An Unpleasant Development

The plan to build Merry Place could rekindle an inner-city dream

Other efforts had limited results. In 1992, a Ford Foundation-sponsored community development nonprofit called the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) organized a citywide urban-infill project. After building just six houses in Pleasant City, it fizzled out.

The last wager on the neighborhood's revival came in the late 1990s, when city officials joined with the housing authority and several LISC-organized groups to file grant applications for HOPE VI, a federal program for the demolition and reconstruction of decayed public housing. The local team struck out three times on funding rounds, in 1998, 1999, and 2000.

The authority's housing stock, meanwhile, continued to deteriorate. By last year, its board considered demolishing Dunbar Village but couldn't attract funding. In Pleasant City, a test renovation of one housing complex ended up costing $25,000 per apartment. "Redoing them all just wasn't feasible," Laurel Robinson says.

Michael McElroy
Everee Clarke's Heritage Gallery is in Pleasant City's heart. After visitors sign in at her desk, they see walls of photographs that describe the neighborhood's long, uneven past. Pictures of some of West Palm Beach's African-American luminaries fill the walls.
Michael McElroy
Everee Clarke's Heritage Gallery is in Pleasant City's heart. After visitors sign in at her desk, they see walls of photographs that describe the neighborhood's long, uneven past. Pictures of some of West Palm Beach's African-American luminaries fill the walls.

The housing authority's controversial new plan rose from the ashes of HOPE VI, when LISC program director Annetta Jenkins introduced Laurel Robinson to Ed Horton, executive director of the Pleasant City Faith-Based Community Development Initiative, a new coalition of local churches. "We spent many afternoons driving and walking through the neighborhood brainstorming," Horton tells New Times. "Pleasant City needed housing, even if it wasn't on the scale of HOPE VI."

Beginning in summer 2000, Robinson and Horton developed the plan for Merry Place in consultation with representatives of the West Palm Beach City Planning Department, LISC, and the Bank of America (for financial expertise). They concentrated on an area around Merry Place and Comfort Street, where the remains of rusted cars and crumbling foundations poked up through weed-infested lots. "We liked the idea of transforming some of the very worst blocks," Robinson told New Times. "Could we really make the streets' names true?"

The new plan was ambitious. The project would cover four square blocks totaling 14 acres, including several blocks of boarded-up housing that are the failed remains of the authority's past. The planners enlisted nationally recognized Miami architect Rafael Portuondo, whose design included 170 rental apartments in two-story buildings clustered around courtyards, 30 single-family homes with detached garages on 50-foot-wide lots, a generous arrangement of parks and squares, a community center, and a strip of ground floor commercial spaces. The price tag for the project was $18 million. "We went top-shelf here," Robinson says. "We weren't grubbing around to do something cheap....We wanted Rafael to give us a new face."

Tired of getting burned on applications to the feds, the housing authority turned to the same source that private developers use to build most of the nation's affordable housing -- low-income housing tax credits.

A creation of the Reagan-era Tax Reform Act of 1986, the credits are awarded by the IRS through state housing agencies to local developers who, in turn, sell the credits at a discount to investors. The investors end up with tax write-offs worth more than they cost; the developers end up with cash to build housing priced at less than the market rate. "Everyone was pushing us to be more entrepreneurial," Laurel Robinson explains. "And we didn't want to be dependent on HUD largess forever."

By this past spring, the Merry Place developers had the political support of Mayor Daves and the financial support of the Palm Beach County Commission, which approved $500,000 in backing. But before the authority could apply for the tax credits, it needed a promise of seed money from the West Palm Beach City Commission.

On April 1, by a 5-1 vote, the City Commission -- sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), in which all five commissioners and the mayor have an equal vote -- approved a contribution of $200,000 for Merry Place.

But it did so with reservations. The city commissioners said they'd been hurried into a decision, that they hadn't had time to study the project. They worried about the financial implications for the city, chiefly a commitment to fund $2 million in improvements to Pleasant City's sewer and water system. And they questioned the plan's emphasis on rental housing rather than home ownership. "There is a crying need for affordable rental housing in this community," Laurel Robinson told the commission. "Home ownership is simply not an option for everyone."

The commission had bought into Merry Place on the strength of the housing authority's promises. Though the agency had let its Pleasant City properties deteriorate in the past, Robinson asserted it had changed. If there was no mention of single-family homes in the tax credit application, she said, it was because this was just phase one of the project -- 30 homes would eventually be built.

More than anything else, the commission assented out of weariness. "It's not a perfect world," Commissioner Ike Robinson told the group. "This is a beginning."

"That was a high point," Laurel Robinson told New Times. "It was a good deal for the city too: an $18 million project for 200 grand. Then, of course, we got whipsawed."

Less than two weeks after their initial vote, the city commissioners on April 11 rescinded their support for Merry Place. Commissioner Robinson called an emergency CRA meeting, at which he and Commissioner Al Zucaro reversed their positions and joined Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell, who had opposed the project from the start. With Commissioners Jim Exline and William Moss absent, only Mayor Daves voted to continue support.

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