Phenix City’s turning point (Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, September 2010)

by Jim Lynn

Phenix City at a Turning Point
by Jim Lynn

Phenix City’s moment is now.
It may seem an odd notion. No bulldozers roar. No cranes scrape the sky. Not much earth is moving anywhere. But the city now faces a moment of choices and opportunities and risks, like few others in its history. Phenix City has the unprecedented challenge of promoting and managing growth on two fronts, the riverfront district downtown and the environmentally delicate Riverchase corridor on the north side. Both are essentially blank slates, frozen tundra, waiting for an economic thaw and political will.

Development experts agree that the choices are stark. The city can enhance north Phenix City as a livable community of choice in the Valley region. Or we can create yet another commercial hodgepodge that lays waste to the river corridor’s ecology and aesthetic. Downtown, Bill Turner’s dream of “One Uptown” can be a reality with planned growth — quality retail and restaurants and college classrooms and homes along the river. Or we can leave downtown to dollar stores and used car lots.

Lost in the Phenix City Triangle
It’s been a year and a half since the “Triangle” portion of the Riverview public housing complex was razed. The property was donated by the city to Troy University for construction of a downtown campus. But little has been done on the project, with just a little over a year remaining before the property reverts to the city. The view hundreds of TSYS team members had from windows across the river, of aging public housing buildings, is now no more than a view of
an aging pawn shop.

“They should be well on their way by now, but they’re not,” a close observer said.

The university says the prime piece of riverfront property has not been forgotten. “The project remains part of our strategic plan, so we are serious about it,” spokesman Tom Davis said. In June, following conversations with the Phenix City mayor, the university hired architectural firm McKee and Associates of Montgomery.

“We have stated all along that for the project to be successful, it will require a shared partnership with the university as well as corporate and private support from the community.” Davis added “We envision this project as one that needs both public and private support to succeed, with the majority of the resources coming from the private sector.”

The university decided in August to commit $2 million to the project. “However,” Davis said, “the university’s investment is predicated on raising approximately $8 million in private support to fund the remainder.”

That the university is contributing capital funding at all is a positive shift for the project. The late vice chancellor Curtis Pitts, the project’s chief champion, maintained that the campus was wholly dependent on private funds. That created skepticism about the university’s commitment to the project.

The private fundraising has been waylaid by the weak economy, as little money has been donated to any endeavor in recent months. The effort has been hampered by Pitts’ tragic death as a result of injuries from a car crash. There’s little clarity on the type of educational programs that Troy would offer downtown. And fund-raisers face a traditional reluctance in the Phenix City community to donate large sums for community projects. Benefactors from Columbus and other communities are reluctant to jump in until they see significant support from donors on the Alabama side of the river.

Asked whether the university will ask the city for an extension on the deadline, Davis said it’s too soon to consider such a move. “We are working to make the project a reality,” he said, “but within the context of tough economic times.”

Mayor Sonny Coulter says that while hiring an architectural consulting firm and agreeing to participate in funding the project are encouraging, the city is not interested in an extension and expects the university to uphold its commitment to a major, multi-story, architecturally significant development that includes an auditorium.

Coulter has held lengthy, private discussions with University Chancellor Jack Hawkins. Those eyeball-to-eyeball chats lead Coulter to be sincerely optimistic, he says, despite the university’s steep fundraising hurdle. “I feel real good about the thing,” Coulter said. “It’s going to work. I’m completely convinced that Jack is committed to this project.”

The fuzzy story of the riverfront campus is emblematic of the overall state of the downtown effort, particularly since the Troy development has always been seen as the key, initial piece that should spark additional investment.

Unprecedented potential. Little focus. No coordination.
“We’ve got to get out of the starting gate,” Coulter said during a lunchtime interview. “The linchpin is the Troy project. We have property owners and investors waiting to see what Troy is going to do.”

The project is viewed as good for the community, but also good for Troy in expanding its profile in the Columbus education market. Judson Edwards, the newly named business school dean who grew up in Phenix City and knows the economic development challenges better than anyone, speaks excitedly about the potential for a solid program at the riverfront campus.

Edwards is also helping the city form some sort of economic development strategy. None exists today. And he says the university’s campus and eco-devo efforts are linked. “We fully understand that the success of a riverfront campus is grounded on the programs and research that directly contribute to advancing the economic development efforts of the bi-city area,” he noted. Fundraising experts say a clearer definition of the academic program would help get potential donors interested. Discussions continue, off and on, with other potential developers about other pieces of the riverfront. The Montgomery-based owners of Phenix Plaza have expressed interest in redeveloping the shopping center. Other concerns have indicated a willingness to discuss a hotel development, which has long been seen as a major piece of the Phenix City project, but also a vital part of whitewater recreation. Additional hotel space could also help boost use of the Trade Center for larger shows and conventions.

“It’s all a wonderful opportunity to change the face of Phenix City,” the mayor says.

But Troy is certainly not Coulter’s only challenge.

Whitewater has hit a snag from a communication breakdown between Phenix City and whitewater supporters. Organizers need access to the river for construction equipment and have suggested running that access route through the heart of the Phenix City Riverwalk. That’s “offensive,” and a non-starter, Coulter said, flatly. Organizers have asked the city for financial support, but those overtures have been poorly handled, Coulter says. And proposed ingress and egress locations, seen as potential retail nodes, have been moved from the Phenix City riverbank, as originally suggested, to just north and south of downtown on the east bank.

Worse yet, the Phenix City Housing Authority, long distrustful of city hall, has put the brakes on plans it adopted two years ago to raze and redevelop the rest of the Riverview property. The housing agency is waiting skeptically to see “if Troy happens,” as one official put it.

Its decision to spend $557,000 renovating units on the west side of Fourth Avenue has infuriated downtown backers on both sides of the river as obstructionist, and university officials have said in the past that by investing in the Triangle, they’re assuming the Housing Authority will follow through on its plan to redevelop the entire site.

“Renovated public housing is still public housing,” one expert remarked, and will remain a drag on redevelopment efforts, both south and north of Riverview. The public housing removal is a key step. It’s seen by those on both sides of the river as a model for moving public housing off the riverfront in Columbus as well as Phenix City.

But the Housing Authority sees no need to be out front on downtown redevelopment. No need to invest when no one else has.

“We have no plans for Riverview except to renovate what is there,” board chairman Clay Gullatt said. “We have no news from Troy, and from what we understand, they have not been able to raise any money.”

Coulter says “every penny” spent maintaining Riverview could be better spent relocating residents out of the prime development venue. But despite the urging of consultants and downtown boosters for the housing authority to take a leading role, the venerable agency rejects the notion that economic development is part of its mission. “You want to tear down public housing,” a federal official once told Phenix City leaders. “Well, I’m in the housing business.”

The authority is simply waiting to see if and when developers express interest in the riverfront, Executive Director Judy Hare says.

While the point is debated, the local housing authority also says it’s under tight constraints on how federal money can be spent. Renovation funds must be spent on renovation, they say.

The current redevelopment effort began in 2002 with a series of lunch-hour meetings that created a framework for a public-private partnership. Meetings with local benefactors paved the way for hundreds of thousands of private and public dollars to be spent on consultants. A 501-c-3 nonprofit group was formed to provide private-sector support. A housing authority director was replaced in 2004 for a perceived lack of enthusiasm about the project. The city and Alabama Power Co. invested heavily in a new streetscape along Broad Street, starting in 2006.

A reluctant federal housing agency was convinced to back the plan after an all-star cast of political leaders and benefactors, meeting in the Synovus board room overlooking the Chattahoochee, agreed on a college campus being a central piece of the $273 million redevelopment plan.

But since the boardroom confab, riverfront backers have struggled with the same sort of political battles that for decades have stopped change in its tracks.

A few of the unreported challenges over the last eight years:

Multiple personality clashes, involving Hare, city officials, regional HUD officials and Atlanta-based Boulevard Group consultants, caused action plans to founder.

Downtown boosters became so frustrated with regional federal housing regulators that they convinced Republican congressman Mike Rogers to intervene. Even the meetings with Rogers were hotly debated for months — some argued it would only put HUD officials in a sour mood — before the group chartered a jet to Washington.

A prominent Phenix City landowner pulled out of land-swap deal with the Housing Authority when he didn’t like something said about him at the county courthouse, setting the project back two

Despite donated legal work by a prominent Columbus firm, no action has been taken on creating a tax-increment financing district.

Despite study, no action has been taken to set up a board to enforce architectural standards. A former city leader blocked the plans at one point, saying he didn’t want to try to tell potential developers what to do with their property.

Some in town still are barely speaking to each other after a rancorous behind-the-scenes struggle two years ago over a proposed convenience store at Broad and 13th. The plan was bitterly opposed and eventually defeated by downtown boosters, who felt it was a poor use of prime property. The property still sits, undeveloped.

Behind-the-scenes lobbying caused the campus plan to shift from what was a Chattahoochee Valley Community College idea to a Troy University idea. Federal officials insisted the Triangle deal be made with Troy, and not with CVCC.

In the midst of all the drama, finally, in November 2008, the first major step was taken with the demolition of housing units in the Triangle at 14th Street. Hawkins marked the event at the 14th Street Bridge and later at the Chattahoochee River Club, promoting the impact on education and the Columbus community. But even as the wrecking ball did its work, even downtown optimists could see the economy was crashing at the same time. No one was investing, let alone donating, to anything.

Months later, instead of leveraging the slow economic recovery to lay the groundwork for marketing and fundraising efforts, progress is hampered by a political standoff at city hall that has sucked the energy from the volunteer-led downtown effort.

“We must have higher goals for our community,” Coulter says, admittedly worn down by the rancor. But it’s nothing new for Phenix City.

Again and again over the last three decades, Phenix City public and private leaders have let opportunities for downtown resurgence fall prey to cannibalistic politics, a traditional, populist mistrust of Columbus benefactors and failure to raise the money needed for outside marketing and development experts.

Peggy Nielson, an Albany resident and Georgia school board member who helped kick off plans for riverfront growth eight years ago, predicted then that the challenge to sustaining the effort would not be money, as everyone but her thought at the time. Instead, she said, the issue would be community consensus and political will.

Today, if Phenix City leaders and observers agree on anything, it’s that Nielson was right and that City Hall is in disarray. “It’s a mess down there,” one observer, who’s keeping his distance, remarked recently. A state lawmaker said there’s little to do but “wait it out,” and hope for change at the next election.

City Councilman Jimmy Wetzel, a retired barber and former planning commission chairman, has long been suspicious of Coulter, former Mayor Sammy Howard and other “Nob Hill” downtown development boosters. Never a friend of the downtown plan, Wetzel now has effective control of city hall after striking an unexpected, ironclad alliance with two south side council members.

Wetzel’s opposition to everything Coulter has flummoxed observers of all stripes and ground the city to stalemate on most major issues. The populist trio have rendered the mayor, who won an unprecedented fourth term trumpeting the hopes of downtown rebirth, nearly powerless.

J. W. Brannen, the longtime and often controversial tax appraiser, has taken the reigns as the city’s new economic development coordinator on a part-time salary of $55,000. Although now backed by the Wetzel majority, Brannen most recently headed the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, which Wetzel just months ago threatened to abolish.

The political stalemate “is the major obstacle for the city, not only with economic development, but with all phases of city government,” Brannen remarked. “Anytime you have that kind of split, you’ve got the majority going one way and the minority working behind the scenes as hard as they can against it. It’s no different in Congress, but we can’t afford that in Phenix City.”

“The key to moving forward is the need to build genuine consensus,” a principal figure in the development process said. “Phenix City has the raw materials to achieve success along the riverfront. A common vision should be formed, commitments made to the vision, and then the correct resources brought to bear on the revitalization with a sustained effort.”

Wetzel and Coulter recently were on the same side of a move to block a proposed flea market downtown. Flea markets are not the type of enterprise the city wants downtown, and observers pointed to the rare agreement as a sign that perhaps the political climate might improve.

Edwards is suggesting a “visioning” exercise to get local officials to drop their distaste for each other at the door and at least agree on a vision for economic development strategy.

“We’ve got to do something to get everyone moving in the right direction,” he said. Part of that goes beyond City Hall, however. Wetzel represents a considerable constituency in Phenix City that for generations has been aggressively anti-progressive, or suspicious of change, particularly of change supported by the Columbus business and benefactor community. In the 1980s, it was City Councilman Tommy Worthy battling Mayor Jane Gullatt. Today, only the names have changed.

“The most important thing we have to do is get adequate buy-in from the community,” Edwards agreed. Long delays in promised change just fuel the skepticism. Whitewater, downtown development, the Troy campus and even the influx of military families that would help support new downtown venues have been discussed for nearly a decade, so long that locals get “jaded,” Edwards said. “All this is going to happen, and we’re going to get caught unprepared.”

North side balance
Growth on the north side, meanwhile, faces the same political challenges, but unlike the more urgent downtown front, the slow-down may be the best thing for the sensitive Riverchase corridor.

While some “overlay district” restrictions are on the books, it’s unclear how well those will be enforced on prospective development and whether the city is prepared to be tough in protecting its premier residential neighborhoods or the river itself. Already, natural buffers have been destroyed, huge swaths of clear-cutting have not been stopped, and pedestrian systems have not been considered.

There’s been little discussion of how to protect the riverfront from excessive silting, excessive lighting and visual pollution. Little interest has been shown for sidewalk or bike-path construction, low-impact lighting, or other “smart growth” or “context sensitive” design characteristics.

Instead, Riverchase was constructed not as a winding neighborhood road through a river corridor, but with a wide right-of-way, a 45 mile-an-hour speed limit and little regard for the existing topography. Motorists every morning dodge joggers. Construction of highway ramps decimated the landscape and wiped out hundreds of trees.

Because Phenix City is so heavily dependent on sales taxes for government revenue, the natural bias at City Hall is to promote commercial growth along Riverchase. But without effective enforcement of overlay zone restrictions, which limit signage and require buffers, and without requiring sidewalks and other pedestrian-friendly enhancements, the city could essentially kill the golden goose by impacting its upper-income neighborhoods.

Smart growth planning (see and calls for land uses to be mixed but compatible, with strong focus on sidewalks and cart paths, reserved green space and architectural quality. In the case of river corridors like Riverchase, public pedestrian access should not be completely blocked from the riverfront by commercial growth. Leading Phenix City developer Mike Bowden, known for his insistence on quality, complained long and hard against the design finally adopted for the road.

“What’s done is done,” Bowden mused recently. “We’ve just got to make the best of it.”

Bowden says residents concerned about their neighborhoods and those concerned about the river ecology have little to fear about the future. The key, he said, is that land ownership in the corridor is limited, and those property owners, like Spud Warr, Johnny Dudley and Gardiner Garrard, are unlikely to support or develop anything that’s incompatible with the residential areas, regardless of how stringently the government controls development.

A master plan is needed for the high-profile, two-mile corridor, Bowden says, to ensure quality, controlled growth.

Development is slow in coming to Riverchase. Merchants at the Riverchase-Summerville intersection, effectively north Phenix City’s town square, do well. But even there, out-parcels remain
undeveloped. The condition of capital markets and construction financing will improve, however, and Riverchase will eventually be home to additional retail and hotel concerns.

Residents of the area agree that slow growth in the commercial sector could be a blessing, since amid the political turmoil and the absence of a clear, neighborhood-friendly development policy, the
long-range view is just as fuzzy on the north side as it is downtown.