Nearly 5 years after project began, residents still await new DeRoode Street homes

kward1@herald-leader.comOctober 26, 2013 

Nearly five years ago, 18 families displaced from their homes by the Newtown Pike extension project moved into mobile homes bought by the city with federal funding.

Where their old homes in Davis Bottom once stood will one day be a new neighborhood with a mix of affordable single- and multi-family dwellings, but the project has fallen woefully behind schedule.

The goal of the much-heralded project is to improve the quality of life in the low-income community tucked between South Broadway and West High Street, while mitigating the effects of extending Newtown Pike to the University of Kentucky through the neighborhood.

The $97 million Newtown Pike extension project is being paid for primarily with federal transportation money, about 40 percent of which is being used to provide new housing for the families affected and other mitigation efforts. So far, about $71 million has been spent.

In 2006, project leaders said they wanted to have 30 homes built by late 2008, but that construction has yet to begin.

Jim Gray is the fifth mayor to be involved in the Newtown Pike extension, which won state and federal approval in the 1990s. He said the recession slowed the project down, but preparations for the World Equestrian Games sped it back up.

This summer, the project really began to pick up steam in the DeRoode Street area, where a close-knit downtown neighborhood of 29 homes has been torn down and replaced by a tiny city-run trailer park where a dozen families live.

Gray said he's committed to what he described as "a challenging urban project."

"Currently we're working on sewers," Gray said in a statement. "Housing construction will begin early next year and purchase of right-of-way and utility work continues. Just last month at our request Attorney General Conway gave the city $230,000 in foreclosure settlement funds for affordable housing in the Newtown Pike extension area."

Councilwoman Diane Lawless, who represents the 3rd District, which includes DeRoode Street, said the project was slowed down in part because funding is coming from multiple sources and several agencies are planning the project.

"You're trying to coordinate between state and local levels for diverse transportation needs," she said in a statement.

Lawless also pointed out that the housing project is the first of its kind in Kentucky, and she said it's important to make sure it is done right.

"That can cause delays in construction while we sort out the best way to develop these homes so they last long after this project is complete, in a sustainable way that is mindful of the community. That's not a small task!" she said.

City officials now hope construction on the houses could begin by next spring. The homes would likely be ready by fall 2014.

"It would have been wonderful if everything had gone a little quicker," said Andrew Grunwald, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government engineer leading the Newtown Pike extension project. But he said momentum has finally picked up.

"Now all of a sudden you're getting towards the end," he said.

There have been changes

The population of lower Davistown has dwindled, as residents died or stopped waiting for the new housing to be developed and moved away.

In 2006, 54 people lived there.

Five neighborhood residents have died over the course of the project; nine people who originally moved into the manufactured homes provided by the city have moved elsewhere, said Barbara Navin, executive director of the Lexington Community Land Trust, the nonprofit organization that will oversee the new housing development.

For the 26 people left in the city's mobile homes, waiting has become a way of life.

"It's getting there," said Kenneth Demus, who rented a house in the neighborhood before the project began and has lived in one of the city's mobile homes for nearly five years. "We can see progress over there."

So much has changed since it began. Demus has had one daughter graduate from Transylvania University and another from Bluegrass Community and Technical College. His youngest will start college next fall.

The residents of the mobile homes do not pay rent or utilities, so "it's been a blessing in disguise," Demus said of the project's delay.

Grunwald said a box culvert, which is part of the storm sewer system, has been relocated, and sanitary sewer lines have been replaced in recent months. Utility companies recently finished burying their lines in the area where the new housing will go, which was one of the last steps before the new DeRoode Street could be laid.

Dirt has been brought in to raise the elevation in the valley by up to 10 feet.

Grunwald said he hopes the new DeRoode Street can be laid before the asphalt plants close for the winter. And if all goes as planned, housing construction can begin in the spring.

The first 30 units of the new housing development are planned to consist of a mix of single-family houses, duplexes and four-plexes, according to Navin.

Some of the housing will be for rent, and some will be for sale. Navin said the goal is for the houses to cost less than $130,000.

A contractor for building the homes has not yet been chosen.

There are plans for second and third phases of construction that would create 26 townhomes, 50 apartments and a mixed-use development of small businesses topped by 32 apartments and condominiums, but a funding stream for constructing those buildings hasn't been identified.

"We're glad it's moving forward," Grunwald said. "Even though this project looks like it's moving at a snail's pace, it is moving by leaps and bounds."

Reaching agreements with property owners to acquire the land for the project has been one of the main holdups, Grunwald said. He said some properties "did not have the cleanest of titles."

Navin said some of the lots had multiple owners, and some of them had to be tracked down out-of-state.

The Nathaniel Mission, which sits in the path of the construction, recently reached an agreement with the state Transportation Cabinet regarding its property.

Grunwald said it was a negotiation that could not be rushed. "They deserved ... a pretty fair and lengthy discussion of possibilities," he said.

The Rev. David MacFarland, the Methodist mission's senior pastor, said the mission, which has served the neighborhood since the 1930s, has identified a prospective replacement site for its ministries at a warehouse facility on Versailles Road. That location is large enough to accommodate all of the mission's services, which include medical, dental and vision clinics, a neighborhood feeding program, a food pantry, a veterinary clinic, Bible studies and more.

The Nathaniel Mission has to be out of its property on DeRoode Street by April 3.

Whether the mission will return to the neighborhood after the redevelopment remains unclear.

Although it has the right of first refusal for relocating there, MacFarland said "there is no firm plan for us to consider."

And the potential Versailles Road warehouse site is within walking distance of the neighborhood the mission serves.

MacFarland said those who remain on DeRoode Street have looked to the mission as "a point of stability in a lot of chaos."

The community, in a sense, had its own, somewhat isolated culture, and the process of redevelopment has brought social upheaval, MacFarland said.

"We're asking the people that lived here to move from their culture to our culture, and it just breaks your heart," he said. "It's just a tough, tough environment for them."

There are concerns

While several former renters said they are content in the neighborhood of mobile homes, some property owners are resentful about the way the process has unfolded.

Boris Minniefield represents one of the last two households on DeRoode Street still occupying his home, which sits across the street from the mission.

After the new homes are built, Minniefield plans to move into one of them.

"They wouldn't give you enough money to where you could go to another part of town," he said. "We got shafted. They bullied you into selling your house."

Minniefield said he received $75,000 for his property, which was put into an escrow account to be used for his new home.

He is also unhappy that he won't own the land that the new house he will buy in the redeveloped Davis Bottom will sit on.

"We already own our land. When we move down there, we won't be able to," Minniefield said.

The Lexington Community Land Trust owns the land that the community is to be built on and will lease the land to the homeowners for a small fee.

Navin said the trust was envisioned as a way to "steward the land over the long term" and provide affordable housing to lower-income residents.

Gray said the land trust has been heralded as a "national model because of the way it works with and respects the surrounding neighborhood."

Displaced homeowners get the first shot at the houses that are available for purchase.

In addition to being paid for the original equity in their homes, Navin said they'll receive relocation benefits and mitigation benefits.

If they didn't have a mortgage before, they won't in their new home.

Navin said the new houses will face a park with a baseball diamond, just like how the neighborhood was arranged before the project began.

"We're going to be providing high-quality, energy efficient homes," she said. "What's coming, I think, will be really valuable and bring a lot of things back that people really wanted to keep."

Minniefield said he talked to an attorney but was told nothing could be done to change his situation.

"They looked out for the renters better than the homeowners," he said.

Kris McCormick is also displeased.

He is the youngest of three generations of men who have made their living at South Hill Auto Repair, 532 DeRoode Street.

McCormick's grandfather, Gentry McCormick, known around the neighborhood as "Mr. G" or simply "Pops," bought the business 23 years ago, when it was a Volkswagen repair shop.

Today, the business, also known as the Bugshop, does everything from tune-ups to complete restoration of all kinds of vehicles.

"We were satisfied, happy here," said Kris McCormick. "The place is paid off."

But when the road project started and one end of DeRoode Street was closed, things changed.

"We lost a lot of business when they shut this road down," he said. "This was a major cut-through."

Soon, the business will have to find a new location because the property was bought as part of the redevelopment project.

McCormick fears the move will affect business even more.

"They just pushed us out of their plan," McCormick said. "We thought, 'What a location. The heartbeat of this town.' Now we're stuck trying to find property, and we can't find property that's appropriate for what they paid us."

He said the family received "close to $300,000," but "it isn't enough to replace a home and a business."

And, like MacFarland, he said he worries about some of the other residents.

"I don't feel like they're ever going to make it to those townhomes," he said. "Half of them have passed away."

Karla Ward: (859) 231-3314. Twitter: @heraldleader

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