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"We had bought some properties to stabilize the block because we had various crime and drug problems. We had done this work for 15 years; I was a teacher doing this in the summer, on nights and weekends, all my time. My neighbors had done the same thing. We had fought the good fight. We did not choose to be destroyed. We were completely unaware of the expansion plan."
Having been burned once by such shenanigans, it took awhile for Wright to warm up to the current plan. He wanted to make sure that this time would be different.
"I waited a year before joining them. They had public meetings to discuss the development plan," says Wright, who is now part of the 17-member Garden District Commission. "The whole thing was handled very differently; it was very open. When they called me, one thing that was said to me was there would be no secrets. I detested the clandestine nature of the other attempt eight years ago to do something."
One sign of a change of attitude from inside the garden wall is that Kleinbard lives in the Shaw neighborhood. Wright believes that in years past, new hires and interns were routinely advised to live elsewhere than in the adjacent neighborhoods. Now the garden owns several two-family and four-family flats in the area that serve as temporary housing for interns and new staff.
Kleinbard, who was not at the Garden in 1991, admits that actions then were "not done in full public view." That has changed.
"You have to build a case that there are overlapping agendas," says Kleinbard. "Not everybody will agree, and there will be people who oppose it. That's only normal; that's sort of natural. The Garden's agenda is such-and-such. Explain it; make people understand it. Don't have hidden agendas. There are no such things anymore. You can have hidden agendas, but they're going to bite you in the rear end."
That Wright is on board with this effort is noted often by those pushing the plan, as if his presence is a stamp of approval of its intent and its method. Wright just thinks something needs to be done in McRee Town. He's in touch with residents there, and because they are involved and support the plan, Wright is with them. "We can be helpful in turning around McRee Town," says Wright. "They cannot do it by themselves. They've been hung out to dry for years and years and years. Their problems of absentee landlords and drug problems are not solvable by themselves. The police have tried; they've zoomed in and tried to stop problems. But the problem is urban decay. I would say over half of the housing stock that was there is either no longer there or is boarded up."
There was no plan for McRee Town aside from 911 attention doing what had to be done, only when it had to be done. As Wright sees it, the Garden District plan isn't chiseled in stone and wasn't brought down from Mount Sinai. In his view, the plan will happen in pieces and can be changed along the way.
Money will be an issue. The Garden board, with its connections, is seen as crucial to raising funds from the private sector. More specific financial projections are expected by the end of this month. The estimate that it may take up to $50 million to revitalize the area includes a variety of means such as direct private donations, loan guarantees, tax credits, federal and state money, and housing subsidies. After the first few million bucks, Kleinbard predicts, the rest will come from "banks, institutions and pension funds putting money in they expect to get out and will get out." The neighborhoods are looking to the Garden for the financial help, but the Garden won't be handing over their checkbook.
"Nobody has this kind of money," Kleinbard says. "We have maybe the leverage to make this happen.
"We'll do everything we can to help them raise this money," he adds. "We'll ask our board to help them. We don't have the money to pay for this; this is a huge project, it is not going to happen easily. It will take a variety of financial instruments and vehicles to make it happen. It's very, very difficult. This stuff doesn't happen overnight; it's seven to 10 years, at best."
Progress likely will be incremental. Wright predicts that, in order to clear the space for the recreation complex, up to about 40 families may have to be moved over the next 10 years. That could mean as few as two or three families a year.
"They could be moved into the half of the McRee Town that would not be demolished under this plan," says Wright. "There's plenty of room for them there. There is no plan to grab a bulldozer and knock down buildings that are occupied. There are literally dozens of buildings that are empty that need to be knocked down. That will take two or three years right there.
"There could be all kinds of modifications of the plan. If there is some housing that the planners suggest be demolished, if someone else says, "Hey, we can rehab it,' we'll say, "Let's go ahead and see if we can rehab that row of houses,'" says Wright. "We're not going to have that kind of thing happen. If there is a row of viable houses, we can incorporate that into the plan."
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