ALBANY -- A few years back, before decay and blight hit downtown Albany like twin sledgehammers, Joe Coleman was an unintentional observer of elements of a city nightlife that was the envy of the region.
His Highland Avenue home was strategically located between what was then a swinging nighclub in the Heritage House hotel and the equally hopping House of Jazz blues club.
"I kinda had to seal myself in," Coleman says, noting the fencing that surrounds his property. "I called my place 'Fort Apache'."
Coleman's "fort," because of its location, now sits at ground zero of an area that is the center of a controversial plan to turn the tragically decaying Heritage House and land around it into a $16 million development that will feature 90 low- to moderate-income rental units and 70 housing units for the elderly.
The would-be developer, Romeo Comeau, approached city officials with the plan only days before bids were to go out on asbestos abatement and demolition of the city's most prominent eyesore. Now, much to the chagrin of many in the community -- including Coleman -- demolition plans have been put on hold while the city's Department of Community and Economic Development works with Comeau to try and secure federal stimulus money to help pay for the project.
"Things are pretty much on hold right now while we wait to see if any money will be awarded through a Neighborhood Stabilization Funding Grant," Community and Economic Development Director Latoya Cutts said. "It's unlikely, even if a grant is awarded, that there will be enough funding to cover all costs of the project.
"The question then becomes how much private financing the developer has available. I know he's had some discussions with a couple of banks. We're now waiting to see if this project is feasible. This office will be the first point of contact from HUD when a decision is made on the grant."
Concerns over Comeau's past business dealings and his plans to finance the project using mostly federal stimulus money have diluted public support for the proposed project, but Albany City Manager Alfred Lott said Friday he still would rather see the owner utilize the property than to have to use city funding to clean it up.
"I think Mr. Comeau's giving it the college try," Lott said. "He's waiting right now to see if his plan meets the criteria to qualify for federal money, and frankly I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I'd prefer that the owner deal with this property.
"If Mr. Comeau's plan is approved, we'll get this eyesore demolished, and we'll keep the property on our tax roles."
The director of the city/county Code Enforcement office admitted Friday to frustration that the demolition process was stopped at the Heritage House around the 11th hour, but he said he expects the count to continue if funding efforts are not approved.
"From the perspective of cleaning up that property, we're still interested in demolition of the place," Mike Tilson said. "But right now our efforts are on hold. The (City) Commission was to set a deadline for the developer, and it is my understanding if he is not successful we'll go back to the demolition bid process.
"I think it's come out that Mr. Comeau was interested in developing student housing at that property, but when that didn't come to fruition he proposed the senior living complex. Our office is pretty much hands-off there until the matter is settled."
Hands-off is the last thing Coleman, an amazingly spry 70-year-old retiree who worked with Albany's Water, Gas & Light Commission for 40 years, wants.
While entertaining a visitor recently, he points out gaping holes cut into the fencing that was put in place to keep people out of the shell of the Heritage House. He notes the huge overgrowth from the property next door that threatens to spill over onto his well-kept lot. He mentions that the grass and weeds there "have not been cut in three years."
Coleman faces the other way and gestures toward his neighbor on the west: "A crack house that has people coming in and out at all hours."
"This used to be a wonderful neighborhood," he sighs. "I've lived on Highland all my life, and I wouldn't trade having grown up here for a great sum of money. The 400 and 500 blocks of Highland were great places for a boy to grow up.
"But there are all kinds of illicit activities in the neighborhood now. There are prostitutes walking the alley behind my house at all hours, and drug deals are common. If I called in everything I see, I'd be in court or at the LEC (law enforcement center) all the time. And if people riding down Oglethorpe think it's bad in front of the old Heritage House; they should see the back."
Coleman spent his early boyhood in a house at 522 Highland, where he, his parents and his three brothers lived what he describes as an idyllic life. The ethnically diverse neighborhood, referred to as "Little Jerusalem" because of its large Jewish population, was teeming with boys of all nationalities who spent their days playing together.
"I can't remember there ever being problems," Coleman says. "We actually had a milk cow that grazed on our property, and our neighbors would come get milk from us, even after pasteurization laws were passed."
A tornado destroyed the church next door to the Colemans' home, and it ripped off the family's front porch. Coleman's parent eventually moved into a house a few blocks west, and he has lived there since.
Even as urban blight set in and the once grand neighborhood lost its luster, Coleman has remained. He was approached by Comeau about the possible purchase of his property, but Coleman is no easy sell.
"Oh, my property is available," he said. "But it's not going to be a giveaway. I have just under 6 acres of land my parents bought in Lee County a long time ago, and I have a small cottage on it. It's very liveable, but that's not going to make me leave my house here for nothing.
"Mr. Comeau seemed like a nice man, but I told him I wanted to see his proposed project well under way before I get serious about releasing my property at any price. He told me he could show me a plan, but I told him that wasn't good enough. (Former owner) Marvin Baptiste had a plan, and we see where that went."
Coleman says his only beef with the city is that it failed to act in a timely manner in protecting citizens from hazardous materials (asbestos) that abound in the old Heritage House. He claims city officials should have inspected and discovered the material even before the Environmental Protection Division came in and shut down work on the property.
"In that," Coleman says, "the city shares some of the blame for that mess over there. It's really sad to see the shape that building is in and to see people hurt by it. I feel sorry for them, but I'm not going to let my feelings make me a victim."