Black community decries housing development in Bay St. Louis MS

A proposed new housing development in Bay St. Louis has sparked emotional opposition from some residents of Backatown, the city’s historic Black neighborhood near downtown.

At a public hearing on Tuesday, the city’s Zoning and Planning Commission considered local developer Rodney Corr’s request to subdivide a tract of land to allow the construction of eight houses on what are currently three lots, as well as a new road to service them.

After hearing from Corr and receiving public comment from a number of residents who oppose the project, the commission voted unanimously against the rezoning.

Its decision is non-binding, however, and serves merely as a recommendation to the City Council, which will hear arguments from both sides at the Tuesday meeting.

8 new homes proposed by Coast developer

The proposed development sits on three contiguous lots inside the block bounded by Sycamore, St. Francis , Labat and Watts streets in Bay St. Louis’ third ward. Corr’s purchase of the property from its current owner, Mary C. Zimmer, is conditional upon the success of the rezoning. There are no buildings currently on the site.

Corr plans to build an L-shaped road — named Tina Dorsey Drive, after a recently deceased friend — between entry points on St. Francis and Sycamore streets, as well as sewer and drainage infrastructure. Eight new three-bedroom houses, all zoned for single families, would sit alongside this road.

Corr says he plans to sell the houses for $240,000 each — a price the Ward 3 City Councilman Jeffrey Reed described as “very good for Bay St. Louis.” The Bay, particularly downtown, has become a real estate hot spot, with houses selling in as little as one day once they hit the market.

Reed did not attend the Zoning and Planning Commission hearing, and did not say how he plans to vote when the proposal comes before the City Council. But he told the Sun Herald Corr “has done a great job” with development projects elsewhere in Bay St. Louis, and expressed hope that he and the opposing residents would reach a compromise.

“I think him bringing a development into the third ward would be good,” said Reed.

The site is located squarely in the center of Backatown, a historically segregated neighborhood which residents recall as a bustling center of the city’s Black community in its heyday.

Over the decades since desegregation and particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the neighborhood gradually became entirely residential, as businesses shuttered and the City Council zoned most of Backatown for single-family housing. Residents say the area has become plagued in recent years by the sale and abuse of drugs.

Rodney Corr speaks before the Bas St. Louis Planning and Zoning Commission in Bay St. Louis on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. Hannah Ruhoff [email protected]

Black neighborhood ‘has a lot of meaning to me’

After Corr presented his application to the commission, nine speakers from the audience spoke in turn from a podium to explain their objections to the rezoning plan, arguing that it would overcrowd the neighborhood. A letter from a tenth resident who was not present was also read by commission chair Amy Doescher.

There were 40 people in attendance at the hearing, and tempers flared at times. Some in the audience laughed derisively when Corr said, “I’ve been trying to help the area,” referencing his volunteer work on municipal renovations at nearby Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. Corr was also jeered when he mentioned having old friends in the neighborhood.

Corr, who is 59 and grew up a few blocks from the proposed development site, defended his plan as a way to help revitalize the neighborhood and alleviate the burden on residents in the face of rising house prices.

“This has a lot of meaning to me—more than you realize,” he said, before becoming visibly emotional and taking a long pause.

Corr recalled playing basketball in MLK Park as a teenager, and said he sought to improve the neighborhood to the point where children feel safe playing there again, as he did when he was a teenager.

“I didn’t feel threatened to take my bike to ride to that park and go play with my friends,” he said.

A plot of land between St. Francis, Sycamore and Washington Streets in Bay St. Louis on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. Corr hopes to develop the land into eight different single-family homes. Hannah Ruhoff [email protected]

Some oppose development in Bay St. Louis community

The residents who spoke against the proposal oppose it for a variety of reasons, all agreed on at least one point: eight new houses, they said, was too many.

Several speakers said they would find a similar development with fewer houses, on larger parcels of land, acceptable.

The author of the letter expressed concern that the new development might accelerate a trend of gentrification in the area and price out locals who couldn’t afford the new houses, or the increase in property taxes she predicted would accompany them.

“The great amount of development that has taken place in the area has doubled property taxes and begun to make it unaffordable for people who are from the greater Gulf Coast region to afford the very areas that they have helped to build,” the writer said.

But another speaker, Gladys Frederick, said she thought the new houses would exacerbate a different issue that has long plagued the neighborhood — drugs and crime. She said she and her husband own three houses nearby.

“We have fought to get that lot empty that he bought,” she said.

Recalling an old low-income housing project in Backatown that was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, and Frederick said of Corr, “He’s trying to put another project in.”

“If he put eight properties there, the crime is just going to come back and get worse,” she said, adding that her daughter and three grandchildren live across the street from the property.

Backatown resident Queen Williams supports new development and homes but is not board with Corr’s plan as it is.

“You can build nice sized homes with green space, areas for children to play,” she said at the meeting.

Williams said she supported “anything that’s going to bring the area up and the community up and not change the characteristics of the neighborhood,” but characterized Corr’s proposed development as too dense.

Other speakers expressed concern that the development would strain the drainage system and worsen floods.

But perhaps if one comment captured the mood of the project’s opponents, it was when Williams said, “We really like the area like it is.”

“We don’t want it, Rodney,” she said, turning to face the developer.

Homes built by Rodney Corr in a subdivision on Ramaux Street in Bay St. Louis on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. Corr hopes that if he is able to build the proposed development off of St. Francis Street, that the final homes would look similar to these ones. Hannah Ruhoff [email protected]

This story was originally published April 4, 2022 5:50 AM.