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Can Dying Neighborhoods be Rejuvenated?

02/27/2015

As the nation’s housing market continues to recover, there are empty subdivisions with vacated houses and lots filled with weeds, pipes, slabs, and more. Unfortunately, in looking at half-finished developments being saved, historically there are few success stories.

Although rejuvenating dying neighborhoods is a serious challenge, there is one community that has been able to do just that. According to Ellen Dunham-Jones, urban design professor with Georgia Tech and an architect, the city of Covington, which is located roughly 35 miles to the east of Atlanta, Georgia, has done something unique. In fact, in her upcoming book, “Retrofitting Sprawl”, she dedicated one chapter to the Walker’s Bend subdivision.

As stated, it is unusual for cities to be developers but Covington became the exception. At first, the idea of transforming Walker’s Bend was highly controversial but today, it is a wonderful community that many people call home.

Walker’s Bend

The Walker’s Bend subdivision first gained approval to be built in 2003. In a town of just 13,000 people, the goal was for 249 homes to be constructed over a 50-acre area. The initial plan consisted of a few negative aspects to include small lots with oversized houses and yards that had odd shapes but still, it was growth.

Four years later, roadways and infrastructure were pretty much done but only 79 homes had been finished and just 50 sold. At that point, building stopped with Timber South, the developer, leaving eight different banks holding titles to the empty lots, as well as homes that had since been abandoned.

Quickly, homes were auctioned off to investors that turned them into rental properties for virtually anyone interested. As a result, crime increased dramatically and for the viable homeowners in Walker’s Bend, there was a sense of the neighborhood being unsafe say and night. Rather than wait for the market to make a comeback, the city of Covington wanted to turn things around right away.

Developer’ Goal

The plan consisted of:

  • The city spending $1 million to purchase empty lots to create parks and open green spaces, as well as build residences
  • A select few developers were asked to build a few affordable houses, along with a senior center and small business park
  • “Bad tenants” would be placed in charge of running the development rather than being evicted

While unconventional, the city of Covington had money and what many thought was a poor plan turned into something extraordinary. It took time to convince the city council but eventually, approval was granted for the Walker’s Bend development. First completed was the renovation of eight townhomes in disrepair. A HUD Neighborhood Stabilization grant was used to purchase properties and the city worked with Habitat for Humanity to rehab other homes sold for the same price the city paid.

Today, multiple homes have been renovated and empty lots turned into parks with picnic benches and gazebos. Walker’s Bend is a quiet, safe, and charming subdivision. While challenging, Covington is a prime example that dying neighborhoods can in fact be rejuvenated.

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