Smile Politely

Bristol Place and eminent domain

This article was originally published on Read the first article in the series here.

A recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request produced hundreds of pages of emails from staff with the City of Champaign and Housing Authority of Champaign County (HACC) about plans for the redevelopment of Bristol Place. In a recent story in the News-Gazette, Champaign Mayor Don Gerard defended the project and said he wanted to put to rest “talk on the street.” FOIA’d emails reveal the city’s intentions in their own words. City staff and Housing Authority Executive Director Ed Bland have moved forward with plans while keeping from the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners their designs for a land grab.   

Bristol Place is a triangular-shaped neighborhood bordered by Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park to the north, Market Street to the west, Bradley Avenue to the south, and the Canadian National railroad tracks to the east. It is a part of Bristol Park along with the Garwood neighborhood, to the west of Market Street, which the city also plans to redevelop on a smaller scale. Bristol Place includes between 75–100 homes that are slated to be torn down by the city through a process of buying out homeowners, using eminent domain if necessary, and handing out Section 8 vouchers provided by the Housing Authority to eligible tenants for relocation. The project is expected to cost the city more than $7 million.

It appears from email correspondence that by January 2012, Ed Bland and Champaign city staff were already working together to redevelop Bristol Place. On January 13, 2012, Patty Smith, HACC’s Director of Capital Programs, sent an email to her boss, HACC Executive Director Ed Bland, HACC consultant Cindi Herrera, Champaign community development specialist Greg Skaggs, and developer for The Benoit Group, Torian Priestly. Smith had met earlier in the week with the City of Champaign, who wanted to set up monthly meetings to discuss “Champaign development issues.” She proposed meeting before HACC Board meetings in the housing authority building, “since we will have so many commitments back to back.”

This confirms the account of Esther Patt, of the Tenant Union, who was invited to join the Bristol Park Neighborhood Steering Committee, created by the City of Champaign. According to Patt, at a meeting she attended in January 2012, Ed Bland said that the housing authority could probably provide Section 8 vouchers for everybody qualified for them in Bristol Place.

Not long after these discussions began, residents in the Bristol Place neighborhood began to raise questions about what would happen to their homes. Faye Ballard lives with her mother at 108 E. Garwood. After attending a neighborhood meeting organized by the city, she wrote a letter to Greg Skaggs stating her “extreme displeasure” that that city might “involuntarily” acquire the property her family had owned for more than 50 years. She operated a shoe repair business out of the house that could not easily be moved. She saw no reason that “all of us should have to do something we may not want to do (and probably cannot in the long-run afford to do) because of a few.” She threatened to go public with the city’s plans to “throw” her 82-year-old mother out of her home.

Yet there are also signs that Bland was not as enthusiastic as Champaign city staff about this project. On March 29, 2012, Kerri Spear sent Kevin Jackson a news report from a Housing Affairs Letter about cuts to housing authorities across the country. She speculates, “This may explain why Ed is reluctant to ‘add’ more vouchers to his inventory.”

Yet by March 2012, a draft had been written of an intergovernmental agreement between Champaign and HACC for the redevelopment of Bristol Place. In April, Greg Skaggs said that they had discussed language saying that the two parties would have an “equal” share in the partnership. Indeed, a report by city manager Steve Carter provided to city council in preparation for a May 8 study session stated that the Housing Authority could be deemed an “equal partner” in the Bristol Place redevelopment. Skaggs also requested that Ed Bland be present for the study session in case council members had questions.

No-Bid Contract

Additionally, the use of the Atlanta-based developer The Benoit Group was already arranged by HACC staff. In June, Kerri Spear asked Patty Smith to confirm whether the HACC was comfortable with giving the contract to Torian Priestly of The Benoit Group, who had earlier been invited to the January meeting. On June 13, Spear wrote, “I felt very strongly that Torian was patiently sitting on his hands, waiting for us to ask him to join in the project. :)” Patti Smith responded positively, “We […] spoke to our attorney, Eric Hanson, regarding our solicitation of The Benoit Group ― specifically as it may apply to the HACC’s and The Benoit Group’s participation as our developer in the Bristol Place redevelopment. Eric told us he had no problem with it.” Benoit already has a contract to develop former public housing units Dorsey Homes and Dunbar Court. While Patty Smith found it reasonable to talk to their attorney, she did not run it past the Board of Commissioners. If allowed, a no-bid contract worth millions of dollars would be given out to The Benoit Group.

Word soon got out that Champaign was crafting a resolution to use Section 8 vouchers to fund its redevelopment of Bristol Place. When Antwaun Neely, a local landlord who rents to many Section 8 recipients, heard of the proposal, he alerted the Chicago office of HUD. In a letter dated June 1, 2012, he expressed his outrage that, “The HACC would be relieving the city, in part of its responsibility to help the families that the CITY is displacing at an estimated cost of a million dollars!!” He continued, “It also strikes me that this resolution appears to suggest that the HACC currently has the vouchers for use, yet is holding them aside to be used as a bartering tool with the city.” Exactly what Ed Bland has to gain from this deal is still unclear.

At one point, there is an indication that the individuals involved knew they were hiding their plans. There is one exchange of emails with the Chicago branch of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regarding the Housing Authority’s ability to give “local preferences” to those displaced. HUD would later issue two rulings denying that Section 8 vouchers could be given out with preference to those affected by the redevelopment. In an email, dated June 28, 2012, Kevin Jackson wrote to Kerri Spear, “Ed has previously requested discretion with communication on this issue. Thanks.”

The city’s current policy of willful neglect is allowing Bristol Place to further deteriorate. When a property owned by the city and used as a safe house by The Center for Women in Transition was vacated because it needed repairs, the city decided to let the house sit empty. As Kerri Spear wrote, “Greg Skaggs is working behind the scenes on this and we have decided to go ahead and take the property back rather than have any additional funds expended on rehab.”

Another house at 1412 N. Market needed external repairs, but due to an absentee landlord, none of the maintenance had been addressed despite complaints. In an email, Kevin Jackson responded to the issue, “As far as 1412 is concerned … these remaining violations seem to require investment in repairs to the structure and should not be pursued, unless safety is an issue.” Kerri Spear agreed, even though she admitted it could be “three years” before the property was purchased if, for example, a seller was “unwilling” or tenants were “housing-challenged.” As of June, there was still a tenant living in the house. Much of the blight in Bristol Place could be improved, and for less money, if the city would enforce its housing codes.

Love Corner Gets Entire Block

At the meeting of the Board of Commissioners in August, local black activist Terry Townsend called for Commissioner Bishop Lloyd Gwin to abstain from voting on Bristol Place. As Townsend revealed, Gwin is a partial owner of a property at 1307 N. Clock St. in Bristol Place, and any vote he made would be a conflict of interest. Gwin would surely get more out of what he invested in the property, with an assessed value of $14,920, if the city were to acquire it. HACC attorney Eric Hanson, who was at the board meeting, said that because the property owned by Gwin had not been designated as one to be acquired by the city, there was no conflict. Yet an email from Kerry Spear, dated July 17, 2012, includes a list of 84 addresses labeled “potential relocation households,” among which is 1307 N. Clock St.

Responding to Townsend’s demand in the News-Gazette, Gwin said his interest in the property was “minimal.” Yet if we consider the multiple properties held by Pastor Gwin and his Church of the Living God in the surrounding neighborhood, his footprint is much larger. The Church of the Living God owns four large properties directly east of Bristol Place on the other side of the railroad tracks, a plot of land totaling just over 40 acres which is to be the site for his new megachurch. His current church, nicknamed “The Love Corner,” is on the southwest side of Fourth Street and Bradley Avenue. The church also purchased the old NAACP building on the north side of Bradley, just west of Fourth. 

Over the summer, the city paved an extension of Fourth Street north of Bradley, put in sidewalks, sod grass, and drainage, spending nearly half a million dollars in taxpayer money. On June 5, 2012, city council voted 9–0 to approve the project. At the council meeting, Gwin said this project would benefit the “entire community,” but his church was the biggest winner with free infrastructure provided by the City of Champaign. The city gains little from the church, as it is a tax-exempt institution. In July, there was a groundbreaking for the new church, which will be a 30,000 square feet facility expected to cost $2.5–3 million.

What do Champaign city officials want the neighborhood to look like in five years? In January, Greg Skaggs expressed the city’s wishes to Patty Smith:

We would like to develop both sides of Market St. … and then replace all of the homes in Bristol Place between Market and the RR tracks. Our vision is for a different look along Market St. than the rest of the development. Maybe townhomes or low-rise, moderately higher density than the current single family home model. There is a family Dollar store and a funeral home on the south end (Market and Bradley) that are planned to remain.

In May, Kevin Jackson wrote, “the new development will most likely be town homes with some or no single family units.” The population of low-income residents, tenants, longtime homeowners, and predominantly African American families would be relocated, with their ability to return left uncertain.

A meeting of the Coaltion for Affordable Housing will take place on Saturday, Sept. 22 at 5:00 p.m. at the Independent Media Center, 202 S. Broadway, in the old Urbana post office.

The next meeting of the HACC Commission will be on Sept. 27, 3:00 p.m. at the offices of the Housing Authority at 205 W. Park in downtown Champaign.

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