Brenda Dunn lives in a house that was built in 1949 on Greenwood Alley in Bowling Green, in what was once a thriving African American neighborhood.

Some see the house – which has seen few significant improvements in recent years – as a historic home worth preservation. Others consider it an eyesore not worth the effort to renovate.

For now, at least, Dunn simply calls it home. But that may soon change, since the house she has rented for two years – along with six other adjacent houses – is slated to be demolished to make way for commercial space for contractors.

A debate about the fate of the homes now involves the local chapter of the NAACP, which issued a statement Friday saying it is “looking into this matter.”

At the Nov. 19 meeting of the Bowling Green City Commission, a rezoning request that would pave the way for the demolition of Dunn’s home and the surrounding houses on Greenwood Alley and Kenton Street sparked a lengthy discussion about historic preservation and affordable housing issues. The request – to change the area from two-family residential to general business – was approved by a 2-1 margin, with Commissioner Dana Beasley-Brown voting against the request and Commissioner Sue Parrigin and Mayor Bruce Wilkerson voting yes.

Just two weeks earlier, though, the commission voted 3-2 against the rezoning in a non-binding vote. Two things changed between the two commission meetings, both involving commissioners who had voted against the rezoning:

On Nov. 19, Commissioner Joe Denning recused himself, citing a conflict of interest because his daughter had spoken against the rezoning at a City-County Planning Commission of Warren County meeting. Additionally, Commissioner Brian “Slim” Nash was absent Nov. 19, since he is serving a four-week suspension after being found to have violated the city’s code of ethics stemming from his arrest in May for public intoxication.

Beasley-Brown said last week that the area “was important to the African American community, and is also important to the community as a whole.” She made a motion at the Nov. 19 meeting to table the rezoning request to allow more public input, but the motion died for lack of a second.

Beasley-Brown said members of the community should help shape such zoning decisions. She also said the city is facing a “crisis” in a lack of affordable housing, and getting rid of any affordable housing stock makes the problem worse.

She said she heard from one former resident of one of the homes in question who was able to walk to get groceries from that house, but now lives in a “food desert.” She said displacing residents can “have a profound impact” on people’s lives.

“It’s not just about the land,” she said.

Parrigin said part of what guided her vote was that “it was a unanimous recommendation from the planning commission. ... They are very conscientious about their job.”

The planning commission considered the rezoning request at its meeting Sept. 19 and voted 8-0 to recommend approval. The city commission has the final say on rezonings within the city limits.

Parrigin said she visited the area before the commission vote and saw “houses not being lived in and in disrepair.”

As for the need for more affordable housing, “we have a deficit in all categories (of housing) ... developers are really working hard to meet the needs in all the sectors,” she said.

The planning commission considers a variety of criteria when deciding on a rezoning request, including whether homes slated to be demolished are historically significant.

All of the houses in question were built in the 1940s, with the exception of a house on Greenwood Alley that was built in 1914.

City-County Planning Commission Executive Director Ben Peterson said his staff report contains such information because “a goal of the (county’s) comprehensive plan is to potentially preserve historic structures.”

The planning commission uses guidelines issued by the federal Department of Interior to determine potential historic significance.

Those guidelines look at whether a structure is 50 years old or older or if it is significant because of an event or person associated with it – for example, “did George Washington sleep there?” Peterson said.

Finally, the guidelines ask if a structure is “an example of architectural significance” that would be lost if demolished, Peterson said.

Of those guidelines, the houses only appear to fit the criteria of being more than 50 years old, although Peterson noted that it could be argued that there is historical significance in that this has been a historically African American neighborhood in the city.

One other such neighborhood, known as Jonesville, was infamously demolished in the 1960s for an expansion of Western Kentucky University. Although lesser known than Shake Rag or Jonesville, the area around Kenton Street and Greenwood Alley was the site of a tight-knit African American community for decades.

When it comes to the affordable housing issue, “at a time when rents are going up, you are taking away some of that affordable housing stock,” Peterson said. But a property owner has to determine “whether the homes are worth rehabilitating. It’s a tough decision ... the decision-makers have to weigh all those angles.”

• • •

Of the seven homes slated for demolition, two are still occupied.

Dunn is 57 and on disability. She said she pays $300 a month to rent her small two-bedroom home, and her main concern is being able to “find another place that I can afford.”

The other remaining resident, Anthony Murrell, 63, has similar concerns.

“It would be hard for me to move,” he said. He is also on disability.

“I don’t get much,” he said, and after paying rent, he barely has enough to pay utilities.

“I live month to month. What am I going to do? The majority of people with money want to get rid of these houses because it’s an eyesore for them,” he said.

Murrell said he wonders why the homes could not be renovated instead of torn down.

But the project developer and property owner, Chris Robertson, said the houses in question “are so old and falling apart, they are not worth saving. Nothing about them is historic. ... They are so dilapidated you can’t remodel them.”

He bought the properties in 2017 and 2018 with an eye on tearing them down for development, perhaps as apartments, but the cost of purchasing the land made building apartments prohibitive.

Warren County Assessor’s Office records show that Robertson’s CSR BG Investments purchased the properties in 2017 and 2018 for between $37,500 and $45,000 each.

The value is in the land in the heart of Bowling Green, not in the small houses on them, he said.

All the houses were occupied when Robertson purchased them, but as tenants moved out, he did not re-rent them in anticipation of their removal.

Robertson said the plan for the land, a little more than one acre, is to build office and storage space for contractors, who will also be able to park work vehicles in attached garages.

He said the project will improve the area and increase the city’s tax base. The development plan calls for the building to have a stone and brick facade with a 6-foot vinyl fence around the perimeter.

Robertson said he is not unsympathetic to a need for more affordable housing. He said he has not given his remaining tenants a deadline to vacate, and with “still a lot to do” on the project, demolition work would probably not start until next summer.

The debate about historical significance does not resonate with Murrell, who spoke unsuccessfully against the rezoning at the September planning commission meeting. Nor does he consider it a contest between himself and local government.

“The city is going to do what it wants to,” he said. “There’s no fighting a battle. The battle I’m fighting is finding a place to live.”

– Follow News Director Wes Swietek on Twitter @BGDNgovtbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.

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(6) comments

Enough Already

This is typical race based political BS.

The idea that the city should not enforce minimum living standards so slum lords can make money and racial minorities can say they have a "neighborhood" is ridiculous.

Tear them down and put something affordable in their place with the displaced renters given the first chance at occupying the new places.

We can pretend they are "busting" a white neighborhood.

After all, we are talking about the rent being subsidized by tax payers so what is the difference whether they live in old crappy slum lord section 8 or brand new section 8 except their standard of living goes up? They are both going to be subsidized by taxpayers...

YesISaidIt

What a lot of unfortunate presumptions you make. As a former resident of this area, as well as a resident of a number of "more desirable" neighborhoods around the country, I can confirm that this particular community was like none other. The character is ultimately what is being demolished. Like other historic neighborhoods, it that character that exists nowhere else in the city.

Also, certainly not everyone here is on section 8 (though many who do own their homes or rent at an affordable price may now be forced to look at section 8 and other government programs for the first time ever). Many of those who do need assistance have worked in every industry in the city (some for decades, and some well beyond retirement age). In essence what "we" are doing is denying senior citizens a hard earned opportunity to age in place at a time when low-income and senior housing is at a premium. The ripple effects of this is hardly ever good for the tax base.

You presume the reaction would be different if this were a white neighborhood. I could be wrong, but for curiosity's sake, just tried to imagine a black developer succeed in "busting" a neighborhood of white elderly residents by replacing their homes with garages. I really couldn't.

Enough Already

The key words here are "once a thriving African American neighborhood". It is not a thriving African American neighborhood anymore. I engaged in a bit of hyperbole to get my message across but that doesn't change the fact that this area has become a blight where no one wants to live even though some may have decided that is all they could afford. What would happen if the owners decided to triple the rent? I'm guessing the remaining two tenants would find other living arrangements. There is nothing historic worth preserving here and we can't and should not be pouring public money down every rat hole where someone maintains warm memories. All neighborhoods change over time and some disappear altogether. This is normal and part of the ebb and flow of civilization. It is long past time for some serious urban renewal. This won't cost tax payers anything. Let the free market decide this issue instead of race.

Your nostalgia is a nice warm fuzzy memory that no longer exists in reality. The fact is those 7 houses have outlived their useful life. You don't want to step forward, purchase and remodel them so why should anyone else be expected to do so? it is time that they make way for new structures. The current owners want to do just that, improve a section of BG that is getting worse, not better. If they make a profit on their investment in the process more power to them.

YesISaidIt

Hmmm… that “rahtole” rhetoric sounds all too familiar. I know of a few other so- called “ratholes” where similar development would never happen because of the composition of the neighborhood. But again, I’m lost when anyone claims that public dollars are subsidizing all, most or any of these homes. Your tax dollars certainly did not subsidize my family’s home. Many of the residents there are taxpayers, also. And the history of this particular area is theirs to know and value.

“No cost?” There is always a huge cost when residents are displaced in a tight housing market. As just one of many examples, I think of how many people I know who stayed in their homes for as long as they could before going into Medicaid funded care facilities—to the tune of $65,000+ per resident and growing every year. Displacement only accelerates entry into these facilities, especially when other housing options are limited.

And how do you know that I never sought to live in, purchase or remodel a home on this street? You don’t. But that point is moot, because now no one else can either.

No one is arguing that improvement isn’t needed all around this city. But one doesn’t fight blight with more blight. As for the free market, yes, let the residential free market work in residential areas and the commercial free market work in commercial areas.

Enough Already

As much as you want to make this about race it is not. ANY neighborhood as far gone as this one is a “rat-hole” and though I should not have to say it that includes black, white, brown, and any other color. I don’t think it is a stretch to assume that at least SOME people living in these buildings are poor and there is a very good chance they are living on public assistance. Feel free to argue against that if you want but if it is all they can do to produce the $300 rent each month I would be surprised to learn they are not eligible and or receiving some kind of public assistance.

As for other neighborhoods not undergoing these kinds of rezoning changes, why don’t you name one that is as dilapidated as this one that has a developer buying up property no one wants to live in, then being denied a zoning change because the neighborhood is of a different racial mix.

As for “NO COST”, there are 2 renters that may have their lease terminated depending on the terms of their lease. This area is being rezoned, not condemned. There will be no mass bulldozing of the “neighborhood” and people can continue to live there until they decide to sell. If they sell (likely for more than the building is worth) no one will be able buy it as a residence because it will now be zoned as “general business”. Business is much less fussy who their neighbors are or the condition of the building next to them. The only thing they are concerned with is turning a profit and this area will be perfect for modest startup businesses because the property values are depressed, due to the lack of upkeep by their owners. If this were not the case it would still be a thriving community but it is not so it isn’t. This is urban renewal with the least amount of pain possible. The alternative would be to wait for this area to turn into a complete slum where it is so bad the buildings would be condemned. Then you will see people thrown out with no place to go.

YesISaidIt

Sigh (at the risk of sounding like a broken record).

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