MILLVILLE – In October 2009, Mayor Tim Shannon grabbed a sledge hammer and took the first ceremonial whacks in the demolition of the crime-ravaged Millville Gardens apartment complex here.
The redevelopment plan for the 6-acre site was simple: Build affordable single-family homes that would not only give the city new tax ratables, but also help rejuvenate a Third Ward neighborhood in decline for decades.
Three years later, the project is on hold, stymied by what city officials and developer Bruce Morgan said is a depressed housing market. Whatever will happen to the site must wait until the project once again becomes financially feasible, they said.
“It seems like it’s turning, but it hasn’t turned,” Morgan, who owns BCM Affordable Housing in Paoli, Pa., said of the housing market.
Now, a growing number of residents living near the former Millville Gardens site – an area bordered by Foundry, Dock and Archer streets and Arnold Drive – say they have their own, much simpler plan for the property: Just leave it alone.
Residents say the grassy, tree-speckled property has become a focal point for their community. The property hosts ball games for children and cookouts held by families that once lived in fear of leaving their homes. The site has also developed into a sort of urban green space, attracting animals such as Canada geese and wild turkeys.
Arnold Drive resident Valerie Berner said the biggest fear is that any development project would attract the same kind of people who lived in Millville Gardens and terrorized the neighborhood for years with gunfire, drug deals and loud, all-night parties.
“We don’t want that again,” said Berner, who has lived on Arnold Drive for about five years.
When asked what he would like to happen at the former Millville Gardens site, Dennis Campbell, a former city employee who has lived across from the property for 15 years, gives a one-word answer: Nothing.
“I’d like it to stay just the way it is,” the 60-year-old Campbell said. “You don’t have the problems we had before. It has gotten better.”
Shannon and City Commissioner Joseph Derella, a driving force behind the original plan to demolish Millville Gardens, said they understand the concerns, but expect the now-stalled development project to eventually proceed.
“The sole intent is to have single-family ownership of homes there,” Shannon said. “We like that plan. We still feel strongly that … when you have home ownership, you have invested in the community. We don’t want rental units. We don’t want a housing project.”
Derella said residents lived with all the problems associated with Millville Gardens for so long that, understandably, “fear is still in the back of their minds.”
“But the plan is to make that area match the rest of the neighborhood,” Derella said.
The Third Ward neighborhood was once a thriving middle-class community, home to immigrants who moved there to work in the factories that provided the city with the bulk of its employment opportunities.
The 102-unit Millville Gardens was built in the 1950s, and was first known as Arlene Village. City officials said it was a showcase for the Third Ward neighborhood.
But that neighborhood started a slow decline as factory jobs disappeared in the final decades of the 20th Century.
Millville Gardens also went into decline. The facility became a low-income apartment complex and a burden to the city, nearby residents and local police. The complex at one point averaged about 300 complaints to the Police Department each year.
The situation became so bad that the city bought the property for $2.7 million in 2008. The move was prompted not only by crime, but also because the city tired of taking the complex’s owners to court for hundreds of code violations. The city bought the property with funds from its Revenue Allocation District program. New development in a RAD pays 50 percent of its taxes into a RAD pool for 15 years. The money is used for redevelopment projects.
Once the Millville Gardens site was cleared, BCM Affordable Housing and Affordable Homes of Millville Ecumenical were to build 36 single-family homes. An affordable housing element was part of the project.
However, the housing market “just fell apart,” Morgan said. Sale prices for the houses, which were already “fairly conservative,” declined by $20,000 to $30,000, he said.
“This is a project I would like to revisit in the future,” he said.
Shannon said Morgan already revisited the project a few months ago, asking if the city was interested in turning the project into a rental unit community.
“We were not interested in that,” Shannon said.
Berner said she and other residents near the Millville Garden sites worry about what kind of development city officials frustrated with the current project might allow. A return to the problems associated with Millville Gardens is not acceptable, she said.
“It’s good and safe,” she said of the current situation.
“It’s a different life here,” Campbell said.
Shannon said residents should put their fears aside.
“I can tell you the city is not moving on anything the residents don’t want, or will make a quick decision just to get something there,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that it … fits with the neighbors that are there now.”