Fear or gentrification? Mobile’s Sand Town neighborhood wrestles with city hall over changes

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Sand Town is a small community in West Mobile with a rich history that few people know about.

The story is one that residents fear may be at risk under a new zoning document approved by Mobile city officials on Tuesday.

“I’ve been through segregation and all that and I’ve never been so scared as I am now,” said Mary Frances Craig, 83, a longtime resident of the community. “Why am I afraid? Because of attempts to destroy our neighborhood.

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Some city officials, who approved the zoning document called the Unified Development Code (UDC), say Sand Town’s mostly black residents are misinformed and there is no intention to gentrify the neighborhood by removing homes – and residents – and replacing them with trendy bars, cafes and shopping malls.

“I think there is misinformation out there from others who are in opposition,” said Councilor Gina Gregory, the council representative for the area. “It feeds the fear.”

Older than Clotilda

Residents of the small neighborhood along Spring Hill Avenue – founded in 1845 by former slaves and free natives of color – fear the city’s newly adopted UDC will promote gentrification in an area they would like to see preserved because of its history.

Sand Town is approximately 35-40 acres and its cemetery is home to some of Mobile’s oldest black graves. The community was also home to the city’s last remaining slave quarters, according to locals. Its modern boundaries run from Three Mile Creek just north of The Cedars and east to west from Dilston Street to Zeigler Boulevard.

Melvin Jackson of Mobile speaks in support of protecting the community of Sand Town from commercial encroachment during the Mobile City Council meeting Tuesday, July 12, 2022, at Government Plaza in downtown Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

“We are older than the Clotilda,” said longtime Sand Town resident Marvin Jackson, referring to the slave ship that sailed to Mobile in 1860 with 110 enslaved Africans on board. It was uncovered in 2019 and became the center of a redevelopment effort for the Africatown neighborhood of Mobile which was founded by survivors of the ship.

Jackson lives on the Sand Town property founded by Gilbert Fields, a freed black man who fled slavery in Georgia and settled in Mobile before the Civil War. He remained hidden among the natives who lived in Sand Town before the Civil War, according to Jackson.

“We are older than the history of Africatown,” Jackson said. “We may not have all the drama they know, but we do know that (our ancestors) shed blood here to defend these hills when no one else was there.”

Security area

Residents, worried about the eradication of rich history by commercial pressures, reached out to council members last weekend to voice their concerns.

The council, ahead of its vote, pledged to provide protections for Sand Town which could come in the form of a ‘safe zone’ amendment, similar to what was passed within the UDC to protect Africatown of future industrial encroachment. In a safe zone, certain types of development would be prohibited within the community.

A moratorium on development could also be considered in and around the vicinity of Sand Town.

“We have to do something to protect them,” Councilor William Carroll said. “I just know they’re scared. They feel like they’re not being heard. »

According to Councilman Cory Penn, “It’s important to provide Sand Town with a safe zone.”

Residents are skeptical anything will happen now that the UDC is passed.

“Once an article is approved, consequences don’t necessarily mean it will follow,” Jackson said.

Some council members believe the residents are unfounded and have been agitated by misinformation on social media.

They say passing the CDU does not change the residential zoning within their community. Any zoning changes require Mobile Planning Commission approval and then must be authorized by City Council.

These processes, they say, take place in public and require all residents to be informed before they occur.

“What we’ve heard is there will be commercial encroachment on Sand Town,” Councilman Joel Daves said. “But if someone is looking to rezone a property, they have to go through that same process of going to the planning commission and they make a recommendation that goes to the city council. And the person asking for the rezoning will need a neighborhood meeting.

Mistrust

city ​​of sand

Mary Frances Craig, 83, a longtime resident of Mobile’s Sand Town community, speaks out against the Spring Hill Overlay District in the City of Mobile’s Unified Development Code at the Mobile City Council meeting on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, at Government Plaza in downtown Mobile, Alabama (John Sharp/[email protected]).

Sand Town residents’ concerns appeared to focus on the Spring Hill Village “overlay district” contained within the overall UDC.

The Village of Spring Hill is a group of citizens who, in 2006, formed an organization to beautify and improve the community. Sand Town is on the northern edge of the Spring Hill boundaries.

Spring Hill, south of Sand Hill and west of Interstate 65, consists of well-maintained neighborhoods, churches, golf courses, shopping malls, schools, and Spring Hill College.

The Overlay District establishes additional regulatory requirements in Spring Hill primarily encouraging pedestrian streets, pedestrian-friendly development, setback requirements, and aesthetic measures such as signage restrictions.

Many of these requirements were included in the Village Master Plan adopted by Mobile City Council 15 years ago.

But some Sand Town residents oppose Spring Hill’s leadership and their efforts to beautify nearby neighborhoods. They also claim that they did not participate in discussions leading up to the council vote, and that no black residents participated in Spring Hill activities.

There also appears to be years of mistrust, exemplified by strong racial remarks at the council meeting.

“The only skill we lack is being white,” said Barbara Smith, president of the Sand Town Action Group.

She said Sand Town’s opinions, when it comes to Spring Hill, don’t matter.

Spring Hill Village representatives, however, say that is not the case.

Linda St. John, the village president, said that over the years there have been many meetings, mailings and television interviews about the Spring Hill projects. She said more than 600 people participated in the community planning process and letters were sent to thousands of households about village planning.

The town has hosted more than 1,000 meetings since the UDC process began in 2017. Shayla Beaco, executive director of Build Mobile who administered the development of the UDC, said her team met with residents of Sand Town “six to seven times” on issues related to land use plans. within Spring Hill.

“Complacency or simple refusal to participate in a process that was open to the public is no reason for anyone to claim that they were not ‘included or consulted,'” St. John said.

Jackson said the people of Sand Town plan to align themselves with organizations like the NAACP and take their “historic fight to the state level.”

He said the community wants to be recognized as a heritage site and receive state and federal protections and the accolades that come with being named a historic district.

“We won’t sell our dreams of the man who freed himself from slavery,” Jackson said, referring to Fields, the freed slave. “Thanks to his dream, this is where we are. We are not afraid of development. But it is the type of development that we have problems with.

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