What does the future hold for former J.O. Johnson High property?

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - At a community meeting Tuesday, city leaders revealed more about the plans to revitalize the former J.O. Johnson High site and what it will take to transform the property.

The school closed after more than forty years of educating Huntsville's youth and is now temporarily home to the city's Public Safety Training Center. Planners believe the former campus has great potential become a neighborhood center, but they need the community and private investors to buy in.

John Hamilton, Huntsville City Administrator, said, "There's an opportunity for a mixture of uses. It's 44 acres so it's a significant piece of property."

The question still hangs in the air: what will happen here? And who will help move it along?

The current status

The project is now past the community input phase. City leaders and planners turned to the neighborhood last year to learn what they would like to see come to the property.

Now, we have learned the results.

Planners say most people like neighborhood-scale choices. Of the community options, most people liked the idea of public art, a recreation field, or a garden.

Of the residential options, most people liked live/work units and senior living options. Planners said the most unpopular options were apartments and multi-family units. The planners agree, saying that type of housing is not consistent with the neighborhood that surrounds Johnson now.

Whatever comes to Johnson may not be all of those things, but these are what the planners say the community wanted the most.

The city must now find a feasible way to make the desired plans a reality.

We're told there has been lots of interest in the property. City leaders say they have been approached by many parties about opportunities there.

Hamilton said Huntsville is committed to providing public support for the project, but he believes a partnership with some private entities is also necessary.

"This area has not received a lot of private investment in the last number of years. We think it is ready for that," said Hamilton.

"The market is demanding for housing that is high quality. Not section 8. Not subsidized," said Huntsville City Councilman, Devyn Keith. "It has been successful in Huntsville."

Planners say the sites is large, and parts of it lie in a floodway which can be hard to design around. They see some form of retention pond as a part of a future design, but without concrete plans they do not know what that would look like on the property.

The city sees the site as an economic development opportunity. It is now in need of the right private investment.

What's Next?

In December, the city will request proposals for developers who share a vision that's still wide open.

"We're looking for something that is going to help property values appreciate. The property is completely surrounded by residential areas. So the proposals have to be friendly to existing neighbors," said Hamilton.

Hamilton said the RFP will be written broadly, to attract many different kinds of good ideas. They will accept any proposals that come their way, said Hamilton, and then will spent 2-3 months weeding through them to see what can work on the site.

Hamilton said they would pick the ones that are best for the taxpayers and neighbors who live close by.

By late spring 2018, Hamilton expects the city to have chosen a proposal and then they can begin the design of the site. He said most of 2018 will be spent going through the process and laying out project timelines, and dirt would be moved later.

He expects the development to be multiple phases, and its pace depends on the market and the proposal the city accepts.

Community Concerns

The passion is real at Johnson. That's why so many people came to hear Hamilton's presentation.

"I'm a product of District 1. We were running around this school before we even went to this school," said Casey Brown, Class of 1989.  "I encountered a lot of special people. There's a great legacy. Tons of championships from here."

There is apprehension among neighbors. Many are concerned about what's to come and who will reap the benefits.

"There's a lot of mistrust here. Especially when you come and tell the community what you're going to do," explained Brown, noting that some like him feel "lied to" as Johnson High became Jemison High, and the Johnson name did not transfer to the new school.

Brown is not sure the ideas mentioned Tuesday will work at the former Johnson site.

"It just sounds like they're going to come in and privatize it and whoever makes these investments is going to take all the money out of it," he said. "I don't trust the housing aspects, but again it is a plan in work and I have faith in Devyn [Keith.]"

Whatever comes to the Johnson site, Brown said he believes the Johnson name needs to be retained.

We asked City Administrator Hamilton about memorializing Johnson. He said that will be a part of the plan, along with finding ways to incorporate the Johnson memorabilia the city has. He said the city will collaborate with the community to do that.

Others came to the meeting with separate concerns.

One woman said she would not like to see low-cost homes being built on the Johnson site. Hamilton assured her that is not in the plan.

Another said she would like to see something new to draw spectators and tourism to the area.

Others wonder if their opinions were heard well enough, if at all, during the process when the city was gathering information and input.

Former councilman Richard Showers said he wasn't sure anyone would want to invest money in that area on housing.

Council member Devyn Keith said he understands the uncertainty.

"This is one of those things that I don't expect everyone to get it," said Keith. "I would be shocked if there weren't people who thought going in a different direction wasn't going to be uncomfortable."

He added, "The longer this property sits unused, the longer it becomes decrepit and will become an eyesore for NW Huntsville."

Support Continues

Keith said he wants people to understand the necessity of transforming Johnson in this way.

"I think they continue to have their own perspectives, but I think maybe in 4-5 years when they get their return and they look at their property tax that goes up because their property value did, then they'll get it," he explained.

He urged those who are concerned to think about the big picture.

"If it's done correctly, this plan, conceivably, could change the face of northwest Huntsville. And that's just the first step," he said.

Neighbor Teressa Burke looks forward to the change. "Since I moved here, it's home. I'm looking forward to all the things that are going to happen in the neighborhood as far as beautification and improvement," she said. "It's good to see all of Huntsville grow instead of just a part of it. And if we all grow, it's going to be a great place for our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews. It's going to be wonderful."