We thought we had a good idea. Like all ideas, we knew the devil was in the details, and we needed help identifying them. So we called Mississippi Main Street.
This was back in 2003. As a new urban Main Street program, Greater Belhaven engaged in an intensive, week-long Main Street charrette process that confirmed our long-range and action plans. We had to redefine Fortification Street from the Yazoo Clay to the lighting and that meant rezoning it, too.
Fortification Street – also known as Exit 96-C off I-55 -- is a roadway that has its roots in antebellum times and the fortification hills that served as a battlefield during the Civil War. Often considered the spine of Greater Belhaven, Fortification Street is one of three gateways into downtown Jackson, hosting more than 20,000 vehicles a day. It is the conduit to several institutions including Baptist Health Systems, Millsaps College, Belhaven University and New Stage Theatre.
Once I-55 was built, Fortification Street went from a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood street to a busy, four-lane thoroughfare. The street embodied all the bad things that happened in neighborhoods across America when the Interstate system was built: flight to the suburbs, ensuing blight, and a patchwork quilt of nonsensical zoning granted through political cronyism and poor planning.
Within Greater Belhaven are two local historic districts that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With a measure of self-preservation, these areas turned inward in fights against commercial encroachment and in doing so ignored Fortification Street for decades.
The road was without question one of the worst in the state. Deep potholes splattered the roadway and the four narrow lanes sandwiched between small, circa-1920 cottages created a hazardous barrier between Belhaven Heights and Belhaven neighborhoods.
How could a newly formed neighborhood non-profit hope to make a difference? We employed the Four Point Approach of Main Street and began building a case for rethinking Fortification Street and how it could better serve our City.
In 2005, Greater Belhaven became Jackson’s first neighborhood since 1974 to tackle comprehensive rezoning. The result is a mixed-use district along Fortification Street that employs many of the new urbanism tenants, including pedestrian-friendly, fewer curb-cuts, wider sidewalks and heavily landscaped parking lots.
The Fortification Street Project – a $15.5 million “road diet” finally got underway in late 2012 – 11 years after we first had our great idea. Fortification Street has been resized from four to three lanes, sports 5-foot-wide sidewalks, new water and sewer lines, a green strip and decorative lighting, and all of the utilities have been buried. The street wasn’t been done quickly, but by using the Main Street model, we were able to do the research and come up with a plan – a plan that we have been working for more than a decade.
Since the roadway was resurfaced, businesses such as Kat’s Wine Cellar, a Fortification Street business since the 1960s, have thrived. McDade’s Market invested $400,000 in building improvements that coincided with the reopening of Fortification Street and has since seen a 10 percent increase in pre-road construction revenue. Lou’s Full Serve restaurant opened shortly after the road construction was completed. Sole owner, Louis Larose, invested $345,000 in renovations and has created 30 new jobs.
The Greater Belhaven Foundation conducted another charrette in 2006 to study the newly created mixed-use district that was spawned in the first charrette. From this we realized that perhaps our greatest opportunity for development and growth was just north of the intersection of North State and Fortification streets, across from Baptist Health Systems. This area was included in the rezoning effort and was ripe for development.
The result was The Belhaven, a 180,000 square-foot, $80 million development, which opened in the summer of 2013. Needing room to grow, Baptist Health Systems and the Greater Belhaven Foundation worked together on long-range planning for the area. Developing a land use plan, creating a mixed-use district through rezoning, and envisioning the future through a charrette were pivotal steps that over a five-year period led to the construction of the game-changing new development.
The Belhaven sits on one of six blocks owned by Baptist Health Systems across North State Street from its main campus. Before construction, the blocks situated between Poplar, Fortification, North State and Jefferson Street, were peppered with empty or underutilized buildings and the nearly 1,000 accompanying parking spaces added unattractiveness and perceived blight. The six blocks were ripe for mixed-use development that would give the hospital the space it needed to attract more physicians, while also providing the neighborhood the retail space it needed for more restaurants and shops.
The new zoning mandated that the development must include offices, retail and residences. But where were people to live? The Belhaven -- which was developed and is owned by Landmark Healthcare Facilities in Milwaukee, Minnesota – was nearly overflowing with interested tenants before construction began. The solution: 11 townhouses were built around the parking garage exterior at street level, facing Manship and North Streets. They screen the garage from the neighborhood and also act as a buffer between the large commercial development and historic homes.
The Belhaven by the numbers:
In 2015, the Mississippi Main Street Association awarded the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation the Best New Development Project for The Belhaven.
Executive Director Virgi Lindsay took home a personal award for Outstanding Main Street Director and the Charles Beasley Scholarship Award. During her 15-year tenure directing the Greater Belhaven Foundation, the following were accomplished: the Fortification Street Project, The Belhaven Building Project, the historic Belhaven and Belhaven Heights neighborhoods officially listed on the National Register as local historic districts (the largest historic designation in the state!), the Being Belhaven Arts Series, Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights (annual street festival that celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2015), the Belhaven Park Project and much more.
Greater Belhaven was named one of America's 10 Great Neighborhoods in 2014 by the American Planning Association as a part of the Great Places Awards program.
The Foundation strives to stimulate activities that foster the ongoing development of a unique and desirable community-driven, strong, viable urban neighborhood that gives people a desirable option to live within the city limits and become invested in community development. This investment, in turn, strengthens the Jackson community as a whole.
Website information from Greater Belhaven: http://www.greaterbelhaven.com/