By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
Donald Green feels as though he has been left in the dark.
The lifelong Muskogee resident grew up — and still lives — within an area of the city where Urban Renewal Authority commissioners declared the existence of blight. The process leading up to the declaration, which took about six months to complete, was void of public input.
Residents who live within the area targeted for urban renewal — bounded by Chicago and 11th streets on the east and west and Shawnee Bypass and Talladega Street on the north and south — turned out for a couple of meetings. Because the authority’s agendas have provided no opportunities for public input, residents’ concerns have yet to be heard.
The blight declaration requires the approval of the City Council, where residents would have a chance to comment on the declaration. But city administrators want to begin developing an urban renewal plan before the blight study is presented for council review.
Based upon what has transpired, Green said he fears residents who live within the targeted area and other property owners will be locked out of the planning process. He also expressed concerns about the possibility of having to move from the neighborhood where he has lived most of his life.
“They are not really telling you that much — they need to tell us what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it and justify doing it,” said Green, who owns one of only three residential structures in the area deemed to be in excellent condition. “It kind of makes you feel like you don’t want to fix up your property or maintain it because you don’t know if they are going to come in and take it.”
City Manager Greg Buckley said the blight study is the first step of many that will be made before an urban renewal plan is ready for council review. He said he understands the anxiety of area residents about the uncertainties that exist. But the impact of any urban renewal plan on residents who live within the area, Buckley said, is simply unknown at this point.
“We’ve identified that it meets the conditions of blight,” Buckley said about the sparsely populated area in northwest Muskogee targeted for urban renewal. “Now, we will start to review land use, look at the land use map, and assess the feasibility of the property there along with its current and future uses.”
The 90-acre zone contains about 60 structures, fewer than half of the 124 structures that existed in 1969. Existing structures include 10 commercial establishments — two of which are vacant — and 47 houses or mobile homes. Of the residential structures, City Attorney Roy Tucker said 16 are vacant and four others appear to be occupied but have no water service.
The blight study prepared by Tucker identifies the conditions of the 47 residential structures within the proposed urban renewal zone. The study’s findings show among those 47 structures, three are in excellent condition, 12 are in good condition, 17 are in fair condition, five are in poor condition and 10 are dilapidated. During the past decade, six dilapidated structures were demolished; eight others are scheduled for demolition.
“This area is ill-equipped for commercial and residential development,” Tucker said, noting most of the vacant real estate tracts within the zone are too small to build on in accordance with city zoning regulations. “Without intervention, this area is likely to remain in its blighted condition.”
Considering the area targeted for urban renewal is located along the Shawnee Bypass corridor, commercial development appears likely. Buckley, who serves the authority as its executive director, said questions remain about how deep into the existing neighborhood developers would want to build. The answer to that question could be the factor that determines the fate of residents who live within the urban renewal zone.
“I know they are wondering how is this going to impact me,” Buckley said, noting the answer to that question hinges more on the development of an urban renewal plan than a finding of blight. “Part of the plan is to encourage redevelopment. He (Green) is already trying to reinvigorate the area by maintaining his home, so he should continue to do that.”
Buckley, Tucker and the urban renewal commissioner who represents Ward IV, within which the zone is located, tried to assuage concerns Green shares with some of his neighbors. All three said residents and property owners will be afforded opportunities to share their opinions during the planning process.
Tucker said while the recently adopted rules of decorum apply only to meetings of committees and authorities made up of city councilors, he would recommend allowing residents an opportunity to share concerns related to agenda items during Urban Renewal Authority meetings.
“My position is not to prohibit any discourse between the public and the authority at all — we are not trying to hide the ball on this,” Tucker said. “We just need to make sure it occurs when the agenda item is on the table so we don’t run afoul of the Open Meeting Act.”
Ward IV Commissioner Kelly Beach said he believes “public input will be very important, especially when it comes to property owners and homeowners who live in that area.”
“It’s definitely a concern of mine that there is public input, especially from homeowners in the area,” Beach said. Without it, “I can only guess what the property owners who came to the meeting need. Their presence shows they have some concern about what is going to happen.”
Beach, Buckley and Tucker said the planning process could take a year or more. Implementation of the plan, which officials say would be flexible and subject to change, could take a decade or longer.
“I want to see it developed,” Beach said of the targeted area. “But I want to see that the public has input and is treated fairly.”
Despite those assurances, Green remains skeptical about the future that lies ahead for him and his home.
“It’s just an area the city didn’t want to come in and take care of and now they want it for some reason,” Green said. “I feel like they are going to make it benefit somebody — somebody is going to benefit good.”
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.