Last week, residents of the quaint little Midtown neighborhood of Chateauguay woke up to find city workers driving “For Sale: City of Mobile” signs into a beloved green space located in the back of their neighborhood, referred to by most as “the field.”
I can tell you with great certainty these neighbors were upset, stunned, confused and in agreement that this must be some huge mistake.
I am certain about these emotions because I am one of those residents.
The reason why we are all so perplexed by this is because these lots, which are near or on Three Mile Creek, all flooded in the early ‘80s, not once, not twice, but three times. It caused $35 million worth of damage in 1980s money — which would equate to well over $100 million today. President Jimmy Carter declared the area a disaster. Dozens of homes and other structures were demolished, and the lots, to our understanding, were purchased by the city using federal tax credits since the properties were to be considered part of the federal flood risk management plan.
These lots were never to be developed again. Ever. Period. End of story.
In fact, according to an environmental impact study done by the Army Corps of Engineers in September 1982, removing the structures was key to making sure the area would never flood again because it would create a green space to aid in natural absorption.
In addition to removing structures in areas prone to severe flooding and creating the naturally absorptive area, plans were formulated to improve the creek channel so this type of catastrophic flooding would never occur again.
Fast-forward a few decades.
While this green area still experiences minor flooding (enough in some places to create breeding grounds for the next generation of frogs and mosquitoes) during major rain events, the improvements made have certainly prevented the neighborhood from flooding like it did in the 1980s — largely due to that natural, beautiful, oh-so-absorbent green space, which has now become a huge part of the fabric of our neighborhood and a source of pride.
Every person or couple who has bought a house in our neighborhood was taken by their real estate agent and shown that space.
“The best part of this neighborhood is that you will always have this beautiful green space that will NEVER be developed because it’s in a flood zone,” the agent would say.
Some who purchased homes with very small yards took having this space into account. And it is without question in the top three reasons why everyone in our neighborhood decided to purchase a home here. You know, just the single biggest investment most people will ever make. No big deal.
We have our neighborhood block parties and spring crawfish boils in “the field.” We gather there before trick-or-treating on Halloween and have Easter egg hunts there. Our dogs have fetched thousands of tennis balls and sticks in that space. Our kids climb in the trees and play football and soccer together and play catch with their dads. On Christmas morning it is where most of our kids have learned to ride the bikes Santa left for them. The answer to a text between neighborhood moms checking on kid locations is usually, “Oh yes. They are fine. They are just playing in ‘the field.’”
It’s Norman Rockwell-level stuff.
Not to be overly dramatic, but I am going to be because this is just how much we all love that space: When the city workers drove for-sale sign stakes into this land, they might as well have been driving stakes into the very heart of our neighborhood.
And, of course, we are all asking how is this even possible? What has suddenly changed? Is this still not in a flood zone? Why would you do this to our neighborhood? Aren’t you going to be putting the existing structures at risk since this area acts as a natural deterrent to flooding?
Why? Why? Why? How? How? How?
Our city councilman, Fred Richardson, was just as shocked as we were. He even lived in the neighborhood at one time and was under the same impression that this was protected land, never to be developed.
We haven’t gotten a lot of answers.
Really, the only response we have gotten from the city so far is, “Um, yep, a developer called us up about it so I reckon we’re gonna sell it, doggonit. Don’t you worry your little heads off, though, we’ll make sure they’ll put some real, real nice single-family homes on it. Sure hope all those new structures don’t cause all y’all’s homes to flood. The developer dude says he has a plan, but oh well, it won’t be our problem anymore.”
Or something kind of like that. Full disclosure, I may be angrily paraphrasing just a tiny bit.
But not a single conversation with the stakeholders surrounding it? Not one postcard? Not one email blast? Nothing at all? Come on, guys!
It seems like the ink was dry on this deal before the first sign was ever placed.
I have liked many things Mayor Sandy Stimpson has done for this city since he was elected, but the way he and his administration have been handling this land and property liquidation is, to put it eloquently, just crap.
I 100 percent agree the city shouldn’t be in the business of maintaining a bunch of properties they don’t use and should sell some off — if it makes sense and is good for the city as a whole. But it should be done in a thoughtful way. Right now, it seems like it’s being done in a “well, this dude we know called us up” kind of way.
There seems to be no real plan by the city, no consistent way of handling it, advertising for it, appraising or making sure the citizens are getting top dollar for it, and most troubling, there’s just no transparency in any of this. Some things have RFPs, some don’t. Some are thrown on City Council agendas over the holidays and some are advertised in legal notices in a paper no one reads.
The last few deals that have raised eyebrows, including the one on St. Anthony Street and the Delwood and Chatueaguay properties, were all prompted by a single entrepreneur or developer calling up the city. You can’t fault those folks, that’s what they do, but it certainly gives the appearance that if you know the right number or person to call, the city will give you a pretty sweet deal with some pretty sweet terms. But if you don’t know that person or number, well, we’re real sorry for you.
If Mayor Stimpson’s predecessor had brokered similar deals to this in this same manner, people would have been setting their hair on fire. And you know that’s true, Mr. Mayor.
I am not some huge conspiracy theorist. I doubt any of these deals were made in backrooms full of cigarette smoke, where plans to screw people (and neighborhoods) over were formulated and the deals were sealed with secret handshakes and evil laughter.
But this just all looks really shady right now. And you know what they say about the appearance of impropriety? “They” definitely say it’s total crap.
There has to be a better way to handle this.
Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go help plan the last Easter egg hunt our neighborhood will most likely ever get to have. Sniff. Sniff.
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