500 and $700 and be leased through a central leasing office, Mears said. Any tax credits awarded would be sold to private investors and Brownstone must own some percentage of the complex for 30 years. At The Ridge, rents would range from about $415 to $625. No rental vouchers would be accepted at either place, though Mears said it’s possible base rent could change over time if the median income changes.

Harry Sharp, owner of the nearby Greenlawn Gardens Cemetery, pointed out that with no zoning laws in Warren County, anything could be built on the U.S. 80 site.

“There are many worse things that could go in there,” Sharp said. “Vicksburg does need housing, no doubt about that, and this sounds like it will be a high-quality development. If you agree to maintain standards, most people would be happy with that.”

Carr closed in 1979 after it functioned as a junior high school for 21 years. It had served as Carr Central High School from 1932 to 1958, when H.V. Cooper High School opened.

Brownstone’s application is the fourth effort since 1999 to redevelop the property, currently owned by the estate of Webber Brewer, who died in 2010.

George Cronia, a 1944 graduate of Carr Central High School, said it’s important to keep the Carr name around, something Mears said could be revisited easily if credits are awarded. “You could call it Carr Terrace, Carr Manor, Carr Apartments, whatever,” Cronia said. “But I’d like to see it keep that name.”

Neighbors of the old school and rental property owners made up most of Wednesday night’s audience. Many of them grilled Mears on how crime-proof the complex would be and its financial viability, given the rent structure.

“I think that Cherry Street is the street that everybody comes through to come into Vicksburg,” said Lou Brierley, whose house neighbors the old school. “It’s the street that tourists come through, people come through. If Cherry Street becomes like another Drummond Street where the crime is so high, then I just don’t understand (building the complex).”

Mears said the development itself will be an improvement over the current structure, vacant since 1979.

“Right now, there’s a lot of vandalism inside it, a lot of gang symbols inside,” Mears said. “It’s abandoned. It looks really bad. Would you rather see that or a $14 million, brand-new development there? It’s going to be something people are proud of at the end of the day.

“We’re going to monitor the building. People are going to know when they move in if we catch you doing this, this and this, you might get a warning, then we’ll evict you.”

Tenants in a tax credit-financed development must earn less than 60 percent of the area median income. In Warren County, that comes to about $30,855 for families of four and about $20,000 for individuals, using the most recent income-related census data. Market data suggests rents will be “extremely competitive,” given the age of Vicksburg’s rental infrastructure, Mears said. Federal and state tax credits geared to historic structures could reimburse up to 45 percent of the cost to renovate the 88-year-old building, Mears said. Both points drew quick criticism.

“You say it’s going to cost $200,000 apiece and you’re going to run it for $500?” said Skippy Tuminello, referring to the per-unit construction cost and lowest-end rent. “We need to go out of business. We need to sell all our property. We’d never be able to rent a $200,000 apartment for $500. All the people that own real estate should just blow it up. Are we going on pure socialism here? It’s illogical. I don’t understand it.”

Pear Orchard residents Sonnie and Julie Flowers contend an apartment complex on the adjacent rising land brings up financial, privacy and noise issues. Others worried about traffic on the busy road just east of the Beechwood intersection.

“Property values is the main thing,” Sonnie Flowers said.

The program provides credits or reductions in tax liability each year for 10 years for owners and investors in affordable-income rental housing, based on the costs of development and the number of qualified affordable-income units.

In 2011, MHC awarded more than $6.5 million in HTCs to 14 redevelopment projects across the state. Applications are graded on multiple factors, including whether public hearings are held and for historic properties. Brownstone’s application for Aeolian scored highest in the state last year, while a failed bid by developers from Arizona and Illinois to rehab Carr Central scored highest among 21 sites that were rejected.