Out of Blight

By staff February 1, 2003

At the point where Route 301 and Route 41 merge to form Bradenton's First Street is a striking new development.

In what used to be a blighted neighborhood sandwiched between the busy junction, a rail line and blocks of dilapidated houses is a stunning enclave of 160 brand-new townhouses exuding urban Southern charm. Olive and flame-colored exteriors sit alongside peach, brick red and pastel walls. Balconies jut out from the second story in one building, and from the third in the next, overlooking narrow streets lined with trees and shrubbery. Steel roofs shine next to Mediterranean barrel tiles and Key West-style scalloped shingles.

And anyone who knew what was there before-the decaying Rogers Garden public housing project and Rousch Field-would gasp in amazement at what is there now: Bradenton Village. It's a development that imbues the phrase "public housing" with fresh and hopeful possibilities, replacing it with more optimistic concepts: new urbanism and mixed-income housing.

"New urbanism is a return to the past," explains William DeSue, executive director of the Housing Authority of Bradenton, the nonprofit co-developer of the project. "It's a return to where you have porches, terraces and alleys; where you live in close proximity to neighbors, and neighbors have a sense of community."

And what's mixed-income housing? In Bradenton Village, it means that while a third of the residents will be on assistance programs (two-thirds of their rent is picked up by the Authority and HUD), the remaining two-thirds of residents will pay market rate rents of $540 for a one-bedroom apartment, $650 for a two-bedroom and $750 for a three-bedroom. So someone who makes minimum wage and qualifies for government housing assistance might live right next door to someone with a six-figure salary.

"It's a seamless community and that's really what housing choices are about," DeSue says. "Historically, public policy tends to warehouse poor people, and social problems take place where people are in situations where socials ills are heightened. With a mixed-income neighborhood, the community polices itself. People participate in a quality of life that is just like everybody else's."

In his office, converted from one of the original Rogers Garden duplex units, DeSue has collected yellowing newspaper clippings that tell the story of how the nonprofit Bradenton Housing Authority was established in 1950 to administer the 120 barracks-style units built to house poor African-Americans. The identical, tiny, one-story apartments that cost $1.1 million to build resembled a row of white shoeboxes set in uncompromising straight lines. And, because the entire development had been built 18 to 24 inches below grade, Rogers Garden residents were literally flooded out of their homes by knee-deep water when it stormed.

That was still the status quo when DeSue came on board in 1993. He and his wife, Barbara Richardson, both ordained ministers, had made regular visits to Bradenton from DeSue's native Jacksonville since 1988 to teach Bible classes; they moved here in 1991 to start a church and be closer to Richardson's mother and aunt, both Bradenton natives.

Under DeSue's leadership, and with a new board of directors, the housing authority decided that the only fix for Rogers Garden was to tear down the existing buildings and come up with something to revitalize the beleaguered community and connect it with the rest of the city. DeSue began the gargantuan process of applying for grants; and in 1999, on his third try, received a $24 million Hope VI grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. DeSue raised the remaining $56 million through private, city and public funds, and then invited a group of architectural firms to brainstorm design concepts.

"Their heart was really big into making this as special as it is," says Stephen Smith of Tampa-based Cooper Johnson Smith, the principal architects on the project. "They kept stressing: more variety, more variety. Many developers are happy to go in and build an apartment complex."

That was exactly what the residents, DeSue and Telesis Corp., the Washington D.C.-based co-developer of the project, did not want. So Smith's team worked on a design for townhouses in a tropical Florida style, with influences from Charleston, N.C., to Caribbean islands. Architects drew up 16 different buildings; the goal is that if you look down your street, you won't see your own house repeated, Smith says. Some two-story townhouses have one-bedroom apartments above them to break up the elevation. Smith points out covered porches inspired by gracious North Carolina homes, and the contrast between ornate American balcony rail designs and Caribbean board styles. Some roofs are made of galvanized steel, popular in Southern Florida and the islands, while others favor a Mediterranean barrel style, and still others, different types of shingles. Interiors feature nine-foot ceilings, carpeting, dishwasher, stove and ceiling fans. All services-car parking, trash pickup-are in the back of the buildings or in alleyways behind tiny backyards with white picket fences-freeing up the front roads and brick pavers for walking and conversation. The original site of the flood-besieged houses is now a retention pond.

Already, a handful of houses have inviting lawn chairs set up by the front doors. One hundred-sixty units are complete now, and in the spring, construction will begin on 117 additional units west of the present development, pending tax credits from Florida Housing Finance Corporation. The final phase of construction calls for more townhouses, a senior center, daycare, community center and, eventually, single-family houses. The goals: to connect Bradenton Village to new development in the Singletary neighborhood to the north between Martin Luther King Boulevard and 13th Street West, and to create a self-sustaining community connected to the rest of Bradenton. Provided funding keeps coming in, DeSue hopes for a completion date of 2007 for the entire project.

"We've done this in other places and been successful," says William Whitman, executive vice president of Telesis, which will manage the development once it is complete. "We believe people respond positively when they live in a beautiful place."

Designing buildings that stand on their own merits helps improve the real estate market, Whitman says, attracting people willing to pay market rate rents and contribute to the city's tax base, regardless of the traditional stigma of living among public housing dependents.

"People are fundamentally less prejudiced than we like to think they are," Whitman says. "The houses are beautiful and well located. [Bradenton Village is a mile from downtown Bradenton and a straight shot down Third Avenue to the Manatee River.] If you give people a good place to live and it's managed well, they'll come. I don't care how much money my neighbor makes."

"I never had any ideas other than get rid of what was and reconnect this community to the larger community," says DeSue, who can barely contain his excitement at the possibilities he sees in vacant lots, moss-draped trees and the sounds of construction. "To get rid of the isolation and stigmas associated with this, the only way was to create a mixed-income neighborhood where people will participate in the American dream."

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