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West Side feels ignored by CURA

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Redevelopment and revitalization projects are taking place all across Charleston, but some community members don't feel it's happening quickly enough, especially on the city's West Side.

The Rev. Matthew Watts, president and CEO of HOPE Community Development Corporation, wants the city and the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority to focus on blighted areas of the West Side -- those plagued by vacant and dilapidated structures.

"The biggest problem that the West Side confronts is disinvestment," Watts said. "Vacant properties are a manifestation of disinvestment."

In 2008, CURA developed its West Side Renewal Plan (in effect until Jan. 1, 2028) to address those issues of disinvestment. The plan includes outlines for redevelopment of housing, business, open spaces and infrastructure.

These improvements would take place in the West Side's CURA district: south from Washington Street to Kanawha Boulevard; west to Two Mile Creek; east to Hunt Avenue; and Washington Street from Hunt Avenue to Maryland and Railroad Avenue.

Citing Section 16 of the state code (which addresses the establishment and purpose of municipal redevelopment entities), Watts said he doesn't believe the city and CURA have been properly addressing West Side revitalization.

Section 16 states that if a community decides there is a need for redevelopment, an organization should be established to handle such projects.

"The city of Charleston has to take the lead role in advancing the [West Side Renewal Plan] and making a strategy to advance the plan forward," Watts said. "It's not going to happen just because they wrote words on a paper."

The CURA plan states a desire for not only public redevelopment projects, but also promotes joint public and private endeavors.

"There's no doubt that there's a great deal that needs to be done to make the West Side attractive to new investment," said CURA Executive Director Jim Edwards. "It's going to take the efforts of more than one redevelopment agency to make a change."

Also part of the plan is a designated Home Ownership Zone -- an area focusing on rehabilitating houses and developing safe, affordable housing. Bob Hardy -- who was involved in founding Charleston Area Community Development Corporation in 1994 -- said there hasn't been enough attention paid to that area.

"If we have created a Home Ownership Zone, what we are going to do is we are going to enhance the opportunity for home ownership [there]," Hardy said. "Since that time, they have done absolutely zero to make this home-ownership viable."

There has been work done by the city and CURA on the West Side in recent years. The city has demolished 234 residential and 57 commercial structures on the West Side since 2005, according to data from the Building Commission.

Vacant houses are a drain on city services, according to City Planning Director Dan Vriendt. They are "places where mischief can happen," such as drug deals and fires.

The Strong Neighborhoods Task Force has worked on developing a city ordinance that would alleviate some of the problems vacant houses create. Part of the ordinance includes requiring property owners to register vacant structures and impose a fee on those who don't. The task force is going to take up that ordinance again next year, Vriendt said.

CURA has spent about $660,000 over the past two years on projects in the West Side, according to Edwards. These funds were allocated to projects such as streetscape improvements along Washington Street, the Mary C. Snow clinic and the demolition of 13 structures on behalf of HOPE, Edwards said.

"We commend them for that," Watts said of CURA's assistance to HOPE. "They were some of the most blighted structures -- and some of them were inhabited."

Projects involving housing haven't been met without challenges. Building on West Side property isn't always financially lucrative, which makes it a hard sell. Edwards said it's also difficult to find those with either the assets or the credit to build or buy houses there.

"Housing is very affordable in Charleston," Edwards said. "Someone can buy a house in South Hills and not have the risk of moving into a neighborhood that is still uncertain which direction it's going to go, although I think it's improving."

Vriendt said many properties on the West Side are "upside-down." This means the value of the lots themselves is much less than what it would cost to build a new house or structure there.

"The fear that it will be worth the same or less 10 years from today; why would anybody do that? Most people will not," Edwards said. "The challenge is overcoming the practical and the image issues."

Small, closely placed lots are difficult to build on by today's standards. Many of those on the West Side wouldn't accommodate a modern home, and acquiring multiple lots can complicate the process.

"They were very small, very modest homes, that, frankly, wouldn't be built today," Edwards said of the older houses on the West Side.

Watts and Hardy expressed a need for the city and CURA to make up for what are considered past ills.

Making the West Side Urban Renewal Plan a top priority is an opportunity for CURA to make up for the dismantling of the Triangle District -- a predominantly black neighborhood bordered by the Elk River, Donnally, Laidley and Lee streets that was razed for commercial redevelopment in the 1970s.

"The city of Charleston and CURA's [plan] is an incredible opportunity to make amends for what many of us feel was a past injustice," Watts said.

Hardy said CURA and its Board of Directors have failed the West Side.

"Some of us who went to those CURA meetings and helped get people there and got people to talk about what they wanted [in the renewal plan], we feel betrayed by CURA," Hardy said.

Edwards said there is a big push on the West Side for long-term social and economic reform, such as its community development school pilot project that allows for education reforms in five of its schools. But, he added there are projects CURA can implement immediately and farther down the road that can add to the effort.

"It never happens quickly enough," Edwards said, "but then, it took decades to get in this condition. It's going to take a couple decades to get out of it."

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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