June 16, 2009
Housing Authority 'surprised' by negative reaction to Sixth Street plan
It's clear where Downtown business owners stand on the Housing Authority of Racine County's proposal to convert an historic Sixth Street building into low-income apartments.
"Who's in favor of this thing?" Monte Osterman asked a group of about 30 business owners Tuesday during a Downtown Connections meeting.
No one said a word.
Linda Ring Weber, executive director of the Housing Authority, said she was stunned by the reaction to the idea of renovating the former YMCA and Red Cross Building at 314-324 Sixth St.
"Surprised is such an understatement," Weber said. "There has to be some misunderstanding."
At issue is the need, or desire, for low-income housing on Sixth Street. Devin Sutherland, executive director of Downtown Racine Corp., is leading the opposition to the proposal. He said Sixth Street, or really anywhere Downtown, isn't a good site for additional low-income housing.
"It's market-rate apartments we don't have enough of," Sutherland said.
But Weber said she has a five-year waiting list for people seeking affordable housing from her agency. People who qualify for her program pay 30 percent of their income for rent - well under the low-income housing rates in places like the Arcade Apartments or Belle Harbor Apartments in Downtown.
Weber said the Housing Authority has received an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the proposal. "Had we known, this would not have been a place I would have pursued," she said.
But the Housing Authority has an option to purchase the building for $425,000 and an architect is drawing up plans, she said.
Money is a concern. The 1886 Queen Anne-style building was built as the Racine branch of the YMCA. Its ground floor is now home to the Sixth Street Theatre, but its second and third floors have been vacant for years. Renovating the upper floors into apartments and offices for the Housing Authority, now located at 837 Main St., could be too expensive.
But Weber was optimistic. Her agency's plan is to revive an historic building that's been largely ignored over the years. The Housing Authority even intends to retain a large, open ballroom on the second floor to serve as their offices.
"Many private developers would divide (the ballroom) into offices," she said.
Weber and the Downtown business owners had a missed connection on Tuesday morning. The Downtown Connections group had scheduled Weber to speak, but Weber said she'd only offered to address the group when she had information to share. Since they're still waiting for the architect's report, she didn't feel she had much to say about the project. She said she hopes to meet with the business owners in a few weeks.
It'll be a tough crowd.
The group is already lobbying city officials, with some success, to oppose the project.
"I don't feel any support for this at City Hall," Sutherland said.
But the opposition may not matter. Since city zoning is set up to favor residential developments there's little the city can do to oppose the development. The major obstacle for the project could be the Housing Authority's own charter, which requires city approval for low-income housing developments.
But what city approval means, and how much of an obstacle the requirement is, remains to be seen. What also remains to be seen is the Housing Authority's plans to breathe life into a dormant -- aside from the Sixth Street Theatre -- building in need of restoration.
"This should be so welcome," Weber said. "We're preserving an historic building."