Community weighs exciting possibilities for the J.O. Johnson campus

single-meta-cal August 30, 2017

As Devyn Keith pronounced the benediction on the meeting, he asked others to share a vision, to accept some potential growing pains. 

“It may feel uncomfortable for some, but the demand for changes argues the need for it,” said Keith, who represents District 1 on the Huntsville City Council.

His constituents could embrace “an opportunity to make an investment in a property that will reverberate for generations.” 

Keith hosted a community forum Tuesday night at the former site of the J.O. Johnson High School, with the subject being the future of that very property. 

With the closing of the 45-year-old school and area students now attending the new Mae Jemison High, the 44-acre site offers numerous possibilities. 

“This opens the door and lets the world know Northwest Huntsville is going to try to be a little different,” Keith said. 

Keith was joined by City Administrator John Hamilton and Dennis Madsen, the Director of Urban and Long Range Planning. 

They unveiled some concepts for the property, based on input gathered from residents at previous open meetings.  View the J.O. Johnson Presentation

Two “consensus goals” rose to the top: 

* Respect adjacent neighborhoods

* Create economic development and build value for the community

Through conversation with residents and through studies, “the best opportunity is significant residential development,” Hamilton said. It could be a mixed-use development, with availability for retail or other services, such as medical or small businesses. Though much of the building would be razed, the City would like to keep the gymnasium as a recreation center. 

Hamilton stressed that the land would be sold to a private developer and said he expected multiple partners would be involved.  

The City would “insist (the developers’) ideas are friendly to neighbors around this campus,” Hamilton said. 

Any homes built would not be government-subsidized housing, and previous community meetings have also revealed an aversion to building an apartment complex on the land. 

The City will release Request for Proposal documents by December 1 and give prospective investors two to three months for their due diligence, then the City will begin to evaluate the proposals. As that process continues, Keith said he would continue to seek community input. It would be late 2018 or early 2019 before any work would begin. 

The RFPs would include “guidelines to make sure potential investors understand the criteria we’re looking for, but broadly written to get as many ideas as possible,” Hamilton said. 

In weeding through proposals, “We’ll pick the ones that are best for the community, that have the best return for the taxpayers,” Hamilton said. 

The emphasis on residential rather than commercial has grown for myriad reasons: 

*Location of the property, which is well off any commercial thoroughfare and is surrounded by existing homes

*Preferences expressed by North Huntsville residents at previous meetings

*Desire to bring in new homes that will raise the property value of existing land

Though the housing market and population in North Huntsville has been “rather stagnant,” according to Madsen and the median income is lower than the city average, there are positive indicators. Vacancy rates are lower than elsewhere in town and the home ownership rates are higher than the city average.  

“Folks like living here, and that’s a good sign for development,” he said.  

Though the concepts unveiled “stem from public hearings and public workshops we’ve had,” as Madsen said, that shouldn’t suggest that Tuesday’s meeting was a chorus of agreement. 

Keith and Hamilton responded to a mix of enthusiasts and dissenters in a 30-minute-plus Q&A session. Concepts were applauded, concerns were aired – or re-aired – and ideas shared.  

“I was pleased by the high level of support I’ve received from neighborhoods eager for positive change, and I got a few curve balls thrown at me,” Keith told an old friend he encountered as he left the building Tuesday night. 

“You played baseball over at Stoner Park,” the friend said. “You had to hit curve balls then.” 

Now, with the vast potential of 44 acres at the City’s disposal, Keith is swinging for the fences.

What a home run it could be for North Huntsville.

What do you think about the redevelopment concept for J.O. Johnson? Contact Devyn Keith by email or call (256) 427-5011.