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Emerald in the rough: Housing springing up on old defense site

IBJ Apr14 Page 01 Image 0003    EAST ALTON — “Temporary” housing built nearly 75 years ago for World War II-era munitions workers will soon be replaced by 46 new single-family homes in a village-initiated redevelopment project in East Alton.
    The $16 million Emerald Ridge project will begin redevelopment of the neighborhood known as the Defense Area. It’s a major step toward fulfillment of a promise made by Mayor Fred Bright when he first campaigned for the office in 1997.
    The federal government developed the Defense Area housing in the years just before the war to house people who came to the area to work in the nearby Winchester-Western (now Olin Corp.) ammunition plant.
    The tightly clustered housing was intended to be temporary, but plans to raze the structures went by the wayside amid a postwar housing shortage. The homes were sold to their occupants initially but over time the overwhelming majority became rental property.
    “Old Army housing is what they look like,” the mayor said.
    Through the decades, more and more of the units fell into disrepair. In recent years, the village government has acquired and demolished some units but most of those still standing are in poor condition. Only a handful are owner-occupied.
    Bright said it wasn’t easy to get the ball rolling.
    “The first phase will cost $16 million,” he said. “We don’t have that kind of money.”
    Village officials enlisted the help of the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority and the Illinois Housing Development Authority. St. Louis-based Rise Community Development came on board as the project developer.
    Illinois and federal tax credits helped generate more than $13 million in private investment. Additional funding came from the village and Madison County. A $184,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will pay for energy-saving features.
    Demolition and foundation work began in March. Overall, the project is expected to create more than 80 jobs. Completion is expected sometime next year.
    Eighty of the old housing units will be replaced. Emerald Ridge will include 23 two-bedroom homes, 11 three-bedroom ranch-style homes and 12 four-bedroom town homes. Each home will have a two-car parking pad. All will comply with the Enterprise Green Community program, exceeding Energy Star 3.0 standards for energy efficiency.
    The homes will be available for rental to people earning up to 60 percent of the area median income, or $40,260 for a family of four in Madison County. Ten will be designated for extremely low-income people with disabilities or special needs who earn no more than 30 percent of the average median income – $16,110 for a two-person household.
    Rents will range from $575 to $735. Qualified renters will be allowed to purchase their homes after 15 years.
    Residents of the homes being demolished are eligible for relocation assistance. Those who are interested in one of the new homes and are qualified will be temporarily relocated and offered new units as they become available.
    The redevelopment area includes the 300 and 400 blocks of East Drive, the 600 block of North Drive and the 300 and 400 blocks of Ohio Street. North Drive, East Drive and Ohio Street will be resurfaced.

    The new homes will flank a playground and the village’s Keasler Recreation Complex, which offers activities and programs for ages pre-kindergarten through seniors. The East Alton Public Library, Eastwood Elementary School, East Alton Middle School and East Alton-Wood River High School are all within walking distance, as are a supermarket, other retail stores and Madison County Transit bus stops.
    East Alton Treasurer Joe Silkwood said the neighborhood’s walkability was a key element of the project’s appeal. He said it should be ideal for many young families with children.
    “We will convert a blighted area into safe, affordable homes,” Silkwood said. “It will give families an option to live in our town again.”
    Rise Community Development, formerly called Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance, is a nonprofit organization that has helped redevelop neighborhoods around the metropolitan area.
    Rise brought in St. Louis Design Alliance and Altman-Charter Co. as architects and builders for the project. The completed homes will be managed by McCormack Baron Ragan. Leasing will begin this summer.
    Mark Stroker, Rise’s director of real estate development, said the organization saw the Emerald Ridge project as “transformational in a neighborhood where the benefit would be immediate.”
    He said the project would “have a real and positive impact on the community and the families who will make the new units home. Moreover, this development represents an important part of a larger effort to redevelop the Defense Area.”
    Bright said East Alton would move forward with the overall redevelopment of the Defense Area and may have proposals ready later this year for a second-phase project. The Emerald Ridge site constitutes about a fourth of the larger neighborhood.
    Bright said East Alton is landlocked so any improvement in the village’s housing stock must be undertaken internally.
    About 10 years ago, the village built and sold 12 houses on the site of the former Blair Elementary School. For several years, the village has been acquiring and razing decrepit homes, building new homes on the sites and selling them – a “fill-in” strategy to improve neighborhoods.
    “The whole town is looking better where we have addressed blighted houses,” Silkwood said. He said neighbors of the new homes tend to improve their own homes.
    “It increases our (assessed valuation) and generates new residents and new revenue to continue what we’re doing,” Bright said. “I’m expecting and hoping it will re-energize the community.”

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