State-funded improvements to the Pleasant Hill neighborhood are expected soon, with the conversion of “Little Richard” Penniman’s former home to a resource center coming among the first.
But a preliminary design for renovating that house, given to Macon-Bibb County commissioners recently, illustrates the continued fragility of the relationship between the Georgia Department of Transportation and residents of the neighborhood, which was bisected 50 years ago by Interstate 75.
Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon on Dec. 5, 1932, one of 12 children. At one point he lived in the small two-bedroom house at 1540 Fifth Ave. West, built in 1920. That house survived as a rental property, and the state has bought it. It’s to be turned into a community resource center and museum, honoring Penniman and the neighborhood’s history.
The house is to be moved and renovated at state expense. The chosen site is on Craft Street across from the Pleasant Hill community garden. That’s four blocks from its current location and on the other side of I-75.
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Sketches for the Richard Penniman Resource Center show two meeting rooms, a reception area and glassed-in addition. A site plan includes a parking lot, event terrace and playground.
Peter Givens of the Pleasant Hill Neighborhood Improvement Group said he hadn’t seen the rendering of the Penniman house, which he found strange since he’s supposed to be involved in the planning. Giving a proposed design to commissioners shouldn’t have been done, he said, since that gives the impression that the neighborhood has endorsed it.
“‘Proposed’ means nothing. It’s up to us to say to them ‘This is how we want this to look,’” Givens said.
Giving even preliminary plans to the Macon-Bibb government puts commissioners under the impression that the Pleasant Hill community is already on board, he said.
“And I don’t like that, because I haven’t seen it,” Givens said.
The Penniman house design is still being worked on, so the drawings are only preliminary, said Clinton Ford, the DOT project manager. Its exact use, and eventual ownership, are being worked out.
“The community still has some input on the floor plan and stuff like that,” he said.
There’s no set schedule for moving the Penniman house, but it will probably be among the first, Ford said. Altogether the DOT plans to move 25 houses to new lots, making way for a future widening of the interstate.
“All the houses to be relocated have been purchased,” Ford said, and lot purchase is underway.
Almost all of the previous residents opted to move elsewhere, simply selling out if they owned the houses, Ford said.
“One person elected to move with their home,” Ford said. The rest will be resold once they’re renovated by the state.
Givens, however, said one or two houses haven’t actually been bought yet, though negotiations are underway. It can take time to find willing sellers of vacant lots, but that search is proceeding too, he said.
“It may not be on time, but it’s moving along,” Givens said.
He thinks the DOT has overreached by making even preliminary plans without explicit approval from residents. The state hired design consultants who are supposed to be working with the neighborhood group, Givens said.
“They’ve chosen not to talk to us,” he said. Instead of involving residents throughout the process, consultants have been only showing up with completed designs for the neighborhood to accept or reject, Givens said. It would be easier and faster for those plans to be developed in conjunction with Pleasant Hill residents, he said.
As part of revamping a 6-mile stretch of Interstates 75 and 16 through Macon, DOT officials plan to spend $10 million on improvements in Pleasant Hill, hoping to undo some of the damage done when the highway split the neighborhood in half.
Two noise walls along the interstate are planned to shield Pleasant Hill from traffic noise, and the concrete surfaces facing into the neighborhood will bear designs featuring community history, famous residents, the arts, schools and churches.
The plan includes not only the noise walls but also extensive landscaping, the moving and remodeling more than two dozen houses, rebuilding the pedestrian bridge over the interstate and building two parks, covering a wide concrete culvert, and redoing streets for blocks around with new asphalt, sidewalks, landscaping and lighting.
While much of the mitigation work is underway or planned, funding for the actual road construction will be available in July 2017 at the earliest.
Contracts for the two planned parks and streetscape improvements will go out in May 2016, Ford said. The noise walls are “more of a road item,” to be put off until the actual interstate work due to the need to work around bridges. And that construction is more than four years away, perhaps further, depending on available funding, Ford said.
The first really visible work will be moving the houses.
“We’re looking at the end of March, early April for the first house actually on the back of a truck being moved,” Ford said. Before then there will be a community meeting in Pleasant Hill to let people know what to expect, he said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.