A mixed-use town center. A re-imagined street grid and expanded public transit route. A new grocery store and community garden space. A larger health clinic and more educational opportunities.
"These are some big ideas, we know," said Rhae Parkes, of EJP Consulting, as she addressed a gym full of Cayce Place residents and East Nashville community members gathered on July 1 at the Martha O'Bryan Center. Representatives encompassing the full spectrum of East Nashville — young, old, black, white, recent transplants, long-time residents, politicians, and community advocates — turned out to get a look at the Nashville Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency's master plan concept for Cayce Place, the city's oldest and largest public housing project.
Parkes, a partner at EJP Consulting Group, the Washington state-based consulting group overseeing the "Envision Cayce" project, was on hand to explain the ambitious concept to residents and neighbors. The plan, which includes a one for one replacement of the 716 low-income housing units at Cayce, plus an additional 400 new, affordable rental properties, is the largest-scale public housing redevelopment MDHA has ever undertaken.
The plan also calls for redevelopment of properties adjacent to Cayce, including the CWA Plaza Apartments, which is currently home to 250 families, and Lenore Gardens and Roberts Park, also nearby, home to an additional 150 families. MDHA is currently in negotiations to buy the CWA parcel for nearly $9 million.
The July 1 public meeting was the culmination of a nearly 18-month Envision Cayce planning process that involved Cayce residents, neighborhood stakeholders, MDHA representatives and more. During that time, multiple public planning meetings were held, and neighbors were asked to dream big, putting all their ideas on the table without regard to cost.
As the final design concept was unveiled, however, MDHA director Jim Harbison tried to temper too much excitement and eagerness about the timeline of the project. "Nothing on the scale of Envision Cayce is going to happen soon," he said, reminding the crowd that MDHA currently has no federal authority or funds to kickstart the project. He did reveal that MDHA plans to build 50 additional units on the Cayce site, not contingent on the Envision Cayce plan. Harbison explained the dominoes that must fall into place in order to launch the Envision Cayce project. Congress must approve specific HUD funding, known as the Rental Assistance Demonstration Fund (RAD). If the RAD program is included in the congressional budget brought up for a vote this fall and passes, then HUD would have to approve MDHA's $1 billion request to redevelop public housing in Nashville. If all that comes together, a huge chunk of the money would be directed to Envision Cayce, and re-building efforts could get underway.
At the meeting, MDHA representatives had form letters on hand for participants to sign and mail to Tennessee legislators including Rep. Jim Cooper, Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker encouraging them support the expansion of RAD. According to the letter, "RAD is an affordable housing preservation program focused on protecting and improving the nation's at-risk public housing stock by allowing housing authorities to leverage private capital through a variety of proven financing tools."
The letter goes on to explain that RAD would help transform Cayce Place from an outdated public housing development into a new, mixed-use, mixed income community.
"This kind of blend," Parkes said, "is important for the financing of this project as well as the long term sustainability of it."
A key guiding principle of the Cayce Place redevelopment project is to break up its concentrated poverty and crack that section of the neighborhood wide open, reconnecting it to the boomtown side of East Nashville.
Right now, East side residents who shop at the Turnip Truck and bike the Shelby Bottoms greenway rarely, if ever, have reason to pass through Cayce, which is essentially cut off from the larger neighborhood. The design concept for the new Cayce hopes to change that by adding a full service grocery, wide open green spaces, and easy access from a re-routed interstate exit.
But it's not enough to just provide updated infrastructure and housing. "Ultimately, the success or failure of this project rests on delivering world class education," said Randall Gilberd, president of the Cayce Place Revitalization Foundation, a neighborhood group committed to the holistic revitalization of Cayce. Without a strong education piece of the puzzle, "you won't attract working class families, and you won't pull Cayce children out of poverty. There needs to be a cradle to college pipeline," he said. He was encouraged that both Harbison and Parkes mentioned education as a crucial component of the project.
There are a total of about 1,200 children living in Cayce Place, some of them second or third generation residents. The key to breaking this cycle of multi-generational poverty is education, and Gilberd's Cayce Place Revitalization Foundation is advocating improvements at nearby schools and the addition of new, on-site educational opportunities for residents of all ages.
Celeste Gatlin, 18, currently lives in CWA with her 11-month-old daughter and her best friend. Her mother lives in Cayce Place, and she spent years of her own childhood there. An intern with Cayce United, a resident advocacy group, Gatlin wanted to be part of the Envision Cayce process because "I love helping my community out and being a part of it."
As a single teen mother, Gatlin has a tough road ahead, and likes that Cayce United is pushing hard for the plan to include job opportunities and training for Cayce residents. "I feel like it's a good plan if they have jobs for us," she said. "We want to be part of the re-building process."
According to Cayce United leaders, over one-third of residents are currently working low wage jobs and want the opportunity for better employment, while others are currently unemployed and looking for work. Cayce United wants residents who have experience in construction, security, and other related fields to find gainful employment in their own neighborhood as Cayce is rebuilt.
Because nothing on the scale of Envision Cayce has happened in Nashville before, some residents and neighbors alike remain wary of the concept. Some members of the community are concerned about the cost and outcomes of such a large-scale project, and are wondering why the conversation has not addressed how to move Cayce residents out of public housing.
For many residents, it is no easy feat to find a job, save up and move on. Vernell McHenry, 58, who has severe arthritis and walks with a cane, has lived at Cayce Place for over a decade. She has looked for housing outside Cayce with a Section 8 voucher. But, she said, "I can't find a decent one bedroom apartment."
Even though she has limited mobility, McHenry remains active in her community and volunteers at the Martha O'Bryan Center, in addition to her work with Cayce United. A good number of Cayce residents, she points out, are disabled or elderly, and have no income at all.
Like many residents, McHenry still wonders, "if we're here and we play by the rules, are we guaranteed to come back?" She is most concerned about the elderly and infirm, since one or two moves, across the neighborhood or across town, would be difficult, she said. "I like the idea that we would not be moved off the property," she said, which was the preferred scenario laid out during the July 1 presentation. The plan recommends that demolition and construction be staggered so residents only move once, from their current unit into a new one, but there is no guarantee that will happen.
At that meeting, Harbison and other MDHA officials tried to calm Cayce residents' nerves about fears of displacement. They reiterated that original residents will have the first priority right of return to the rebuilt Cayce. McHenry hears that, but is "just praying everything go like they say."
The Envision Cayce project comes at an interesting time in East Nashville's history, as modest homes and affordable rental units across wide swaths of the neighborhood continue to be torn down to make way for ever-more outsized and pricey "umbilical cord" duplexes. While the capitalist market forces in East Nashville favor high dollar transplants from other states and other parts of the city, long time low and middle income East Nashville residents are being increasingly pushed out.
When Bob Borzak and his wife bought a condemned home on Woodland Street nearly 30 years ago, it was unthinkable to consider tearing it down or flipping it to make a profit. "We were not there to make money off the house but because we wanted to be there," he said. As large and "lousy infill projects" continue to sprout up around him, inflating home values and property taxes, Borzak and his neighbors are wondering how high prices will go before the bubble bursts. Neighbors, he said, are beginning to ask the question, "Can you afford to stay in your house?"
Borzak, 67, vice president of the Cayce Place Revitalization Foundation, said if there's a "nice senior center in the new Cayce, I'd be happy to move over there." The idea of a new, fixed-price, affordable home with no upkeep costs is looking more attractive all the time.