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Cornelius News

Smithville revitalization: Change is inevitable

| By Tonya Rivens

June 10. Smithville residents are slowly grappling with the fact that their historic, tightly knit neighborhood is changing.

In April, the Smithville Community Coalition (SCC) hosted its first open community meeting at which time a revitalization plan was presented.

But two months later, there still appears to be no consensus around how to revitalize and preserve a neighborhood that today is populated by senior citizens, some of them on limited incomes, and renters. Some of the properties have already been purchased by investors.

“Residents want to retain as many existing and historic structures as possible, residents want sidewalks, wider streets, sewer-water issues on South Hill Street improvements and residents want a flooding issue between Burton Lane and North Ferry Street addressed,” said Willie Jones, an SCC board member and a driving force behind the revitalization plan.

Smithville, which was founded after the Civil War by former slaves, had neither water nor sewers for years. The can-do residents dug lines and hooked the neighborhood to city services.

Generations later, the neighborhood is diminished, and on the brink of parcel by parcel redevelopment that could erase local history.

The plan

The Smithville Revitalization Plan would create affordable housing options, allowing current residents to remain in their homes. The neighborhood would be developed as multi-ethnic, mixed-income, mixed-tenure with primarily working class residents. There would be a total of 167 units on empty land or vacant buildings, consisting of 65 apartments and 102 homes or townhomes.

Home prices would range from $217,000 to just under $300,000. Housing would be aimed at people who make between 30 percent and 120 percent of the area median income, or $24,000 to $95,000 a year for a family of four.

The flip side of all this is gentrification, where homes are leveled as fast as you can say “desirable, close-in property.” What remains of Smithville, built by the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers, would disappear.

A “white paper” circulating at Town Hall said property flippers are already paying more for homes.

Funding is an issue

Mayor Woody Washam said that the process could take months: The town will need to take the appropriate amount of time to formally review the SCC plan and any land use changes before considering any specific budget allocation.

Mayor Washam

“The town looks forward to receiving updates from the Coalition regarding their process and also any feedback from residents and property owners,” he said.

The Town must finalize the 2021-22 Fiscal Year budget by June 30. The SCC board has asked for roughly $750,000 from the Town of Cornelius in addition to the $3.5 million from Mecklenburg County.

As of the last review, neither the town nor the county had set aside funding for the plan.

Jones said SCC could receive some funding from President Biden’s  American Rescue Plan. Importantly, he believes the neighborhood can make this work without a private development partner.

What does the community want?

Some residents say they want to stay and wait for funding to upgrade the water and sewer system and narrow roads as well as renovate their homes.

Peggy Rivens’ grandfather built her home more than 70 years ago. There have been some patchwork repairs over the years.

“My home is sinking; the lighting is terrible and the floors and doors need repairs,” the 78-year-old said.

Rivens said she has health issues and is not able to take on any more responsibility. That said, she recognizes her house is past its useful life.

“I’m not looking forward to apartment living.  I hope that we can come together and come up with a better plan,” she said. (Editor’s note: Rivens is related to the author through a past marriage; now divorced.)

A once-vibrant community

SCC board member Ron Potts said he supports the plan and wants to see the empty houses and vacant lots revitalized.  “It would be good to see life return to our community,” he said. “The objective is to keep the community affordable.”

Then there’s Krista Forney. She has already had to forfeit some of her property on South Hill for the proposed traffic circle at Statesville Road and Catawba Avenue.

Forney said that she couldn’t stop the state from taking her property but she will not include her property in this plan, which she said “needs to focus more on what the community wants and to stop allowing too many from the outside providing input for our neighborhood.”

Historic church

Union Bethel AME Zion Church has been a part of the community since 1917. Rev. Keno Cannady, the pastor, said that he would like to see the SCC leaders return to the table.

“The plan doesn’t meet the needs of the community there now.  It makes sense economically but it doesn’t benefit the current residents,” he said.

“I would like to see a plan to have descendants of enslaved people gain wealth by receiving first choice to purchase a home or a plot then help to build,” Cannady said. Church leaders would also like the revitalization to consider their plans as well.

“I would like to get with a builder and land lease property behind the church.  In addition to that, we would like to acquire the land next to us and build housing,” he explains.

Duke

The neighborhood would be developed as multi-ethnic, mixed-income, mixed-tenure with primarily working class residents.

Commissioner Jim Duke has been following the plan.

“With the current revitalization plan, residents will see generational wealth degraded while developers and planners will reap monetary benefits at the expense of current residents,” Duke said.

The revitalization plan would so change the community as to “make it unrecognizable from its historic character,” he said. “By significantly growing the number of low-income housing units the value of properties will diminish.”

Ross

While residents are grateful for the work by the SCC, Town Commissioner Thurman Ross said that people shouldn’t be taken advantage of when making decisions.

“Residents are acknowledging the change but they still don’t completely understand the plan,” the Smithville resident said.

Alternative plan

Duke called on the town to make “Smithville a full partner” in economic growth and employ town resources to make life in Smithville safer and more livable.

He suggests that the town:

• Use Public Works Assets to evaluate common areas and streets followed by an aggressive plan to improve streets, sidewalks, signage, and debris removal.

• Work with Charlotte Water to rehabilitate an aging water and sewer system.

• Work with reputable contractors to build quality low-income residences on town-owned vacant properties.  New homes should be allocated to current Smithville residents and Cornelius’s workers. Habitat for Humanity could be a partner in such an effort.

• Work with residents to find a solution to traffic congestion, including placing road connectors to Nannie Potts Lane.

• Require Cornelius Police to aggressively patrol troublesome portions of the community, place more monitoring cameras to discourage crime.

• Actively seek grants and allocations from county and private resources.

• Work with legislative entities to oppose ordinances that seek to eliminate single-family neighborhoods.

Tonya Rivens is a multi-skilled journalist in radio and television and is currently heard on Streetz 103.3/100.5 FM, blogs at tonyarivens.com.

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