An Unpleasant Development

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

What turned them around in so short a time? "I had never seen the plans before," Commissioner Robinson told New Times. "I had nightmares later. The project called for over 150 units of rental housing with no possibility of conversion to ownership. There's nothing wrong with renters. But we have learned that homeowners build strong communities. My mama told me, when you make a mistake, you go back and reverse it."

Other forces arrayed themselves against the project, some from inside city hall, others from Pleasant City.

CRA Executive Director John Zakian led the charge from inside. An aggressive, often-abrasive administrator, Zakian complained to the CRA meeting that the authority's description of Merry Place had changed repeatedly during the planning process. He called the project "a vat of Jello." And after the vote, in an April 7 letter to the housing authority copied to the commissioners, he hammered away, insisting on a series of commitments and concessions.

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.

More surprising was the opposition from Pleasant City. It came from a group that, on paper at least, cosponsored the project: the pastors of the churches of the Pleasant City Faith-Based Initiative, Ed Horton's employers.

The pastors were crucial to the project's success. The churches have deep roots in the neighborhood, outlasting those of any other local African-American institution. The larger churches are significant property owners in the area. Not least, the pastors have immense political clout in the broader African-American community and, consequently, at city hall.

The Rev. Joseph Tyson, of St. John's Missionary Baptist Church, one of the neighborhood's largest and oldest congregations, was among the most vocal Merry Place opponents, objecting to its location, its design, and its emphasis on rental housing. "The housing authority has always been a big problem in the neighborhood," he told New Times. "Now it's taking over the best part of the neighborhood."

Tyson served as president of the Faith-Based Initiative from its inception in April 2000 until his resignation in March. He says that he and the other pastors were "not informed of the details of the project until very late in the process." He says Horton was "flying on his own," and he believes that Horton took advantage of the absence of the pastor under whom Horton worked most closely, the Rev. Frank Jefferson, who has been hospitalized with a lengthy illness.

Horton insists that Tyson and the other pastors were regularly briefed on plans for the project. "[Tyson] is full of crap," Horton tells New Times. "He was told where, when, and the number of units." Horton says Tyson ignored Merry Place, focusing instead on the activities of his own development project, the St. John's Human Resource Development Corp.

The pastors' lack of support was fatal. "[Commissioner Ike] Robinson got lobbied by Tyson and the others," Mayor Daves says.

In an effort to heal the rift, Commissioner Exline and city planning boss Dan Cary hosted a May 23 meeting between the ministers and the Merry Place backers. But both sides were dug in.

The ministers offered to drop their opposition if the housing authority handed over deeds to certain properties, on which the ministers -- regrouped in a new faith-based initiative -- would build housing for their congregations. "The churches need a seat at the table," Tyson told the room. "We want economic participation."

Horton says the pastors' demands reflect another reason for their opposition to Merry Place. "There are developer's fees and salaries for board members of faith-based groups," he contends.

Horton's remarks are "untrue and beneath my dignity," Tyson responds. "I've put years of sweat equity into this community."

The housing authority balked at any land swap with the pastors. It's "very nascent," Laurel Robinson told New Times. "Let them come to me with a project first."

If they do, it's unlikely to please her. "They've got Pleasant City's best location for Merry Place," Tyson said. "That's where the homes should go."

The City Commission's reversal stalled Merry Place but didn't kill it. On June 11, in a well-attended public forum, the housing authority made one last appeal to the commissioners.

To assuage their concerns, the authority promised to hire professional management to prevent antisocial behavior by tenants. It pledged dedicated funding to assure physical maintenance of the project. But there was no change in the project's proportion of homeowner to rental housing.

The commission didn't even bother to vote. John Zakian, who has emerged as the pastors' point man at city hall since meeting with them in private April 18, called Merry Place "an object lesson in how not to do this sort of project." The city didn't have enough information to support it, he said. He called for further consultation, effectively killing the project for the moment.

Laurel Robinson says Merry Place is the right thing to do. "Our charter commits us to safe, decent housing for the poor of West Palm Beach," she told New Times. "Many of them have no choice but to rent. Those people are on no one's political screen." The housing authority is determined to find financing that doesn't require city approval, she said.

The Merry Place battle leaves Pleasant City in a development stalemate. That could be the worst possible result. "You think things can't get worse?" Mayor Daves warned the commission on April 11. "They can always get worse.... Vote this down and you're committing Pleasant City to further disintegration."

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