Housing Plan Progresses as Officials Seek Eminent Domain: Lakeland (FL) Ledger, 1/3/06

By Rick Rousos

The city [of Lakeland] is moving ahead with its plan to turn a 14-acre mess near downtown into a residential mecca.

The land behind the Massachusetts Avenue Lakeland Police Station is slated for about 400 town houses and condominiums, with the possibility of at least some "work force housing."

The reconstruction of the neighborhood is a crucial element in the city's plan to bring residents to a downtown and make the core of the city more vibrant.

Construction should begin in mid-2007, city officials say. But just what will be built remains to be determined.

The city has bought 53 parcels in the neighborhood, which backs up to the In-Town Bypass. Initially, the city worked through an agent, who told the property owners he "represented a buyer" but did not say the buyer was the city. City officials say this was meant to keep real estate speculators at bay.

A 54th property is slated for a May real estate closing. Anne Furr, the executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, said the city "has so far been unable to work with five property owners."

In other words, those property owners are asking for what is being deemed by city officials as an unreasonable amount of money.

For that reason, city commissioners today will be asked to grant the authority for the community redevelopment agency to use eminent domain — a legal proceeding that forces a sale to the government, in which a judge sets the price — to acquire the remaining five properties.

"We have been abundantly fair, even to the point of being generous," said Joe Mawhinney, a former city lawyer and an LDDA board member.

Just because eminent domain will be an option doesn't mean the city will use it, Mawhinney said. He said it can get expensive because lawyers are in on the act.

Many of the homes, including some apartment buildings, have been bulldozed. But several remain, and 14 families are still living there, Furr said. Most of the people still there have leases that expire in the next few months.

The area now resembles a near ghost town, a no-man's land dotted by empty lots where homes were destroyed, a smattering of mostly rickety homes and few people walking the streets.

That's a far cry from years past, when drugs, crime, prostitution and violence dominated the neighborhood and law-abiding people had little choice but to stay inside. City officials say the only fix for the neighborhood was to start over.

The city will end up spending about $5.2 million to buy the land and another $1 million for demolition, all of which and more will be paid for in the end by whoever develops the property.

The city is considering four developers to do the massive refurbishment, including the Carlisle Group, which turned the old Regency Hotel into Lake Mirror Tower.

The size, type and cost of the housing in the redeveloped area for the most part will be determined by the developer, not LDDA and other city officials.

"We don't want half-million dollar homes there," Furr said.

She and other city officials would like to see a mix of middle-priced condominiums, in the $300,000 or so range, and work force housing, maybe in which a police officer or firefighter might be able to live — and walk to work, for $150,000 or $200,000.

Jerry Herring, a developer and LDDA board member, is building Lofts on the Park, a 14-condominium residential project on a vacant lot at 125 N. Kentucky Ave. He said people across America are moving back downtown.

"I agree, this (Lakeland project) should have some work force housing. It should be market-rate housing, whatever the market locally will support. We believe the market will support work force housing anywhere from about $150,000, with midrange housing from $250,000 or $300,000," Herring said.

"The developer should determine the risk, the comfort level. It's their risk, not ours. The city shouldn't force anything on private enterprise. We shouldn't force, we should enable."

Mike Hickman, the president of Lakeland-based Hickman Homes, said work force housing, for people like police, teachers and nurses, "has to be in a high-density setting."

"We are facing a crisis in the affordability of housing. A building permit in the city is over $20,000 before you do anything. Single-family homes are almost a thing of the past. This should be 10 or 15 (residences) per acre — a high-density use with green space. Let the free market prevail, but high density at a reasonable cost."

But the city can make some demands, Hickman said. "The city is in a unique position, because it owns the land."

Furr, the LDDA boss, said the city has been helpful, considerate and compassionate to the people being displaced by the redevelopment.

But among the people who are still there, some of whom feel like they're being treated like squatters, the opinions of the treatment from the city vary.

Jason Yohn, 30, whose East Bay Street lease in half of a duplex expires in a few months, said the city has been better to land owners than renters.

"They're just trying to run the low-income people out, and that's wrong," he said. He said that now that the apartments have been demolished, "it's nice around here, quiet."

Yohn said he didn't know where he'll go after the lease expires. "This place is for $275," he said. "Where can we find that?"

Iowa Avenue runs north and south behind Massachusetts Avenue and the LPD station. The parcels of land on the east side of Iowa are being bought by the city, the west side is being left alone.

Lorraine Smith, 38, who rents a home on the west side of Iowa, said the neighborhood has improved dramatically since the apartments have been razed.

"This was a very scary place," she said. "There's still some people loitering around here at night, but it's not so bad."

Furr said the apartments that Yohn and Smith talked about greatly accelerated the downfall of a neighborhood that thrived several decades ago.

Benjamin Knight, 24, who owns a home on the east side of the street, said the redevelopment is good only for the wealthy.

"I guess the rich can do whatever they want to the poor," he said.

Knight said he was contacted by a "real estate man" several months ago, but has heard nothing since.

Furr said Knight was one of the five property owners who were hard to bargain with.

She said the city has made repeated attempts to contact Knight, including sending him registered mail, which comes back.

LPD Chief Roger Boatner's officers have spent an inordinate amount of time in the neighborhood that abuts the back door of the police station. Boatner said he's no real estate expert, but does have feelings for what he'd like the neighborhood to become.

"I would just like to see the neighborhood become stable," Boatner said. "In the old days, it was stable. People came and went, and they went to work. Kids played outside. People walked to downtown. A stable downtown neighborhood brings vitality to the area — and to the rest of the city."

Boatner said he spoke recently with a lady who had dinner in a downtown Lakeland restaurant with a female friend from a big city.

He said that as the two women walked a few blocks to their car, and the out-of-town woman "went on and on about how beautiful it was."

The Lakeland woman thought her guest was raving about the beauty of downtown and Munn Park, but that wasn't it.

"Nope," Boatner said. "It was that two ladies could walk safely around downtown at night."

"And if it's that kind of an area we're talking about building, then I'm all for it."

Lakeland ledger: www.theledger.com