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Cornelius' Smithville Pitches Revitalization Plan In Attempt To Fend Off Gentrification

Houses on South Hill Street in the Smithville neighborhood of Cornelius.
David Boraks
Houses on South Hill Street in the Smithville neighborhood of Cornelius.

Leaders in the historically Black neighborhood of Smithville in Cornelius will present the town board Monday night with an updated revitalization plan they hope will fend off gentrification.

The Smithville Community Coalition wants to help seniors stay in their homes, modernize streets and sewers, and develop new, affordable housing. Coalition member Willie Jones is leading the effort.

Cornelius resident Willie Jones spoke at Thursday's county budget hearing, seeking funding to develop Smithville.
Mecklenburg County Government Channel
Willie Jones addresses Mecklenburg County commissioners in 2019 about the Smithville plan.

"It's 20-plus acres of vacant land, and empty blighted land in Smithville," Jones said. "What we want to do is replace that land with an ethnically diverse neighborhood that's mixed-income ownership and mixed-income rental."

Plans call for about 102 single-family homes or townhomes and another 65 to 75 rental units. The housing would be aimed at people who make between 30% and 120% of the area median income, or $24,000 to $95,000 a year for a family of four.

Smithville residents and their family members as well as former residents and their heirs would get priority for the new housing. After that, Jones says town employees, first responders and school employees also would have a chance to buy or rent.

"So we've set this up so that it's really a targeted-workforce housing neighborhood," Jones said. "We'll set the cost of homes based on what municipal workers make."

Years Of Planning

The revitalization plan has been in the works for several years. The Smithville Community Coalition got startup grants from the United Way and a local church, and $250,000 from Mecklenburg County to help with planning. Jones said the group eventually plans to ask the town and county for additional funding to begin the project.

The coalition has been working with Neighboring Concepts of Charlotte, a design firm owned by former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Darrel Williams.

A 2020 version of the Smithville Revitalization Plan shows where new single-family homes, townhomes and apartments would be located on vacant lots in the neighborhood.
Smithville Community Coalition
A 2020 version of the Smithville Revitalization Plan shows where new single-family homes, townhomes and apartments would be located on vacant lots in the neighborhood.

It's an unusual attempt by people in a threatened neighborhood to preserve their own history and shape their own future, said Jones, who has a background in affordable housing. He said based on his past experience, he thinks the neighborhood can make this work without a private development partner.

"We don't believe that you will reach this level of affordability with a private partner because you've got too many layers of (financial) returns that have to be structured into the property," he said.

Jones also said that any public investment from the town and county would be easily paid back over time in property taxes.

A History Of Neglect

Smithville was founded after the Civil War by people who had been enslaved. It went decades without basic services such as water and sewer, getting those long after the rest of the town. It wasn't annexed into the town of Cornelius until 1980.

To Jones, the proposed project is not only a chance to save the neighborhood, but also to right past inequities. He's hoping the feedback from town commissioners Monday night will keep the project moving forward.

"This will let us know how high a hill we have to climb in order to get the town on board," Jones said.

Cornelius Deputy Town Manager Wayne Herron said no vote will be taken at Monday's meeting. He said the neighborhood would have to submit plans for zoning approval, along with any requests for infrastructure improvements. It could be six months or more before that happens, he said.

More Information

Smithville Community Coalition website https://smithvillecommunitycoalition.org/

March 2021 Smithville Revitalization Plan (PDF)

"Smithville History Tour," a video history and neighborhood tour produced for 2021 Black History Month by the Town of Historic Preservation Committee and Smithville Community Coalition.

Smithville History Tour

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.