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Lincoln Heights needs more residents and businesses. Re-zoning could attract them

The historic Village of Lincoln Heights has struggled with an insufficient tax base for decades. The racist decisions of county leaders caused the problem when the community was incorporated 76 years ago. Current Village leaders say there's never been more momentum for improvement than now, and a detailed land use plan maps out the optimistic future they're working toward.

'Panning for gold' in Lincoln Heights

Lincoln Heights Pizzeria sits on the corner of Jackson and Leggett. Kevin Longino opened the business about six months ago.

"There [was] no pizzeria in the village of Lincoln Heights, and at one time they didn't even want to come to deliver into the village." Longino said. "But the village is a nice place to be."

Longino doesn't live in the village, but his family is from here and his daughter has operated a daycare next door for about 20 years.

He says doing business in this small community of about 3,000 residents is a bit like prospectors panning for gold.

"Every now and then they'll get a nugget, and they'll be happy and keep going and keep going til eventually they get a vein," he said. "So I'm just panning for nuggets."

The pizzeria is zoned commercial and surrounded by single family, multi-family, and vacant buildings. There are only a few other businesses in the village, and they're scattered all over because there's no commercial district.

"I have to let people, let them aware that I'm here," Longino said. "So if I can get them to come here, we're gonna give them quality service, good food, and hopefully they'll come back."

The pizzeria is in a small brick building from 1937. It's exactly the kind of thing village leaders want to see more of: history and new business all in one.

The entire village is less than one square mile. Officials want to re-zone large parts of the community to attract new residents and businesses.

A land use plan under consideration would double medium density residential area. But the main goal is to create community hubs with local businesses and recreation right next to high-density housing. The plan would add 60 acres zoned for mixed-use development, like retail on the first floor with apartments above.

Village Manager Joyce Powdrill sees Memorial Field as the key to a successful community center.

"Over the years it has gone into decline and disrepair," Powdrill said. "We're investing a lot of funds into restoring it to that place where it was ... with the support of a lot of community partners and organizations helping us to do that."

The Reds Community Fund is helping renovate the field this year as part of its Community Makeover, as well as several other projects throughout the village.

The field is southeast of the new elementary school, a modern building in sharp contrast to the two vacant structures just south of Memorial Field. The former elementary school and high school are structurally unsafe and likely need to be demolished.

"[The village] owns the high school, and so we can put something useful there that will hopefully drive revenue for the village," Powdrill said. The former elementary school is privately owned.

'We always want to include our residents'

Tonya Key, chair of the Village Council's Economic Development Committee, is leading the effort to develop the overall land use plan.

"It impacts traffic, it impacts safety for the residents," Key said. "We want our community to be very walkable, and so if we have a business right in the center of our community, how does that look? Can our residents walk to that village? Or do they have to or walk to that business? Or do they have to drive to that location? And so that's where we're looking at — what makes the most sense aesthetically, and what makes the most sense practically?"

At a public meeting to learn more about the land use plan, some longtime residents are excited about what the village could look like in the future.

Martinez Butts has lived here his entire life, almost 60 years.

"My family and I are in the process of discussing how to possibly start a laundromat business and we're currently investigating different sites here in the village," Butts said.

Butts says even as a kid, he knew the village had a tax base problem.

"I'm glad to see that there are things that addressed that in the land use strategy," he said. "And I'm just hoping that the way they put it together is sound enough to actually attract some of those kinds of businesses."

It's not universally popular, though. Some residents worry that widespread zoning changes will displace people from their homes.

Mayor Ruby Kinsey-Mumphrey says there will be lots of opportunities to weigh in before any decisions are made.

"We want to always include our residents and what they would like to see the community reshaped to look like that brings in new revenue streams [and] increase in our housing stock, because we have constantly throughout the last 10 years, I would say, seen a decline in the value of our homes," Kinsey-Mumphrey said.

Right now the plan is just a blueprint. Tonya Key says it's flexible enough to change based on community input.

"One other thing is we know that there's going to be some things that we have to make hard decisions on as a leadership, as the council, we have to make those hard decisions," Key said. "So I may not be able to use 3,000 voices … but I might have to look at, OK, what's the best approach for where we are and where we're going?"

Key says change will happen slowly, and she wants Lincoln Heights residents to voice their opinions every step of the way.

See the full draft land use plan below: