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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Sheppard Square was home to public housing residents in Louisville's Smoketown neighborhood from before World War II until two years ago, when an exodus of families began as part of a plan to raze and remake the blighted complex into a mixed-income development.
"There are people living in Smoketown, but it's almost like Smoketown emptied out a little bit," said Jane Walsh, a housing activist who has followed the project. "Even for the people who live there, it's harder for them to keep their voices loud."
Now, the first wave of residents is set to arrive at the redeveloped Sheppard Square next month, when housing officials say construction will wrap up on five buildings at Hancock and Jacob streets.
In all, more than 100 people are expected to move into 60 units – a fraction of the 310 subsidized and market-rate apartments and 23 houses planned to be finished by 2015.
The development will keep its name, in tribute to the African-American minister and civil-rights activist William Henry Sheppard.
The new, $142 million Sheppard Square is more than two years from becoming a reality, but demand is already outpacing the number of apartments being built, said Tim Barry, executive director of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, which is overseeing the work.
Barry said roughly 800 people have asked about renting at Sheppard Square, the third mixed-income neighborhood on the site of a former public housing complex. Liberty Green replaced the Clarksdale Homes east of downtown, and Park DuValle was built where the Cotter and Lang complexes once stood in western Louisville.
"The interest we've had from people, from the general public, in terms of leasing units at Sheppard Square, has been through the roof – far more than Liberty Green and Park DuValle, which were hugely successful," Barry said.
The construction already has begun transforming the neighborhood. Gone are rows of squat, two-story buildings the city and housing officials targeted in an effort to eliminate clusters of poverty found in large public housing developments.
But the work has had unintended consequences. The nearby Presbyterian Community Center on Hancock Street closed earlier this month – a move board members blame partly on declining attendance in child-care programs as hundreds of families left Sheppard Square. The board now plans to sell the building.
(The work still calls for adding apartments for elderly residents and veterans in the old Presbyterian Community Center, several blocks south of the building that closed.)
The loss of public housing at Sheppard Square also has reignited a debate over affordable housing. The housing authority has pledged to replace each unit that was demolished, but some housing advocates claim those promises will nevertheless lead to a drop in total subsidized units for low-income families.
Meanwhile, razing and replacing the old Sheppard Square opens up the potential for redevelopment in one of the city's poorest areas. Nearly 56 percent of the residents of the Census tract that includes Smoketown live below the poverty line, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The demand for apartments at Sheppard Square may spill over into the surrounding neighborhood, Barry said.
"The neighborhood is so well situated -- in terms of its proximity to the hospitals, to U of L, Old Louisville, the Highlands -- that I think it's going to be a destination point for a lot of people," he said.
Rebuilding Sheppard Square also is an opportunity for the area to add jobs and new businesses, said Lynn Rippy, executive director of YouthBuild, a job-training organization with offices on Preston Street.
"We also see this revitalization in a much bigger context," she said. "We've been working to bring businesses here so there's economic development taking hold."
The work nearing completion at the Sheppard Square site is on a block bounded by Finzer, Hancock, Jacob and Jackson streets. It's the northernmost of six blocks in the project's redevelopment.
The housing authority is reviewing applications, but Barry said 58 former public housing residents have applied for the new units.
Nearly three-quarters of the apartments at Sheppard Square will be set aside for those who qualify for public housing or other low-income housing. About 80 units will be rented at a market rate, Barry said.
The final phase of the work calls for 23 homes to be sold on a two-block stretch of Hancock Street between Jacob and Lampton streets.
In building a mixed-income development, the housing authority also agreed to replace each of the public housing units lost when the old Sheppard Square buildings were taken down. Besides adding public housing at the new project, the agency plans to build or add 144 public housing units across Louisville.
But the replacement work is lagging – at a time when the waiting list for low-income housing stands at about 20,000 households in Louisville, according to the housing authority.
Barry said "just a handful" of the scattered public housing promised as part of the Sheppard Square work has been added. At the same time, he said, the housing authority has replaced only 40 of the 854 units lost when it closed Iroquois Homes in southern Louisville.
"We're steadfast in our commitment to get Iroquois replaced," Barry said, but he acknowledged that the agency's current focus is on Sheppard Square.
Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, which advocates for affordable housing, claims the housing agency has reduced the number of available units for families. That's led, she said, to a loss of "thousands of lost family units in public housing."
"While they promised one-for-one replacement, some of those units are going to be one-bedroom," she said, adding that the housing authority has moved to "disinvest" in family units over the last two decades.
Barry said those concerns are legitimate "to a point," but he noted that the housing authority's decisions on apartment sizes is in line with modern family demographics.
"The demand for units of a certain bedroom size is just smaller than what it was years ago when public housing was first built," he said.
A Smoketown renaissance?
Neighbors and housing officials hope the Sheppard Square redevelopment has a broader impact in Smoketown and adjoining areas.
The project will add two small streets and open a formerly blocked intersection at Hancock and Lampton streets.
Jefferson County Public Schools plans to consider buying five acres next to Meyzeek Middle School as part of an eventual campus expansion. The school board is expected to take up the proposal before July, said Ben Jackey, a JCPS spokesman.
Barry said the housing authority has had discussions with Hillerich & Bradsby Co. about buying a two-acre parking lot at Jackson and Jacob streets, turning the property into a park.
H & B spokesman Rick Redman said the company remains open to continuing those talks.
"We would love to see it developed into something that would benefit the neighborhood," Redman said in an email. "We've had discussions with the city over the years about the possibilities."
I.D.E.A.S. 40203, a business association of artists and entrepreneurs, is planning to have a "physical presence" in Smoketown near the new Sheppard Square that could include space for artists-in-residence, said Theo Edmonds, the association's creative development director.
And Smoketown is one of several potential stops for a mobile "traveling farmers' market" operated by Kentucky State University that will sell fresh fruit and vegetables in several Louisville neighborhoods starting next spring, said Theresa Zawacki, metro government's executive administrator for brownfields and local food initiatives.
Metro government, Kentucky State, Farm Credit Services and YouthBuild are all participating in the project, Zawacki said. The 24-foot-long trailer will house a commercial kitchen and sell fresh produce to neighborhoods with few outlets for healthy food, she said.
"That is actually one of the factors that drove the decision to look at Smoketown. … There aren't great opportunities for them to buy fresh food in a very close proximity to the new development," she said. "So this would satisfy that need to a great extent."
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