A new proposed development plan for historic Africatown includes more green space, less industrial zoning, a focus on the neighborhood’s storied past and reduced blight.
Jason Fondren, a principal planner with KPS Group, told members of the Planning Commission during a presentation April 7 that the idea for the redevelopment of the area hinges on several key objectives, the first of which includes creating critical mass through a reinvestment in housing in strategic areas and the improvement of gateways into the community.
“There needs to be more investment in housing that attracts business investment,” he said. “There needs to be an improvement of public [roads and streets] throughout Africatown.”
Fondren pointed to three so-called gateways, two along Bay Bridge Road and one on Telegraph Road.
There are near-term opportunities to improve housing stock in Africatown through tax credits for affordable housing, he said. A reinvestment in housing would “help to create new perceptions” of the area. Halting blight and even helping to reduce it is another key to the plan.
Fondren also suggested adding some flexibility to the zoning and building codes in the area to allow for redevelopment of historic homes. He said residents told him it was difficult to rebuild a home that had been damaged by fire, for example, because of more contemporary setback requirements that didn’t exist when the home was initially built.
Another way to reduce blight in the area, Fondren said, is to connect neighborhoods and reduce isolation. This isolation is negatively impacting three areas of the community: Plateau, Happy Hills and Magazine Point.
“Those are three areas that have become disconnected from each other,” he said. “If we reconnect those through reinvestment, it will help stabilize the community.”
While Plateau would be ideal for senior housing, Magazine Point creates more of a problem for planners, Fondren said. Most of the community is in a floodplain and many lots are drawn up without street frontage, “a no-no for housing.” However, there is an opportunity to connect the two communities through the proposed Three Mile Creek greenway. The addition of pedestrian and bike access around the community would also help connect the three areas, Fondren said.
The plan calls for the redevelopment of the long-abandoned Mobile Housing Board’s Josephine Allen Homes in the heart of Happy Hills. The MHB has been approved for dissolution of the complex and is currently looking to sell the property. Executive Director Dwayne Vaughn recently told board commissioners the complex would have to be demolished.
“There’s a great opportunity to re-envision it to put in a mixed-use development,” Fondren said. “It could include mixed-density housing, green space and commercial development.”
In addition to connecting the community and reinvesting in housing, Fondren said, the encroachment of industry would also have to be stopped. The plan includes a proposed land use map that protects existing industrial property, but switches some of the previously unzoned areas around Hog Bayou and a few other places into green space.
With the reduction of blight and reinvestment in housing, business development should follow, Fondren said.
“There’s not much business in the area,” he said. “Many residents said their retail dollars go to Prichard. There aren’t many options in North Mobile.”
One of the positives for Africatown going into this plan would be its historic and natural value, Fondren said, which will be emphasized.
“There are opportunities to use that history as a way to bring people into Mobile, as well as into Africatown, to tell the story for generations to come.”
Ideas in the plan include building a tourism program over time to benefit the area. As for environmental value, the area has wetlands Fondren said should be protected.
Nigel Roberts, senior director of community and housing development, said the mayor’s administration was excited about the plan and supported it. He suggested getting some of the smaller items out of the way first before tackling the plan’s long-term goals.
“There are some things that probably need to start now, but won’t start for many years from now,” Roberts said. “There are some big actions in there and they will take time. The community understands that.”
The plan was the result of several community meetings with KPS, which the city paid for, Roberts said. The community has already taken ownership of it.
“You’re going to be impressed with what’s taken place,” Roberts told the Planning Commission. “I think you’ll be proud of this plan.”
Richard Olsen, deputy director of planning, told commissioners planning staff also supports the plan. The commission itself may vote on a resolution in support of the plan as early as its April 21 meeting.
Cleon Jones, an Africatown community leader, said residents support the plan because “we’re very much a part of it.”
Work on the plan is already being done, Jones said, through the community garden, for example.
“It’s a success,” he said. “It’s well received by the community.”