Bitter memories from nearly half a century ago tainted reactions of Pleasant Hill residents to the impending widening of Interstate 75.
In the 1960s, highway construction split the neighborhood in two. Suspicion that kind words from a new generation of Georgia Department of Transportation workers mask similar callousness bubbled over at a state-sponsored meeting Thursday night.
If you had designed it right in the first place, it wouldnt be coming back to Pleasant Hill, said area resident Minnie Grinell.
About 60 people from the area gathered in the L.H. Williams Elementary School cafeteria to hear Clinton Ford, GDOT project manager, and several consultants describe plans they say will benefit and help revitalize Pleasant Hill: moving up to 26 houses to now-vacant lots and renovating them at state expense, building two new parks, erecting noise barriers, and landscaping along streets for blocks around.
Ford has said the state plans to spend about $10 million on mitigating the impact of I-75 widening through the area. Property buying is planned for 2013 and moving houses for 2014, but the actual road widening isnt budgeted until 2018, he said.
But many residents remain skeptical. Grinell accused GDOT of planning to put residents out of their homes.
We dont see anybody in Pleasant Hill until you want something from us, she said. If an area has to be impacted by road work, let it be north Macon and along Vineville Avenue, Grinell said.
Do them, she said, referring to areas that are predominantly white and generally much wealthier than Pleasant Hill.
A woman who refused to identify herself raised racial issues more bluntly, asking how many African Americans were on the board. Pleasant Hill is not only largely black, but many residents are poor and elderly, regarded as insignificant, she said.
Its just like we dont count, but we pay taxes, the woman told Ford. Its about money and power and all that.
Ford, who is black, said a wide variety of people work for GDOT. Since the interstate already runs through Pleasant Hill, any work on it would affect the neighborhood, he said.
Ford said many improvements are planned for the neighborhood, based on what residents themselves asked for in early planning. A large concrete-lined culvert will be enclosed, two new parks will be built, the existing pedestrian bridge over the interstate will be rebuilt, noise-blocking walls will go up along much of the highway, and several blocks in each direction will see streets repaved, sidewalks built and the right-of-way landscaped, he said.
Scott Roberts, right-of-way project manager for GDOT, said theyve already bought five of the affected houses. They hope to send out offers on nine more within the next 10 days, he said.
Seven of the houses are owner-occupied, and Ford said those people are eligible to have their houses moved to new sites and fixed up, while the state pays their moving expenses and their rent until they move back in.
He assured people that theyll have ample time to consider any state offers.
Michael Ryan asked how GDOT will determine the properties market value. Roberts said thats based on the sale price of similar properties, not the tax assessors valuation. Owners who opt to move to a new house will be paid for something similar or slightly better, even if thats more than their original house is worth, he said.
Amir Hassan, owner of Brothers Reupholstering Service, said residents just want to be treated fairly and given specific details, after getting empty promises for years.
Weve got treasures in this neighborhood, he said. Some of the people in this audience are treasures, and we dont want them upset or disturbed.
But Hassan would like to see a quick start on purchase and renovation of historic buildings. There are many in the area, and some are in danger of crumbling, he said. State mitigation plans could help turn Pleasant Hill -- already a designated historic district -- into a historic attraction, Hassan said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.