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High-density, low-income housing doesn't belong on a prime site at Fort Monroe
You can see why the Fort Monroe Authority might be tempted by something shiny dangling before its eyes: a proposal by a developer to invest millions of dollars (some of them taxpayers') to renovate some buildings on the old base.
But like many temptations, this one must be resisted by the FMA, the body responsible for managing Monroe's conversion to civilian life when the Army leaves in September. This is the wrong project in the wrong place with the wrong motivations behind it.
It's the wrong project because it would turn office buildings into apartments, half of them for low-income tenants. Fort Monroe is a one-of-a-kind opportunity, and the state and city must make sure it's put to its best and highest use, one commensurate with its fabulous location, long history and importance to the local economy. High-density housing, especially if aimed at a low-income market, is not that use.
It's the wrong place because some of the buildings are inside the stone moat that is ground zero for the fort's rich history and its distinctive icon. The heart of the new Monroe needs to beat here. The National Park Service has little interest in Monroe, but the bit it does have centers on the moat area. That might be compromised if its buildings are put to an incompatible use.
All housing at Monroe, and especially within the moat, should be distinctive in quality and appeal. It should draw the kind of residents that the commercial enterprise that must be attracted if Monroe is to succeed will want to be near, hire and do business with.
Also wrong is squandering the technology infrastructure the Army has installed in Building 5, one of those under consideration. That makes it a strong candidate for the corporate tenants Monroe must attract to replace some of the 4,000 jobs being lost. Offices, not lower-end residences, belong in this high-visibility, high potential spot.
This project is driven by motivations that have nothing to do with the community's goals for Monroe. Hampton City Manager Mary Bunting explained when council members discussed the project — and their well-grounded objections to it — last week: Multi-family housing is one of the few areas in which financing is available, and tax credits steer developers toward low-income housing and historic structures.
But just because that works for the developer doesn't mean it works for Fort Monroe.
Helping make the FMA susceptible to temptation is this reality: Just a few months before the Army hands over the keys, the authority doesn't have, ready to roll, a plan the community can be confident will produce a lively, economically viable new incarnation. The current panel, with appointments by Gov. Bob McDonnell, offers more hope than we've had in years, but much time has been lost, and the economy hasn't helped.
But the FMA must take the time to get it right, not jump at proposals that could compromise success.
If it did, Hampton could suffer. The city will provide services to Monroe and its residents, but it can't collect taxes to pay for them (because the authority is saddled with a dysfunctional restriction that it can't sell land). It's only fair that the FMA compensate it with the equivalent of what it would collect if the properties were on the tax rolls. Large-scale residential projects can attract lots of children, and each one costs the city $3,200 per year to educate (another $7,000 comes from other sources). Many low-income residences don't generate enough taxes to cover the cost of the schools they demand, let alone the other services required.
What Hampton needs is more high-end housing. It already has more than its share of affordable housing and an average home value that trails most this area, and that has implications for its tax collections, schools and appeal to employers.
For all these reasons, the FMA should thank the developer and wish it luck finding the right spot for this project — somewhere else.
Copyright © 2011, Newport News, Va., Daily Press￼
hbutler192 at 7:22 AM February 20, 2011
The Fort Monroe Authority's consideration of low-income or mixed-income housing stems from its need for money, especially for Fort Monroe's transition to a state-managed entity. The solution to the money problem may not be low-income housing, but neither is it land sales and development, as your editorial suggests. The state needs to put up more money, and it needs to work vigorously through all its channels to secure federal funding. At the barest minimum, it must persuade the Army to honor its obligation to Virginia by paying the $30-85 million for infrastructure upgrades, and by not demanding $22 million for the marina and the other non-reverting parts of Fort Monroe. With the right seed money from state and federal sources, and a substantial national park unit that includes green space and shore line as well as the fortress, creating a grand public place, Fort Monroe can turn Hampton into a destination city and give it a permanent economic boost. But this won't happen if Fort Monroe's public appeal is diminished by a pricey Hampton neighborhood next to the fortress. We need to look past the current economic doldrums to what can be, if we, and the Daily Press, are willing to support it. Scott Butler, Newport News