Still within reach of the federal government’s goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015, a multimillion-dollar public-housing development in Augusta appears to be moving forward despite four years of zoning, funding and construction delays.
By late fall, developers plan to begin renovating three endangered properties on the uptown campus of the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center into a long-term treatment facility known as “Freedom’s Path,” said Karen Saltzman, the executive director of Hope House, one of three nonprofits leading the project. The other two are Affordable Housing Solutions Inc. and the Cooperative Resource Center.
The historic buildings are scheduled to be transformed into 92 permanent and transitional apartments for struggling veterans. The buildings include a residence hall and a tuberculosis hospital built for World War I veterans, and a World War II-style mental-health clinic built in 1945 to help returning troops battle post-traumatic stress.
The project totals top $8 million, but Saltzman said contract talks remain fluid and could be prolonged, depending on the fundraising needs of each structure’s rehabilitation, which one preservationist said could require extensive upgrades.
“It is a really complicated project that has taken four years to pull together, but once completed, Freedom’s Path should cut out some of the major problems we are facing in our community,” Saltzman said.
THE IDEA OF REFURBISHING buildings 7, 18 and 70 into a “vibrant residential community” was initiated in May 2009 as a way to provide housing and support services, such as counseling, transportation and job training, to homeless veterans.
After agreeing to satisfy a request of its Highland Park neighbors and restrict patients to a secured entrance on Wrightsboro Road that’s staffed 24 hours a day, the Freedom’s Path development won Augusta Commission approval in May 2010.
Since then, Freedom’s Path progress has been slowed by negotiations over an enhanced-use lease the three developers entered into with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to rent and restore the three properties in exchange for cash and in-kind services.
The agreement made it difficult to finalize project funding, which consists of historic preservation tax credits, contributions from private donors and grant money from the VA and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
The three buildings have sat empty and unused since the VA consolidated a nursing home and locked dormitory into its main hospital at the complex.
Left inside are patient toothbrushes, name tags and pill bottles – small reminders of what life used to be like in the building in the 1930s, when the VA used to drug and lock in veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, Saltzman said.
She said the goal of Freedom’s Path is to “create a relaxing, quiet place that’s for veterans and run by veterans.”
ERICK MONTGOMERY, THE executive director of Historic Augusta, walked through buildings 7 and 76 last summer and said the properties are in “pretty fair structural condition” but have not been maintained or used in years and need new flooring and lighting fixtures, along with upgrades to its plumbing and air-conditioning systems.
“They are not move-in ready, by any means,” Montgomery said.
To help expedite the project, he said Historic Augusta will provide guidance on what needs to be done to respect the historical character of the buildings, while modifying each structure to meet modern standards.
First, asbestos will be remediated, lead paint removed, mildew- and rust-coated walls and doors cleaned and windows and cast-iron grates polished and reinforced with spring locks to meet fire safety codes.
By the end of 2014, developers hope to have Building 76 renovated into 50 one-bedroom apartments – each with a refrigerator, stove and bathroom. It has a laundry room on each of its three stories and a gym, plus a computer lab to equip veterans with resources they need to find jobs and lead productive, healthy lives.
Building 7 and 18 will each have 20 apartments – each with smaller “efficiencies” – and a central kitchen.
Montgomery said he is encouraged by the goal of Freedom’s Path to breathe new life into some of the city’s most historic buildings and believes the development could lead to the preservation of other buildings on the VA’s uptown campus.
“It speaks a lot to the values of a community that its leaders and residents respect their past and want to reintegrate historical structures into their future,” Montgomery said.
The VA has committed more than $1.1 billion in the past two years to strengthen programs that prevent and end veteran homelessness. The result, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki estimates, is a 17.2 percent decline in veteran homelessness since 2009, according to a recent news release.