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Residents vocal on proposed housing development

NATCHEZ — Residents of the area around the former Natchez General Hospital spoke out mostly against the proposal to develop the building into low-cost housing Wednesday.

The vice president of Brownstone Group, Jeremy Mears, hosted a public hearing to discuss the tax-credit application the company is making for the project. The company does not currently own the building, and the project might never happen, but Mears said the company has to have the public hearing before the application — an integral part in financing the project — can be made.

“These applications have to compete with other developments, and it might not win,” he said.

The low-cost housing unit will be located in the former Natchez General Hospital, now known as Oak Towers and formerly utilized as the Guardian Shelter before the shelter moved to a new location. Plans include building two new structures to complement the existing building.

If approved, construction would begin in February 2014, and Mears said that the program requires the company stay actively involved on the property for 15 years.

If ultimately approved, the $5 million renovation of the old hospital will have 38 apartments, which will largely be composed of one-bedroom units Mears said would be marketed to the elderly with rent ranging from approximately $500 to $675 a month.

“This is not section 8 housing, this is affordable housing,” he said.

But several people who live around the hospital site spoke out with concerns that it would create a much heavier population density in the area and affect the quality of life for the single-family homes surrounding the building.

In particular, they expressed concerns that the company would not be able to ensure the apartments were rented by seniors.

“We want affordable housing, we want it done right but we don’t want density in our area,” Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said.

“Senior citizens do have children in buildings and they do have high school students in buildings and sometimes they have drop outs in buildings, because they are grandparents.”

B Street resident Jim Sanders voiced his concern that the project might end up like the Carpenter Apartments, which Sanders said he perceived to have many problems, including children and teens living in a building that was designated as only for the elderly and handicapped.

“Now we have noise, we have cursing, we have drinking, we have parties going on,” he said. “We are in an area with bed and breakfasts and houses on tour, our peace and tranquility is no more. I have a concern that what is intended is not what will be.”

Mears said the company already has plans to tweak its site plan in a way that will hide the new buildings behind the older structure, putting up decorative and privacy fences and adding other privacy screening with vines.

He likewise said the company has a zero-tolerance policy, and that no one with a felony on their record can live there.

“This is not a section 8 piece of trash we are looking to build here,” he said.

The Towers owner Ginger Hyland — whose property abuts the hospital property — said that she was against the apartment proposal but if it must happen she believes Brownstone has a good plan.

“My question to the community is, is this a building we have to restore?” Hyland asked.

“I don’t know that this is historically significant. If it is, it needs to be restored; if it is not, maybe it needs to be torn down.”

Historic Natchez Foundation Director Mimi Miller said the hospital is a historic structure.

“It is a historical structure, and it would be a shame in some ways to lose it,” Miller said. “People are attached to the places they were born.

“But the thing that frightens me the most about this development is — while it would be a wonderful assisted living development like Magnolia House, and I don’t think anyone would object to having something like Magnolia House in the area — I know what happens when you bring apartments into neighborhoods.”

Other audience members questioned Mears about how many other apartment properties the company currently operates that are located in single-family neighborhoods. Mears said the company has several, and would be happy to provide a list.

If the development happens, the company could conceivably sell the building at a market rate in 15 years, Mears said.

“We cannot let these developments turn into something that has litter and is not maintained, because if we did so, we could no longer do business with (our financial partner) Regions Bank,” he said. “We are not a merchant seller who builds, sells and walks away.”