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Neighborhood watch



Pastor John Beasley is hopeful about a meeting at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 23, at Ward Chapel. A Winter Park official calls it "an opportunity for west side residents to preview the draft" of the Westside Neighborhood Housing Task Force's report. But Beasley says, "It's going to be a different kind of meeting." He pauses a second and amends: "That is, if they allow people to speak."

West Winter Park is enjoying a renaissance, according to city officials. For the past 10 years, the low-income and long-neglected African-American enclave in the affluent community has seen furious redevelopment. Run-down bodegas and bars have given way to gleaming furniture shops and chic restaurants. But in the process the black residents -- for whom this area was set aside by the city's founders more than 100 years ago -- are disappearing.

Sylvia Dickson is the city code enforcement officer. She keeps a neat three-ring binder with "before" and "after" photos of some of her west side successes. About a half dozen of the "after" photos depict vacant lots. "I don't know what happened to those people," she says of the former tenants at 610 Symonds Ave., which was demolished in January 1998.

The city keeps no records, but at least dozens, and probably hundreds, of former residents have moved on since 1991, when Orange County permitted Winter Park to designate the blocks roughly bordered by Fairbanks Avenue, Park Avenue and Denning Drive as a Community Redevelopment Area. The irony: The city's resolution setting up the CRA claims that "in the redevelopment area there exists a shortage of housing affordable to residents of low and moderate income, including the elderly."

The redevelopment plan, published in 1994, calls for the maintenance of some low-income housing while newer, more upscale homes are built. But critics of the plan note that very little housing of any kind has been built in the area this decade, although commercial redevelopment and conversion of old apartments has proceeded apace.

That criticism spurred Mayor Joseph Terranova to empanel the Westside Neighborhood Housing Task Force last April. That group has now produced a working draft of its plan, to be unveiled at the upcoming meeting. But several members of the group say the task force has gotten off course: Instead of calling for more consideration of the existing low-income residents, the draft concerns itself mainly with selling the redevelopment area to "market developers of beneficial housing and commercial products." The draft makes exactly two mentions of rental housing, neither of them in the one section (out of seven) devoted to "neighborhood housing."

A group of prominent citizens, some of whom had formerly been relatively uncritical of the CRA, have quietly begun organizing residents. "In finally getting this going, there is a sense of relief," says Beasley. "We're finally going to the people."

Beasley's Grant Chapel obtained a small grant and hired a community outreach worker, who since March has been canvassing the neighborhood to find out what the residents need and want. Sometimes those needs are acute, as with an elderly home owner who was facing unmanageable city fines relating to housing code enforcement. Beasley assembled some advocates and some volunteers, and with the city's cooperation, the repairs are under way. "Had we not intervened in this case," says Beasley, "we would have another victim."

But organizing these conservative, mostly elderly residents is no small task.

Part of the problem is the neighborhood's 100-year tradition of deference to white authority. Part of it, perhaps, is fatigue. The outreach worker regularly "finds people who say they are happy and content and just want to be left alone," Beasley says. "They don't understand that no one is safe until everyone is safe."

A perusal of the task force's draft plan indicates no one in the CRA zone is safe unless they have what city officials define as middle-class income and values. The draft calls for "zero tolerance code enforcement" and targets specific areas that are "ripe for redevelopment."

One such area is the section of Railroad Avenue east of Pennsylvania Avenue. The draft says that "the city should acquire the property to control the resale and redevelopment." But planners are taking steps to avoid responsibility for the consequences.

"If we acquire it, we will have the responsibility for relocation expenses for everyone on that property," Don Martin, Winter Park City Planner, said at a recent meeting of the task force. "That's a major expense, and we're not sure we want to incur it." He suggested the block be rezoned and allowed to be redeveloped by a private developer, who could freely evict existing tenants.

Although city officials market the new plan as the will of the people, they are becoming more frank about their purpose in the city's historic black enclave. "You have to remember," says Merrill Ladika, who joined the city six months ago as its CRA manager, "the CRA is about letting the market get back to where it should be by getting rid of obstacles to reinvestment."

By Winter Park's CRA standards, Edna Cross is just such an obstacle. She has moved three times this decade, and while her rent has stayed the same, her homes are shrinking. "I was on Carver Street -- I stayed in a house over there for 10 years," Cross says. "I was on Wellborne, New England ... move, move, move. But I tell you, I don't know how long these houses are going to be here."

Cross lives on New England Avenue now, in a two-bedroom, one-bath flat, with her adult daughter. Cross lives on Social Security. Her daughter is a cashier. "Basically we just don't have any money," Cross says. "I don't know what to say." Cross says Habitat for Humanity turned her down for home ownership.

"The thing that everyone seems to overlook," says Fairolyn Livingston, a member of the Neighborhood Housing Task Force, is that "there is a certain segment there who will never be able to buy a house no matter what." Livingston, who grew up in the neighborhood but now lives a few blocks north of it, estimates that more than half of the 2,400 or so current residents will not be in a position to own their own home. The majority of these people are thus targeted for elimination.

"Look at the redevelopment along New England Avenue, near Pennsylvania Avenue," Livingston says. "Blacks lived there for years and years, `but` you won't find any living there now. They were moved; I don't know where they moved to. No one has tracked that."

The city's redevelopment plan and the task force draft, titled, "Moving Into 2000," present the redevelopment as both beneficial and inevitable. It isn't.

The 1997 Burlington (Vermont) Housing Policy, for example, distinguishes itself from Winter Park's policy on the second page, where Burlington's three goals are listed. No. 1 is "Protect the vulnerable." No. 2: "Preserve existing affordable housing." No. 3: "Produce affordable housing."

Burlington is not a slum but in fact a community, like Winter Park, under redevelopment pressure from encroaching yuppies. The difference is in the attitude of that city's leadership. Unlike Winter Park, Burlington is trying to preserve its affordable-housing stock, including rental units. "I asked the city to use that as an example of what others had done," says Jim Allison, a task force member, NAACP official and former builder. "I haven't heard anything."

But opponents to the Winter Park plan are making themselves heard, Livingston says. Last month, residents forced the withdrawal of a rezoning request that would have allowed commercial encroachment on the neighborhood near Pennsylvania Avenue and Morse Boulevard. That matter is tentatively scheduled to be revived in May.

If the residents bind together, the city still may change its plans to benefit them. Says Beasley, whose own Grant Chapel has been the subject of redevelopment takeover speculation: "The people themselves are going to have to come out of the closet and to stop fearing fear."


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