Originally created 09/07/98

Plan rejuvenates downtown

AIKEN -- Retired social worker Trina Davis and her tabby cat Cammie may seem unlikely urban pioneers and the corner where they live in downtown Aiken is hardly uncharted territory.

But their presence in the small buff house with white trim represents a novel way to reclaim vacant lots or patches of property in danger of unsightly decline. And they are first to take advantage of a program that helps moderate-income people who might have trouble getting mortgage loans on their own to qualify for home ownership in the heart of the city.

"What I like most about my house is that it's mine," Ms. Davis said.

The pioneer program that made it hers is one of the ways that Aiken, with plenty of blue blood already there, is trying to draw some new blood downtown.

The city is offering a slew of incentives to entice more people to live and play in the heart of the city, dispelling a popular myth that a home amid Aiken's stately, large houses downtown is an unattainable dream for most. Ms. Davis lives diagonally across from a huge pink mansion and down the street from others of different hue. And she is five minutes from a grocery store, a pharmacy, gas stations, a variety of downtown shops, restaurants and one of her places -- Aiken's public library.

Those are some of the advantages of downtown living that the city is promoting, said Lisa Segura, the city's coordinator of special projects. A bonus in Aiken is that its 175 parkways offer free landscaping and lush green views from a front porch. And another project in the works would include moving the popular Aiken Playhouse downtown, adding arts and entertainment to the amenities easily accessible to residents.

Aiken's inducements range from tax breaks to no-interest loans and include a plan to convert usable space above downtown stores into apartments. Part of the plan is to encourage people to buy and renovate some of those historic properties that have seen better days. And another is to encourage growth through annexation, offering cash payments and cut-rate city services for coming into the city limits. Owners of more than 300 properties have requested annexation in return for tax deferments or their equivalent in cash.

In another move, Aiken Corp., the city's economic development arm, is buying the former site of a body shop that moved from Newberry Street. When cleanup is complete, the land will be made available for development of upscale apartments.

Aiken Corp. is also talking to owners of downtown stores about their unused upper stories. Those who convert the space to loft apartments will be eligible for $1,000 grants and $5,000 zero-interest loans.

Under a related program, the city is offering a 10-year tax break to people who restore historic homes and buildings.

The Planning Commission has identified several lots where new homes like Ms. Davis' three-bedroom house can be built. Habitat for Humanity has identified others.

The program funding that initiative is called HOME or Home Investment Partnership Program under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD provides the money to the South Carolina Housing Finance and Development Authority, which for the second straight year has awarded a chunk to Aiken.

Part goes to Habitat for Humanity and its "sweat equity" initiative. The rest allows the city to work with local builders to put up houses for low-to-moderate-income people who'd likely have trouble getting a conventional mortgage financed.

It all takes time, but within a few years, the combined effect of the efforts is expected to be a vibrant downtown with an eclectic mix of residents who often are able to walk to where they work and play, Ms. Segura said.

And in the process, Aiken will have staved off the deterioration that occurs when lots or the houses on them stand empty.

It's not unusual for cities to encourage downtown living, usually in an effort to revitalize dying urban cores.

Aiken's proactive efforts were featured in the June issue of Urbanland magazine, and other members of the South Carolina Municipal Association are taking notes as well. Some of the incentive programs are getting copied.

"It's been exciting to be able to develop several initiatives that meet the needs of all income levels and give people a greater opportunity to live downtown," Ms. Segura said. "It's becoming the place to be."


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