New plan may herald change in St. Augustine’s historic Lincolnville

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

In comparison to the colorful, tourist-dotted realm of downtown St. Augustine, Lincolnville is, in some places, dilapidated and desolate.

Here the dings of red trolleys and the clacking of horse hooves are rarely heard. Small businesses and restaurants, which are plentiful downtown, are rare. Some houses are unkempt and have fallen into disrepair.

A community founded by freed slaves in 1866, Lincolnville, located at the southwest end of the St. Augustine peninsula, has a rich history that rivals that of downtown St. Augustine.

Segregation in St. Johns County

Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Johns County

Originally called “Little Africa”, Lincolnville received its current name in 1878. When Henry Flagler built the Ponce de Leon Hotel in the 1880’s, hotel waiters formed the first professional African-American baseball team, the Ponce de Leon Giants. In the 1960’s, it was a hotbed for the Civil Rights Movement due to rampant segregation and mistreatment of the African-American population. In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. famously walked its streets in protest.

Still, Lincolnville is not part of historic St. Augustine. Some city officials and residents say that the lack of tourist activity is due to the presence of run-down buildings and the lack of small businesses.

While Lincolnville residents and city officials clash on how to properly address infrastructure and housing problems, a majority of residents agree that some change must be made. A new effort to form a consensus on the appropriate action to take is currently in the works.

A new proposal, which was approved by St. Augustine’s Planning and Zoning Board, seeks to address areas in Lincolnville through collecting Lincolnville tax revenue for local projects. This would be achieved through creating a Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) — a tax revenue fund set aside for allotted tasks.

Sue Agresta, a Lincolnville resident and a member of the Planning and Zoning Board, believes that the plan could better tie Lincolnville to downtown St. Augustine.

“It’s important to make Lincolnville a part of the town. There’s no reason why Lincolnville can’t be part of St. Augustine,” Agresta said. “Lincolnville has a huge history, even beyond civil rights.”

Agresta has concerns about how the action would impact the Lincolnville community, particularly low-income residents. Implemented changes could impact those who have lived in Lincolnville the longest, including the African-American population.

Houses in LincolnvilleThe CRA would create tax revenue to use for projects, but wouldn’t do so through raising tax rates or creating new taxes. However, as select projects begin to repair infrastructure in Lincolnville, rising property values may force low-income families to move out.

Still, Agresta, one of the founders of the Lift Up Lincolnville Revitalization Corp., believes there is potential to uplift the community as a whole, including the business community.

“A lot of talking needs to be done by the business community,” Agresta said. “Priorities need to be placed on hiring residents of Lincolnville. Putting businesses in Lincolnville and not hiring residents doesn’t help the situation.”

According to Agresta, some of the most pressing issues include repairing sidewalks, connecting roads, buying back houses owned by absentee owners and providing affordable housing to residents.

On the surface, many of the proposed changes appear to be non-controversial. However, many Lincolnville residents expressed concern about the impact the changes could have on the community.

Lincolnville resident Virginia Celinski is opposed to establishing a CRA. She believes it would, among other things, radically change the residential neighborhood.

Celinski also believes it would be used by the city to take away property through eminent domain.

“The CRA review is the beginning of a 20-year financial commitment in Lincolnville that will change the Lincolnville we know and love,” Celinski said. “It’s the oldest colored settlement in our country and the home of many contented homeowners.”

Celinski, a longtime resident of Lincolnville, believes that many of the changes would make Lincolnville more glamorous for tourists at the expense of those who call the area home.

“The CRA is not the answer,” Celinski said. “The CRA is the problem.”

Celinski is not alone in her concerns. Many of the attendees of the recent community meeting voiced concerns that projects in Lincolnville would adversely affect their homes and their neighbors’ homes, and would yield high costs with low returns.

Some of the other concerns surrounding instituting a CRA include officials using gathered funds as collateral to borrow more money than can be gathered through tax revenue. In nearby Vilano Beach, another CRA area, a similar situation is still costing local taxpayers.

Some residents believe that the city and the engineering firm in charge of investigating blight conditions are not being forthright with all the possible implications.

Anthony Robbins of Prosser Hallock presents CRA to Lincolnville residents

Anthony Robbins of Prosser Hallock presents CRA to Lincolnville residents

Anthony Robbins, an employee of the Jacksonville-based engineering firm Prosser Hallock, disputed these claims.

“If I’m trying to pull one over on you, I’m not doing a very good job of it,” Robbins said, in response to one resident’s question.

Prosser Hallock, the company hired to investigate the existence of “blight” conditions within Lincolnville, has presented the plan to the St. Augustine Planning and Zoning Board and to the Lincolnville community several times.

Although the plans have faced some backlash from Lincolnville residents, many individuals in positions of leadership agree that the plan would herald new growth for Lincolnville.

Vice Chair of the Planning and Zoning Board, David Toner, said that the sense of community in Lincolnville would be strengthened because of it.

“There’s always been a wonderful sense of community in Lincolnville,” Toner said. “We’re trying to build upon that sense of community by maintaining diversity and establishing Lincolnville as a place people can visit, move into and live.”

Although Toner believes that the plan would change the neighborhood in some ways, he said that much of the change would be positive.

“People want to move into a community that has good roads, sidewalks and good support facilities,” Toner said. “That includes small stores, coffee shops and grocery stores.”

Homes of LincolnvilleToner said that many individuals who are opposed to change within the neighborhood fail to consider that neighborhoods are constantly changing, with the aging, expansion or contraction of the population in certain areas.

“There are people that have questions and that’s only natural,” Toner said. “This is a big step and it’s a big commitment.”

Although instituting a CRA is a major step for Lincolnville, some individuals have voiced concerns that it might not go far enough in solving problems in Lincolnville, both in terms of infrastructure and housing.

While the final decision will be made by the St. Augustine City Commission on March 25, the large-scale effects won’t be seen for 19 to 20 years. Many of the smaller projects, such as redirecting parking on narrow city streets, would take place starting in 2014.

City officials and residents hope the plan will bring new small businesses to Lincolnville and that the new businesses will, in turn, give residents more venues for shopping and dining.

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