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Jordan Park controversy sparks press conference Friday

Megan Holmes

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All photos courtesy of Terri Lipsey Scott

The troubled saga of Jordan Park continues, as St. Pete City Council chair Lisa Wheeler-Bowman has scheduled a press conference at 10 a.m. Friday at the Carter G. Woodson Museum.

Controversy surrounding the historic African American housing development has been at full boil since the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, which bought back Jordan Park in 2016, announced the proposed demolition of 31 historic units. The units date back to the development’s founding in the late 1930s.

Wheeler-Bowman, who represents Jordan Park in District 7, has coordinated the press conference. Councilwoman Gina Driscoll of District 6 will be speaking, along with Councilwoman Darden Rice of District 4.

Jordan Park Historic Village, courtesy of Terri Lipsey Scott

Driscoll says the press conference is a necessary step after the “concerning” actions of the SPHA leadership during a workshop held Monday night.

According to Driscoll, displaced residents had thought they would get a chance for dialogue with the Housing Authority. Instead, they found themselves shut out. The meeting allowed for no public comment, and SPHA CEO Tony Love declared it was over after just 30 minutes.

According to attendees, Love asked the St. Petersburg Police Department to have everyone in attendance removed.

“They can’t be trusted to hold a community discussion,” said Driscoll. “Everyone, including the SPHA, is aware of the living conditions these displaced residents are facing. But nothing has been done.”

“It really just points to a concerning lack of transparency from leadership.”

In attendance will be Jordan Park’s most staunch advocate, Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the Carter G. Woodson Museum, which is located in the former office building of the Jordan Park development – part of its original construction. The museum opened its doors in 2006.

Scott described herself as “irate” and “incensed” by the living conditions of the Historic Village’s former residents, who were forced to move from their homes in late 2017 and early 2018 to allow for the proposed demolition. Many of the residents, with the assistance of the Housing Authority, were moved to conditions considerably worse than those they came from.

Now the Historic Village sits vacant and in limbo, as the St. Pete Housing Authority has been denied funding for the project at every turn.

“I am concerned first with the treatment of African American seniors by the Housing Authority,” said Scott. “And second, with the preservation of this historic Jordan Park community.”

The Housing Authority has a long history of mismanagement of housing, according to Scott. “They’ve missed the mark over and over again,” Scott said. She cited examples like the Laurel Park housing complex, which was demolished in 1990 and made into a parking lot.

“I’m also concerned with the disparate conditions of the Housing Authority’s buildings on the north side versus the south side,” said Scott. The issue came to light when Scott recently took an “eyeball tour” of the properties, using a list obtained from SPHA website. According to Scott, the difference was “astounding.”

Jordan Park’s History

 
Video provided by the Neighborhood News Bureau at USFSP.

Jordan Park starts near 9th Avenue South and 22nd Street South. It was built during the era of enforced segregation, between 1939 and 1941, on land donated by its namesake, Elder Jordan Sr, a successful businessman and advocate for African American rights. It was the first African American public housing complex in the city, and therefore holds important historical significance to many members of the community, especially those who grew up in or around it.

But Jordan Park has not been without its share of controversies. In 2001, more than $27 million in taxpayer dollars were given to private developers to rebuild the area. During that time, most of the units on the property were leveled and rebuilt, save the 31 units today known as the Historic Village or Historic Senior Village.

Under the 2001 deal brokered with the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the SPHA, the private developers would not be required to pay back any of the money borrowed for the renovations, as long as the property was owned by the developers and maintained to HUD standards for 50 years. They would pay no rent on the land, receive 100 percent of rent paid by tenants as well as HUD subsidies for low-income residents, and receive 15 years of tax credits to pay back their original investment of $11 million.

Within just a few short years of the 2001 construction and renovations – as early as 2004 – living conditions fell to a level of concern for then-mayor Rick Baker. The units, both old and new, were left in disrepair. Residents reported uncut grass, rat infestations, cockroaches and other pests.

Current issues

In 2016, after the tax credits applied to the property reached their 15-year expiration, the private development group struck a deal with the SPHA (which had first right of refusal to the property) allowing the organization to buy back the 24 acres of Jordan Park.

Conditions of one former tenant of the Historic Village, courtsey of Terri Lipsey Scott.

The original purchase price for Jordan Park was set at $400,000 – a fee that would sit squarely on the shoulders of local taxpayers, while forgiving the private developers’ $18 million in debts from the 2001 renovations – money that also came from taxpayer dollars.

That’s when Terri Lipsey Scott really started digging.

After raising her concerns to local media, the private developers reduced the purchase price to zero. While still forgiving the multi-million dollar debt, and the deal went through.

Now, SPHA plans to demolish the Historic Village and build a multi-level senior housing apartment building in its place, increasing the density of the property to 60 units. The elderly and disabled residents of the Historic Village were forced to move from their homes, many times into unsafe and unsanitary circumstances.

Conflicting reports

At City Council’s May 17 meeting, the Housing Authority asked for a “soft letter” of support to present to the department of Housing and Urban Development, in order to garner the $43 million necessary for their proposed improvements of Jordan Park. Members of the council and the public – including Scott – expressed serious concerns surrounding the proposed demolition.

Not the least of those concerns were conflicting reports from multiple parties as to the structural concerns of the property, and whether or not those concerns would be best addressed through demolition.

A 2016 independent home inspection, performed on behalf of the residents of Jordan Park, noted signs of rodent infestation, termite damage in the roof and some open/leaking pipes. None of these issues, however, pointed to the necessary demolition of the property.

It is the later report commissioned by SPHA – a Physical Needs Assessment written by the proposed architect for the new senior housing building, Robert Reid Wedding – that strongly conflicts the 2016 inspection.

In the May 17 meeting, Councilmember Amy Foster raised a concern surrounding these conflicting reports, and the fact that Wedding’s report uses the same photographs as the inspection from 2016.

Wedding’s report recommends demolition of the structure, noting the life expectancy of a “wood structure” and the cost of replacing the original iron pipes.

According to the 2016 inspection, the Historic Village is constructed from concrete block, and the 2016 photos and inspection show modern PVC piping.

The St. Pete City Council rejected the Housing Authority’s soft-letter request. Pinellas County also shared in a letter to the Housing Authority that county money would not be available for consideration until 2020.

The SPHA has also been denied by the Community Development Block Grants Committee, and has been notified that the special meeting requested with the South St. Petersburg Community Development Area Citizen Advisory Committee has been postponed indefinitely.

According to Councilmember Driscoll, “This really shows the consensus across agencies and organizations that this is not the right path.”

Friday’s press conference was originally scheduled to take place in front of Jordan Park itself, but plans changed when – according to both Scott and Driscoll – SPHA CEO Tony Love called the St. Petersburg Police Department to tell them that the press conference would not be welcome on Jordan Park grounds.

The Catalyst called SPHA for comment, but the call was not returned.

Jordan Park Press Conference

Date: Friday, July 20 at 10 a.m.

Place: Carter G. Woodson African American Museum – 2240 9th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, Florida

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