Federal grant offers hope of West End renewal

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 30, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY -— Sam Foust began thinking about how to improve Civic Park Apartments five years ago.
A retired teacher and principal for Guilford County Schools, Foust wanted a second career and took a job with the Salisbury Housing Authority as a property manager.
He spent time every day at Civic Park, a dilapidated, 72-unit public housing project in what officials call the city’s most distressed neighborhood, the West End.
“It was very apparent this was our most needy spot,” said Foust, a former technical education and woodworking instructor.
Initially, his idea was to give Civic Park a facelift to brighten things up.
Now, only a year into his position as executive director for the housing authority, Foust has landed a $170,000 federal grant to plan the transformation of the West End, including bulldozing and rebuilding Civic Park Apartments.
The award, a Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, puts the housing authority and city of Salisbury in the running for a grant of up to $30 million to implement the plan.
“I was very impressed that somebody who had just taken over as a new director would come up with this so quickly,” Mayor Susan Kluttz said.
Foust’s vision for Civic Park and the West End would help city initiatives like gang prevention and support for at-risk youth, which have struggled with lack of funding, Kluttz said.
“This could be the answer for those challenges we’ve had,” she said.
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Foust likes to start sentences with “what if.”
“What if we built a resource center that catered to veterans?”
“What if we built an early childhood center to serve the neighborhood, and Livingstone education students could do internships there?”
“What if we built a park right in the middle and a walkway could tie it into the greenway on Brenner Avenue?”
Foust will not take credit for winning the planning grant, one of 17 awarded in the country. Salisbury is the smallest city on the list, which includes Philadelphia, Baltimore and Buffalo.
“This is a team effort,” he said, crediting the city’s planning department, architect Bill Burgin and Jeff Jahnke, housing authority technical services manager, for the success.
Stogner Architecture will serve as the planning coordinator.
After a year, the cities will submit their plans to HUD and compete for three to five implementation grants.
To be competitive, the housing authority must have partners and come up with matching funds.
Foust lists everyone he wants on the team — the VA Medical Center, Head Start, Smart Start, Rowan-Salisbury Schools, Livingstone College, the Salisbury Community Development Corporation, the West End neighborhood itself and more.
Ideas include a park, services for veterans, a day-care center and educational opportunities, as well as modern, energy-efficient duplexes.
Foust wants to split Civic Park into two 40-unit communities, one on the current site and another on land the grant would purchase.
He envisions homes set back from the street with open floor plans and plenty of space for children to play outside. Each would have its own driveway.
He also would like the housing authority or Community Development Corporation to buy the abandoned houses surrounding Civic Park, fix them up and sell them to graduates of the authority’s Family Self-Sufficiency Program.
For Foust, curb appeal is important.
“I wanted it to look like a neighborhood, not a housing project,” he said.
The finished neighborhoods might look like Carpenter’s Corner, a new public housing project at Old Concord Road and Shaver Street that replaced Lincoln Park Apartments.
The city would build the new complex first and fill it with families from Civic Park, Foust said. Remaining families at Civic Park would move to open units in other facilities while the original project is demolished and rebuilt.
Foust stressed that everyone would have a home during the process, and Kluttz said the city will proceed with caution and sensitivity, seeking input from the residents along the way.
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Although Pine Hills Apartments also was built in 1953, Civic Park suffers from poor design and layout, Foust said.
“It feels claustrophobic and crowded,” he said.
Foust, who will celebrate his first anniversary Friday as leader of the housing authority, hadn’t officially taken the post last year when U.S. Rep. Mel Watt arrived at the office for a tour.
Watt wanted to see public housing, so Foust drove the congressman around Salisbury’s projects. He saved Civic Park for last, hoping Watt would help him land a HOPE VI grant.
Instead, Watt suggested Foust apply for a new grant program, Choice Neighborhoods, which requires collaboration with a variety of agencies and provides more meaningful change for an at-risk community.
“It’s interesting, if it happens,” said Noel Worth, 23, who has lived in Civic Park for a year.
A day-care center in the complex would be wonderful for her 2-year-old son Adrian, she said.
Bethany Sloop said she’d heard bad things about Civic Park before she moved in two years ago with her four children, but she has been pleased.
She said a new, large park sounded like the best idea, as well as more parking.
“The parking here, when everyone is home from work, is horrible,” she said.
Foust said he’s proud of how well Civic Park is maintained. The units are old but tidy, the street is free of litter, and the housing authority actually lost points on its grant application because the apartment interiors are in good shape.
Every unit is repainted and repaired and all appliances removed, cleaned and reinstalled between tenants.
But Foust has a bigger vision for Civic Park, where better designed homes, educational services and connection to community assets could help lift people out of poverty.
Even if the housing authority and city don’t win the big money from HUD, Foust said the year-long planning process will not go to waste.
Parts of the plan could be implemented over time with other funds, he said. It would just take a lot longer.
“We will still walk away with a great plan,” he said, “for what the neighborhood could look like and become.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.