Africatown’s “Heritage House” was delivered last week and is under construction next to the Robert L. Hope Community Center.
Auditions occurred Saturday for a stage production of the Clotilda’s final voyage. On Monday, a media event is planned at the Yorktown Baptist Church to announce that 40 Africatown families will get $250 gift cards to support their Thanksgiving meals.
But frustrations continue over recent rezoning requests that lack few details but call for more industrial properties. Environmental justice watchdogs are calling for more public involvement and while requesting a halt to rezoning requests for more industrial-zoned properties.
“I think anytime something wants to do something that has major industrial impacts to that community and that area, they should have the approval of the people out there,” said Councilman William Carroll, newly elected to serve the council district that represents the Africatown community.
One of the properties has appeared on the Mobile City Council’s agenda for approval approximately three months after the city’s Planning Commission recommended it be OK’d. That property, 1490 Telegraph Road, is zoned residential but it surrounded by industrial-zoned properties.
The property’s agent, Marty Norden, did not return a call for comment.
Under the proposal, the property would be rezoned to “I-2,” which is the city’s heaviest industrial classification within its zoning code.
Carroll said that Norden is open to adding restrictions to the deed that would prohibit pollution-producing industries or chemical plants that would otherwise be allowed in an I-2 zoning.
“What happens is it allows the community to get past the vision of a chemical plant or a smoke stack industry that is beyond a casual warehouse or storage bin that is (allowed) in an I-2 zoning,” Carroll said.
The property, located on a busy road, is home to a vacant warehouse building.
Said Carroll, “The property behind it is I-2. This should be a no-brainer.”
But it’s not so easy in Africatown, where the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) is keeping a watchful eye on activity surfacing before the city government, and questioning why heavy zoning considerations are going on at a time when Africatown is facing a potential renaissance that could move future development away from its industrial past.
“It’s puzzling to me that someone with the legal rights to do whatever they want on the property, why they would seek a rezoning if it wasn’t to do something that is already currently allowed on the property,” said Ramsey Sprague, president of MEJAC and president of the Mobile NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee. “There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about rezoning and the erosion of residentially zoned property for whatever reason.”
He added, “If the city is committed to a future of 30 to 40 to 50 years down the line with Africatown more residentially dense and rich with tourism, the level of industrial activity should undergo a period of cessation and (that) should appear in writing as a clear guidance for development in the neighborhood.”
Upsetting MEJAC and others it the lack of an overarching public hearing that would lay out the rationale behind the rezoning requests.
The other prime rezoning proposal is at 1250 Woodland Avenue – which also won approval from the Planning Commission. That rezoning is raising eyebrows because its owner is Chippewa Lakes LLC, an entity that is owned by the Meaher family who are the descendants of the wealthy Irish slave trader who owned the Clotilda and orchestrated the illegal Clotilda voyage from Africa to the U.S. in 1860.
“If the community is telling everyone that industry is an issue, then industrial trade groups have a responsibility to deal with those charges in ways that are constructive,” Sprague said. “(City leaders) need to get used to the fact that holding public community meetings is the only sensible way to begin tackling intergenerational abuse of Africatown.”
Joe Womack, an Africatown native and activist for the community, said he is unsure why there is interest in rezoning it I-2. He also believes the lack of community feedback, in the form of a public meeting between Norden and residents in the community, should have been enough for the Planning Commission to hold off on their approval during a meeting in early September.
Carroll said the heightened focus on the rezoning matters are indicative of the attention the community has generated in recent years as the story of the Clotilda’s discovery has generated international attention.
He said the heavy industry that is nearby Africatown has helped drive the city’s economy over the years, but that any future industrial uses will need a community discussion.
“They should be able to have some type of say on what’s next to them and how it affects their quality of life,” he said.