Tough times in Vine City

Ask lifelong Vine City resident and community organizer Byron Amos to recall his childhood in the historic neighborhood, and he paints a simple portrait: houses, children, residents mingling in narrow, friendly streets.

“A real neighborhood,” he says.

Ask him to describe Vine City today, and he’ll tell you this: “It’s a shell of its former self.”

Literally. Thanks to disasters both natural and man-made, the long-overlooked community so rich with heritage has devolved into the very definition of blight.

On Sept. 21, 2002, an unprecedented downpour, exacerbated by the city’s antiquated sewer system, flooded Vine City 6 feet deep. Some stranded residents were forced to swim through raw sewage to reach safety.

Six years later, when a tornado touched down in Atlanta, it cut a devastating swath through Vine City before charging several blocks east to the Georgia Dome. The twister uprooted trees, tore up playgrounds, ripped roofs off apartment buildings and left a trail of destruction that few residents could afford to repair.

More than a year later, tarps on rooftops still flap in the wind. It’s a stark contrast to the equally battered — and largely rebuilt — Cabbagetown, a neighborhood eerily similar in appearance to Vine City, but one that was restored over the years by urban pioneers and intown hipsters.

Prior to the real-estate market’s implosion, the neighborhood seemed to be slowly on the uptick. Today, however, a two-bedroom, one-bath single-family home can go for as low as $12,000. Abandoned houses with broken windows line Vine City’s hilly streets. Overgrown lawns barely obscure heaps of illegally dumped trash.

Incentives in the form of grants and loans were offered to lure developers leery of Vine City and surrounding communities. For the most part, those have met with success — a revamped health center in a renovated historic building, and affordable housing units at nearby Gateway Apartments on Northside Drive. But one project that never even broke ground — and was funded in part by $2 million in taxpayer funds — has some property owners concerned that a missed opportunity to revitalize a piece of the neighborhood will drag down Vine City even further.

In 1998, the Westside tax allocation district, a financing mechanism that uses future rises in property taxes to fund the redevelopment of blighted areas, expanded to include the Vine City and English Avenue neighborhoods. That expansion included the creation of a “neighborhood fund” — the only one of its kind in the city — that allocates a certain amount of funding for redevelopment in the two communities.

“We’re looking for projects where it is very, very difficult — I can’t underscore ‘very’ enough — to attract private investors,” says Cheryl Strickland, the Atlanta Development Authority’s director of TAD programs. “It’s a very focused development initiative to hopefully make good things happen in a difficult part of town.”

In 2006, Tyler Place CDC, a nonprofit homebuilder based in Vine City, partnered with well-regarded intown developer Brock Built to construct 55 townhomes at the corner of Elm Street and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. The project, estimated at $10 million, would include affordable housing.

Brock Built CEO Steve Brock, who helped develop nearby Historic Westside Village, said he was familiar with the community and wanted to invest in the area.

“We build in what some say is the urban edge,” he says. “I like to say I’m a community builder.”

The joint venture applied for cash from the Vine City neighborhood fund to purchase approximately 4.5 acres — a sizable chunk of the block. In September 2006, the ADA approved up to $2 million to buy the land. According to ADA documents, all the funding allocated was spent.

But after nearly two years, nothing was built. Brock says he spent $600,000 of his own resources on site plans and engineering studies. But the housing market took a nosedive and financing was hard to secure. In early 2008, the joint venture halted the development.

Some members of the community bristled at CL’s inquiry into the project and said outrage over the $2 million property was voiced only by a few residents.

“There are more important issues, like zoning, public safety and redeveloping our historic sites,” says Makeda Johnson, chairwoman of the local Neighborhood Planning Unit.

Nearby residents and landowners concerned about the property, who claim they had to clean it up themselves at times, say they simply want whoever is still the rightful owner to provide upkeep or consider installing a fence. (One sliver of land abutting the property is heavily wooded and allegedly has become a camp for homeless people.)

Brock says until the land is sold or transferred, it is the responsibility of Tyler Place CDC and Brock Built to maintain it.

He says he has approached the Fulton County-city of Atlanta Land Bank Authority, a joint government entity that forgives tax debt and liens and “holds” property until it can be redeveloped, to see if the agency would be interested in taking over the property.

“We want to give the property back so it will be developed at some appropriate point in the future,” he says.

Recently, there have been signs of progress in Vine City.

Last week, the city of Atlanta was awarded $3.9 million in funding that can be used to purchase boarded-up and foreclosed homes. The city’s Bureau of Planning, with funding from the Atlanta Regional Commission, is studying how the community can be redeveloped in a more walkable and livable manner once investment returns. And on May 29, community members will join ranks with Mayor Shirley Franklin and Arthur Blank to cut the ribbon on Vine City Park, a $1.6 million project eight years in the making.

“I see a glimmer of hope for this community,” says Vine City resident Amos, who helped plan the park.

It’s the first step of what the community hopes will be many on the road to rebuilding Vine City.

“The history of this community is that we’ve always stood up to the challenge,” says NPU Chairwoman Johnson. “And we have never allowed anything that was negative to prevail on our people.”