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Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

3 Habitat homes launch Napier Heights revitalization near Mercer’s new school

Macon Area Habitat for Humanity aims to acquire more lots in the neighborhood bordered by Montpelier, Pio Nono, Vineville and Interstate 75
Liz Fabian
Macon Area Habitat for Humanity is nearing completion of its first three houses in Napier Heights.

Pristine new sidewalks recently poured along Dannenburg Avenue are more than just fresh concrete for Andrea Cooke.

To the near lifelong resident of Napier Heights, the walkways in front of three new homes symbolize the path of progress toward reconnecting and revitalizing the neighborhood where she grew up and is now raising her family.

For four years, her children have wanted to walk the mile home from Mount de Sales Academy, but she has been hesitant to allow them.

“I have never felt comfortable with it because there’s no sidewalk. To see that there was a deliberate effort to add sidewalks, I am always emotional, but I got emotional about sidewalks. So, that was really great to see,” Cooke said.

Macon Area Habitat for Humanity board chair Andrea Cooke got emotional seeing new sidewalks in her Napier Heights neighborhood.

She had just joined the board of Macon Area Habitat for Humanity when the organization began to shift focus toward Napier Heights, which it considers the blocks northwest of Interstate 75 and bordered by Vineville, Pio Nono and Montpelier avenues.

Cooke is now president of the local Habitat Board, which will soon cut a ribbon on the three new houses near Vine Street funded through $500,000 from Macon-Bibb County’s American Rescue Plan Act funds and matched by the Peyton Anderson Foundation.

Habitat’s executive director, Ivey Hall, said after working in Pleasant Hill and building 65 houses in Lynmore Estates, the organization’s home base of Napier Heights was a logical next frontier.

“As we looked at what was happening around Napier Heights, and the different opportunities and the work that Mercer was doing, we decided, you know, it’s a great opportunity,” Hall said. “The timing was right.”

In recent decades, Mercer University has partnered with the Knight Foundation and others to create the College Hill Corridor to connect the university to downtown, to revitalize Beall’s Hill and to provide incentives to encourage Mercer employees to live near campus.

During Knight’s recent annual meeting in Macon, Mercer President Bill Underwood recognized the power of the community partnerships initially begun under the administration of former university president Kirby Godsey.

“My predecessor recognized years ago that you cannot build a successful institution of higher learning in a dying, decaying community. It can’t be done because your success depends on your ability to attract talent into the community,” Underwood said during a recent Q&A with outgoing Knight Foundation President and CEO Alberto Ibarguen.

The Roberts Academy transition school for children with dyslexia is under construction near Napier Heights on the other side of Interstate 75. (Liz Fabian)

One of the university’s latest projects, the Roberts Academy at Mercer University, is being built right across Interstate 75 from Napier Heights. The school for students with dyslexia is expected to open in the fall of 2024 with up to 90 children in second through fifth grades with room for expansion.

Cooke, 42, believes the closing of Winship Elementary, where she walked to school, helped speed the decline of Napier Heights, which is now served by L.H. Williams School on Pursley Street in Pleasant Hill. Vineville Academy, which opened in 2002 after Winship closed and merged with Clisby, is within the boundaries of Napier Heights, but it draws students from across the county as a fine arts magnet school.

Like the splitting of the Pleasant Hill neighborhood with construction of Interstate 75, Napier Heights was effectively cut off from Mercer and the rest of the urban core as the highway became a sort of dividing line, she said.

“I’m hoping that there is a deliberate effort to reconnect these two neighborhoods, what’s now two neighborhoods but was once one neighborhood,” she said. “So, I’m hoping that we get a sidewalk in, of course.”

The sidewalk stops on the Mercer side of the interstate underpass, but Cooke hopes that one day it will connect with the new walkways in front of the Habitat homes and stretch deeper into Napier Heights.

A good ‘neighbear’

Although Cooke is a Mercer graduate, she said when growing up in the 90s her neighbors “didn’t necessarily think the highest of the university.”

Her opinion didn’t immediately change after graduation.

“Mainly because we saw so much growth there and there wasn’t really a whole lot of growth on our side. A lot of growth in Beall’s Hill and it looks amazing, but before the interstate cut through, our neighborhood was that neighborhood. There was no separator,” Cooke said.

In recent years, Cooke has seen a dramatic shift in the way the university introduces students to the city of Macon.

“It used to be more of a fear mongering perspective, and now it’s more, you know, this community has a lot to offer,” Cooke said. “So, I really applaud Mercer for shifting the narrative.”

After the Pio Nono Kroger closed, Cooke started a nonprofit to create a food co-op for the neighborhood and Mercer was the first partner to join the effort.

“We didn’t have easy access to food, and so that was another reason why people were beginning to leave our neighborhood and go to places that were more convenient to live,” she said.

The sidewalk currently stops at what Andrea Cooke calls the “scary” underpass that borders her Napier Heights neighborhood. (Liz Fabian)

Cooke now hopes she can leverage her relationship with Mercer to work on brightening up the underpass near the future Roberts Academy and make it “less scary” by maybe adding a mural and some lighting. Her other wish list is for bike lanes down the wide span of Dannenberg leading to Oglethorpe Street.

She’s also scheduled work on a Holt Avenue community garden for Sept. 23, the “Be a Good Neighbear” day of service for Mercer students.

Hall says “it’s really exciting” that Habitat now has a waiting list of people wanting to move into Napier Heights where private investors also are working on some of the vacant houses that were fully occupied when Cooke was growing up.

Habitat continues to scour the county’s blight list and work with the Land Bank to acquire more property, but not sacrifice historic homes to build new ones.

“Where the houses were long gone or ready to be demolished, that’s where we want to come in and bring new homeowners to the neighborhood, but never to take down a historic home,” Hall said. “I know that question comes up sometimes, but the property that we build on is usually either empty or the house has passed the point of being revitalized.”

Habitat has funding to build four more houses in Napier Heights.

“And most importantly, we have a desire from homeowners to live in the neighborhood,” Hall said.

Qualified Habitat homeowners never pay more than 30% of their income on housing, but the organization also works to protect neighborhood property values in the process.

“We don’t ever want to price a house so low that it brings down values in the neighborhood. So, we actually have two mortgages on all of our houses,” Hall said.

The homeowner pays the first mortgage with 0% interest over 20 years and the organization pays the second mortgage which makes up the difference between what the homeowner can pay and the market value of the neighborhood.

Habitat is already building community with the three new homeowners who have been working on the new houses that are nearly complete.

“They’ve now worked side by side for almost a year and been able to get to know one another and have that bond,” Hall said. “So, when they move in, they know their neighbors already, which is wonderful.”

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.

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