Augusta’s Maxwell House, renovated in 2005 as a low-income apartment complex with units for recovering substance abusers, the homeless and special-needs residents, could soon sell beer and wine as Augusta Commission members tout a need to treat all apartment complexes equally.
“It’s already readily available,” Augusta cab driver Kweli J. Hall, owner of the new Greene Street Grocery on the building’s first floor, said about alcoholic beverages. “Someone that has the addiction has to have the willpower on their own.”
But residents stated concerns Tuesday about some of the fears raised a dozen years ago when Mayor Bob Young and downtown groups opposed the Augusta Housing Authority’s bond issuance for developers to convert the building to Section 8 low-income and supportive housing.
The residents - including one who reversed her position the next day - last week cited drug- and alcohol-related violence inside the building that will heighten when residents can “stagger to the store” to buy alcohol when commissioners OK an alcohol license.
“There’s fights in the hallway, stabbings in the hallway,” said Nancy Thomas, who said she’d lived at the complex about a year. “It’s all drug- and alcohol-related. It’s going to escalate to a very unsafe place at Maxwell House.”
Within three blocks in every direction are downtown bars and convenience stores that sell beer and wine, she said.
On Wednesday, however, Thomas said she trusts the Maxwell House manager will sufficiently contain the store’s sales – no singles, no Sunday sales, for instance – to prevent lobby access to alcohol from being a problem.
“I’m in more of a wait-and-see situation,” she said.
Downtown still depends on a handful of convenience stores and restaurants as nearby sources of food. The closest grocery, a Kroger on 13th Street, closed in February as owners redevelop the property. Thomas said that aside from the typical beer, cigarettes and lottery, fresh food at the Greene Street Grocery would be a boon for Maxwell residents and its neighbors.
Other residents weren’t as confident. Bill Crabbe said he’s seen people trade their building passes for drugs, allowing non-residents to come in.
“You’ve got people off the streets coming here and partying,” he said.
The complex’s manager, whom residents called Valerie, said Wednesday that she was not allowed to speak to the media.
Rob Sherman, the director of the city planning department’s licensing division, said Hall’s effort was not opposed by the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office and met standard distance and zoning criteria. However, the department has received calls about alcohol being “too readily available to residents” and wants to review them before the commission makes a final decision, Sherman said.
Concerns include “what impact this will have on the neighborhood,” Sherman said. “In this case, the neighborhood is the apartment building.”
Built in 1952, the nine-story complex housed mostly senior citizens until former owners fell into bankruptcy and sold it to nonprofit housing developers in the early 2000s, according to Augusta Chronicle archives.
The new owners plan to convert the building to Section 8 housing was controversial from the start, and later led to bribery allegations.
Seeking support in 2004 for the housing authority to issue $5.5 million in bonds for renovations, new owners Edmondson & Gallagher and Progressive Redevelopment offered $25,000 to Main Street Augusta, but the now-defunct downtown development group rejected the offer because the renovated complex would house Section 8 tenants, including mental health patients, according to previous Chronicle reports.
A debate among downtown stakeholders ensued over developers’ plans to convert the building’s 216 units into 130 housing units for incomes of 50 percent or less of the area median, 86 units for 60 percent or less and 44 units of supportive housing with mental health and life skills services.
“We are not like Richmond Summit owners,” said Tom Gallagher, principal with Edmondson & Gallagher. “And Maxwell House will not be Richmond Summit at the end of the day.”
Richmond Summit on Broad Street, like the Bon Air a few miles away in Summerville, is one of a handful of historic Augusta properties converted to low-income and supportive housing using the federal tax credits and other programs that pump federal funds to developers who house needy residents.
Gallagher said the Maxwell project would “change the character of downtown” for the better - but after he was scorned by Main Street Augusta, he made a $25,000 donation to the city government. Then-District 1 Commissioner Betty Beard got to pick a deserving charity to receive it.
The funds would eventually pay for an Augusta Utilities employee, Atosha Harden, to have life-altering gastric bypass surgery, despite a 2005 commission vote to return the money.
Despite Young opposing the housing authority bond issue, in 2004 the commission voted 7-3 to endorse it.
The complex houses the poor and disabled. Action Ministries has reported distributing $100,000 in housing vouchers for the homeless and other services for residents over the last few years.
Commissioners expressed deference Tuesday and said the city should treat Maxwell House just like any other apartment complex.
“If they meet the guidelines, we don’t want to put the government in a position where we’ll be sued,” Commissioner Marion Williams said.
Beard’s successor, Bill Fennoy, said he’d “supported each and every one” of the alcohol applications that came before the commission the same way. Even so, on-premises beer and wine sales might tempt “people that are on the borderline that are addressing drug and alcohol issues,” he said.
The matter goes to the full commission Tuesday.
Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.