New homes rejuvenate older areas

Laney-Walker, Bethlehem communities are rebuilding

Three new cottage-style homes on Pine Street near Laney-Walker Boulevard startlingly contradict the neighborhood, where a quarter of buildings are abandoned and more than half are neglected.

The homes' full-length porches hug front entrances. Brickwork and iron lattices encircle yards and contrasting pastel colors brighten outer walls.

The progress seems only a trickle. Soon it might become a flood.

After three years of quiet planning and property acquisition, construction in Laney-Walker and Bethlehem is now poised to take off.

Three more homes are being built on Pine Street and 22 more are planned. At another site -- Holley Street, just off R.A. Dent Boulevard -- new homes also have appeared.

By the end of the year, construction will be under way at five sites, said Chester Wheeler, the director of Augusta's Housing and Community Development Department. The city agency serves as the master developer for revitalization of the two neighborhoods.

"It's exciting to see this kind of development in a neighborhood that, for years, had been abandoned," Wheeler said. "People didn't think it could be accomplished, but we know it can happen. It's a matter of changing the mindset."

The Augusta Commission in 2007 passed a $1-a-night hotel tax, to be split between inner-city revitalization and the new TEE Center's operations. Laney-Walker/Bethlehem revitalization will get $37.5 million over 50 years.

The plan is to buy property and finance re-development at "catalyst" sites, pockets of land visible from the neighborhoods' major corridors.

"You create a critical mass of development, where people can see a number of activities going on. That changes the environment," Wheeler said.

Wheeler projects the $37.5 million the city spends should spark enough interest from the private sector to get a total of $99 million reinvested in Laney-Walker and Bethlehem.

The plan uses multiple strategies.

One is to invest in housing first and commercial properties second, said Jesse Wiles, a consultant for Housing and Community Development.

"There's market potential for Laney-Walker in retail, but it's driven by rooftops," he said. "For example, in the Bethlehem neighborhood, well over 40 percent of properties are abandoned. That's not enough rooftops to attract grocery and convenience stores."

Wiles said 35 percent to 60 percent of houses should be owner-occupied and rents need to reach market rates and be unsubsidized. That tells the market the neighborhood is stable.

"Then, retail will come," he said.

Another strategy is to make inner-city redevelopment easier by removing barriers. Developers like to build on empty land, not hassle with neighborhoods with a multitude of owners and buildings in various stages of disrepair, Wheeler said.

That's why Housing and Community Development focused on purchasing contiguous lots first, Wiles said. A full-time team approached owners all over the country and cleared titles on their properties.

"We had a significant amount of success. Seven out of 10 owners were willing sellers," Wiles said.

The city demolished dilapidated structures, Wheeler said.

It also assists the developers by performing engineering studies, creating design guidelines, providing a marketing campaign for the revitalization project and a brokerage firm to manage sales.

"The developers don't have to deal with things they normally would have to. It's a piece of cake for them now," Wheeler said.

A final strategy is to leverage public dollars to attract private investment.

Housing and Community Development offers low-interest loans to residential and commercial developers for up to 25 percent of construction costs. That can make a project affordable, Wheeler said.

Similar incentives are given to home buyers and also to people who already own a home who want to make repairs. To qualify for a loan, renovators must bring their buildings up to code.

Martin Melaver is a third-generation real estate planner, developer and broker from Savannah and the marketing consultant for the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem project.

"We're in a very tough economy, and these neighborhoods have endured four decades of decline," he said. "That being said, this is about as brilliant a strategy as I've ever seen."

Over 16 million Americans are looking to move back into urban cores, where they can live, work and play in a neighborhood that has a sense of community, Melaver said.

Cities that capitalize on that trend will reap rewards.

Laney-Walker and Bethlehem might be two of Augusta's poorest neighborhoods but, unlike other downtown master plans, theirs is funded.

"We have all the pieces we need to make it happen," he said. "I believe the biggest hurdle is just getting Augustans to believe in it."

Reach Carole Hawkins at (706) 823-3341, or carole.hawkins@augustachronicle.com.