In 2005, Willie Stokes, a tall soft-spoken man with deep brown eyes, returned to the home he grew up in. It’s on Maple Street in East College Park, about a mile east of downtown Raleigh, a gray one-story home with a wide backyard built during the Roaring ’20s, back in this neighborhood’s heyday.
The house had been passed down through generations: Stokes’ grandmother lived there when he was a child. So did his uncle John Stokes, a community leader who has a memorial garden named after him in Carver Park. Willie Stokes, now 73, had spent years living in the mid-Atlantic, most recently in Virginia, but the slower pace of his home state appealed to him, and that house was full of memories.
Over the years, he says, the family received letters from people wanting to buy that house. The answer was always no. “It’s always been in the family,” Stokes explains.
A decade ago, the city of Raleigh sent its own letter. Stokes responded that he’d be glad to sell—for a million dollars. He was joking, of course—the house is currently appraised at about $100,000—but even then, before downtown’s resurgence, he knew the house was worth something, if only because of its location.
“When I was younger, we’d walk from here to the Capitol in 20 minutes,” Stokes recalls. “We didn’t have all of this that we have now. But we could go downtown, to the theater, and we could get there in 20 minutes, just walking and talking and having a good time. I understand how valuable this property is. It’s not way out someplace.”
The city knows that, too. After all, it spent the last several years acquiring properties and demolishing buildings in that neighborhood. It now owns 134 vacant lots in East College Park, out of roughly 400 total parcels. And it has big plans for this little corner of Raleigh.
Larry Jarvis, the director of the city’s Housing & Neighborhoods Department, wants East College Park and the area directly north of it, a 245-unit rental development known as Washington Terrace, to be a Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area.
With the NRSA designation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would advise the city on infrastructure improvements, mixed-income residential development and economic-development opportunities within the targeted area. In turn, Jarvis says, the city will “economically empower” East College Park and Washington Terrace by rehabilitating houses, creating jobs, providing youth and senior programs, improving infrastructure and revitalizing commerce. These improvements would be funded by a mix of local, state and federal tax dollars, along with money from nonprofits and, presumably, developers.
But residents are skeptical, both of the plan and the city’s intentions. This proposal, they say, was drafted without their input and presented to them as being final. They don’t want their neighborhood lumped in with Washington Terrace. And, in the words of longtime activist Octavia Rainey, they see the proposal as a “developer’s tool,” a way for the city to profit off the land it owns in East College Park by building big houses and introducing the kind of economic development that belongs downtown—restaurants and bars.
In so doing, Rainey fears, the city will displace renters (who comprise nearly 70 percent of residents), and the remaining homeowners—like Stokes—will be “priced out, forced out or shut out” by rising property taxes.
One way or another, some of that is probably inevitable. As downtown blossoms and the city tries to rejuvenate inner-core neighborhoods, higher rents and property taxes will become unavoidable. Revitalization often breeds gentrification—a reality that has plagued planning departments all over the country.
The city argues that this plan will bring residents a host of benefits: better access to social service programs, job creation and retention, and flexibility in carrying out housing programs, all things designed to benefit current and future residents.
But Rainey and other residents say it’s not necessary, not here, not now. East College Park has been improving all by itself over the last decade; they want to be left alone.
“They’re playing for big money,” she says. “Why hide behind ‘social services’ [for residents] when it’s all about development? Put your cards on the table. We want to be taken out of that plan. We want to be able to tell them what we want, not hoodwinked and deceived.”
Today, the Washington Terrace and East College Park neighborhoods are 71 percent African-American and have a median household income of $26,987. (The citywide median is about $53,000.)
But while these neighborhoods have struggled in recent decades, East College Park once thrived as a prosperous African-American community. St. Augustine’s University was founded in 1867 to educate black teachers. The area around it became a haven for black professionals and homeowners. In 1912, a developer named D.J. Fort Jr. developed and subdivided College Park; just to the south, East Hargett Street housed most of the city’s black-owned businesses.
By the 1970s—as with inner-city neighborhoods everywhere amid the suburbanization and white flight of the mid-20th century—College Park (along with the adjacent Idlewild) contained much of the city’s deteriorating and dilapidated housing. In 1974 the City Council slated it for redevelopment, though nothing much happened until the 1990s, when the city rezoned the neighborhood in hopes of revitalization. Even so, the area was still rife was drugs, crime and prostitution. Residents heard gunfire on a nightly basis.
The problems were so great that police officers bought houses in the neighborhood so they could build trust with the residents and more quickly respond to emergencies. The city, meanwhile, bought and razed buildings to keep them from turning into crack dens.
Then things began to turn around.
The North Central CAC, which Rainey chairs, began collaborating with the city to address these quality-of-life issues. The group hosted neighborhood cleanups and events. In 2005, a neighborhood task force came together to address black-on-black crime. That same year, the CAC took on the issue of rooming houses, places where drug use, fights, prostitution and shootings were common. The CAC worked with the police and schools to improve living conditions.
These efforts paid off. While housing prices remain comparatively low, crime is down in East College Park. Most adult residents there and in Washington Terrace—64 percent, higher than the citywide average—have completed high school or some college, according to city data; 17.2 percent have bachelor’s or master’s degrees.
Had the city proposed this redevelopment plan 12 years ago, Rainey says, it would have been justified. But since then, the neighborhood has achieved too much to just turn it over to city planners, she says.
And she points to areas like Smoky Hollow (south of West Peace Street) and Walnut Terrace on McCauley Street (formerly the 4th Ward)—which uses the mixed-income model being proposed for East College Park—to illustrate that once traditionally African-American areas are redeveloped in Raleigh, their former residents don’t come back.
“Do you see any black people over there?” she asks. “We are being relocated at alarming rates. The city is not addressing the issue of housing, and black people suffer under the city’s housing policy.”
By 2024, under this redevelopment plan, the city hopes to have created 500 construction jobs, helped potential buyers secure houses, fostered job training and employment opportunities for low-income residents, constructed a child care facility and achieved a benchmark of 15 percent of area businesses owned by women and minorities.
All of this, the draft plan promises, will “provide the framework for mixed-income housing opportunities for both homeowners and renters.”
In Washington Terrace, this means bulldozing the buildings there now and rebuilding 162 affordable housing units from scratch. In College Park, however, residents don’t see anything affordable coming their way. They predict big houses and luxury condos for white people, and bourgeois bars and restaurants popping up and changing the character of their storied neighborhood.
At a City Council hearing last week, Rainey said she was disappointed with the “sneaky, dirty, underhanded way” the Housing & Neighborhoods Department devised and presented the plan. Several neighbors and stakeholders echoed her sentiments, citing “the fear coming out of people not understanding what’s going to happen” and calling for the city to create a residential task force to provide input before the plan is finalized. Still, though Council agreed to delay any decision until November, giving Jarvis and city staff time to engage with the residents, the eventual redevelopment of East College Park appears all but certain.
But Rainey wants that redevelopment to happen at its own pace. She says she won’t stop fighting until East College Park is removed from the NRSA.
It seems unlikely she’ll succeed. The city can’t redevelop Washington Terrace without including East College Park in the NRSA—the city never designated Washington Terrace as a redevelopment target, as it did for East College Park in 1994—and the city has already invested $2 million into its Washington Terrace plan.
As for Willie Stokes, he just wishes the city had done a better job of communicating.
“I’m at a standstill,” he says, “because I’m not sure what they’re trying to do here. The language that they use to describe, I’m not familiar with the terms and the letters and acronyms. I asked them. They need to make it plain so people can understand exactly what they’re doing.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Thanks, but no thanks”