If any one message has remained consistent coming from both Africatown residents and stakeholders since MEJAC was founded 10 years ago in 2013 by Africatown residents in partnership with community stakeholders and regional advocates, it is the recognition that the community needs systematic economic development that is neither polluting nor disrespectful to the community’s residential heritage as having developed from a group of survivors who were illegally trafficked as enslaved people into the United States in 1860.
An idea is being shopped to the community that claims it would do exactly that and with no down sides, and it is was presented to the community as “Africatown Studios” in a meeting that presented an exciting promise of jobs and economic stabilization to some and a deeply problematic boondoggle to others. The roll out has been nothing short of polarizing, and many long-term advocate Africatown community organizations are praying the polarization isn’t the point of the project promotional exercise.
Several Africatown residents attended and community stakeholders the meeting held by Africatown Studios proponents on Saturday, March 4 at the Robert Hope Community Center. The meeting won support from some of those present but easily just as many were left with lingering questions and concerns while a few rejected the proposal outright. Some residents left unhappy with how the meeting was conducted while many residents simply couldn’t make the meeting due to not hearing about it until a day or two before it was conducted.
Another presentation of Africatown Studios was made to the Africatown Redevelopment Corporation monthly meeting on the evening of Tuesday, March 7, which reinforced some concerns from residents and stakeholders unhappy with the public engagement process for the project.
MEJAC encouraged all those who came to our organization with concerns to write them down, think about them, and seek feedback from friends and family. We discussed them and decided what questions we would simply publish on our blog in this fashion to the developers and promotional team of Africatown Studios and the broader interested public.
This isn’t simply a gish gallop debate tactic for us but we wish to seriously consider the proposal with the goal of there being a respectful prospective partnership conversation between hesitant residents and the developers and also to make what our members have learned so far from Africatown Studios developers and promoters transparent to others.
To hear more and to better understand not just the potential economic benefits and burdens of the project but also its cultural purpose is critical, because that reflects the values with which we feel prospective community developers should engage Africatown.
If we have misinterpreted or mischaracterized previous statements made by the Africatown Studios project promoters, we invite them to help us better understand.
We also want residents and stakeholders to have a clear understanding of their right to public participation well before and during any permitting phase for the Africatown Studios project, as we would for any project of this scope and magnitude in any environmental justice community in our region. Where zoning designations must be changed or variances sought to make the project conform with protective standards for vulnerable Africatown neighborhoods, the Substantial Justice of the changes must be proven.
We invite the Africatown Studios project promoters to not jump to any conclusions about where MEJAC stands.
This post is broken up with narrative background and questions generally falling under the following headings:
- Why Is Africatown Studios Being Proposed?
- Substantial Justice: What all does the Africatown Studios Flyer Say?
- Location Background
- Land Use and Zoning Background
- How’s Community Engagement Been So Far?
- The Good: Who Will Africatown Studios Benefit and How?
- The Bad: What Risks would there be for Residents?
- The Ugly: Why Was the Community Told Houses Can’t Be Built There?
- What’s Next? How Does the Community Weigh in?
1. Why is Africatown Studios Being Proposed?
On October 17, 2022, the same week that the the Descendant documentary about Africatown was released to a worldwide audience on Netflix, four Alabama corporate entities were formed by Robert Isakson Sr. of Lafayette Land Company, a company with many successful developments in the Mobile area and abroad. Those Alabama corporate entities are: Africatown Historic Housing LLC, Africatown Land LLC, Africatown Movie Studios LLC, and Africatown Studios LLC.
Questions raised about this Africatown Studios origin story by residents and stakeholders include:
- When did the idea to name these corporations after the historic Africatown community come about?
- Who came up with the idea to call any of these entities Africatown?
- Was anyone from the Africatown community or any residents otherwise engaged or consulted at that point?
- What in the vision and formation of these corporate entities reflects Africatown’s cultural values?
- Was the timing for forming these corporations as informed by the worldwide premier of Descendant as it plainly appears?
2. Substantial Justice: What all does the Africatown Studios Flyer Say?
Flyers for the Saturday, March 4, 2023 Africatown Studios community meeting were passed out on the Wednesday and Thursday before. Many complained that this was a disrespectful way to begin engagement with the whole community because so many might not have been able to plan to be present with such short notice and at least one resident along Jakes Lane didn’t receive a flyer at all, and those folks live about 250 feet away from the property in question.
The flyers showed an artistic rendering of the facility, illustrating eight numbered warehouse soundstages, two very large lettered warehouse soundstages where the current Merchants Transfer Company warehouses sit, an office building, a surface area which is almost completely paved – even over a couple of hazardous materials transmission pipeline easements across the property, and some green space which illustrates where the current Alabama Power power line easements are. The image can also be found at the underdeveloped Africatown Studios website.
Speaking of the Africatown Studios website, when one attempts to click the “Contact Me” button on the website, an email to “email@example.com” pops up. When one clicks the LinkedIn logo, one is taken to the SquareSpace LinkedIn page, and the same happens except on Twitter when one clicks on the Twitter icon. The screen shots below illustrate exactly how unhelpful the Africatown Studios website is:
A. Location Background
Where Africatown Studios is proposed to be developed was finally publicly shared on the community meeting flyer. The location in the City of Mobile CityMap application is illustrated below (shaded gray):And here in the same program with a satellite photograph image base (shaded gray):
But you might notice the highlighted portion on these images are smaller than what was illustrated on the flyer. That’s because, as mentioned, the two large lettered warehouse soundstages on the Africatown Studios flyer and website are currently occupied Merchants Transfer Company warehouses. The promoters clarified on Tuesday that the additional large lettered warehouse soundstages in their artistic rendering are to be basically considered a Phase 2-5, if feasible. Phase 1 is the area shaded gray above, which is actually two parcels of about 18 acres total, which according to current City of Mobile CityMap data, is currently owned by Bean Properties LLC. Their CityMap parcel data is illustrated below:This triangular property is currently zoned Residential-1. It used to host the New Quarters subdivision where some living direct descendants of Clotilda survivors grew up. They were demolished by the Meaher family, according to oral tradition, and sold to International Paper, which, also according to oral tradition, sometimes used the property as a parking lot in non-conforming land use for many years until they stopped. Chippewa Lakes LLC, a Meaher familt real estate corporate entity, is still listed among the properties leased by Merchants Transfer Company for this warehouse complex immediately next door to several current Africatown residents.
When International Paper closed, the Alabama State Port Authority purchased almost its entire former footprint, including the triangular property shaded above. The Port Authority then sold it to Bean Properties LLC.
On November 6 2014, Bean Properties LLC submitted and was denied a Rezoning Application to take the property from Residential-1 to Industrial-2 in order to host two steel manufacturing and distribution warehouses. There was considerable opposition at the time to removing that much vacant land and upzoning so dramatically and so closely to the residents along Jakes Lane, many of whom live less than 250 feet away from the property.
However, Bean Properties’ proposed land use did not appear intent on paving the entirety of the property, unlike the Africatown Studios artistic renderings.
The property is just outside the National Park Service’s Africatown Historic District, but well within the Africatown Planning Area, the Africatown Overlay, and its Africatown Safety Zone, which provide additional land use protections and guidance to decision-makers. The Africatown Neighborhood Plan created the Africatown Planning Area and was adopted by the City of Mobile Planning Commission in January 2016.
Because no permits have been sought due to property not having yet been exchanged, perhaps so as not to rush to legal procedures to not offend the Africatown community’s sensibilities, the new City of Mobile Unified Development Code’s (UDC) zoning code rewrite is the law of the land today. The new UDC, and its Africatown Overlay and Safety Zones went into effect on March 1, 2023.
Here’s Africatown Studios Phase 1 situated among regional political and planning boundaries:
For clarity’s sake, as one can see from the map above, all official planning designations exist entirely within the City of Mobile. Despite the Africatown community arguably and historically extending into the City of Prichard municipal boundaries, there are no Prichard Africatown planning districts in the immediate vicinity. This leads some to only weigh potential project and program impacts with Mobile residents despite many Prichard residents sharing cultural, social, and economic ties to all of Africatown.
Returning to the maps, here’s a detailed look at some of Africatown Studios Phase 1’s immediate surroundings. You can see how Africatown Studios Phase 1 sits just outside the Africatown Historic District but still within the Africatown Safety Zone and Africatown Planning Area boundaries:
The important thing to remember is that no matter how much planning and deliberation goes into a particular piece of property, property owners often have many options to pursue if they wish to attempt to alter a current land use or zoning permissions to one that is not recommended by planning documents and overlay districts. They are just required to demonstrate extraordinary need and to often prove the zoning changes and/or permits would be “a substantial justice” in the case of a variance given by the Board of Adjustment. The City Council re-zoning process weighs considerations like the City’s planning documents like the Africatown Neighborhood Plan, the Africatown Overlay District, the Africatown Safety Zone, and the Future Land Use Map (FLUM).
The City of Mobile FLUM for the Africatown area is basically a translation from the Africatown Neighborhood Plan’s FLUM, but an important aspect of the Africatown Neighborhood Plan’s FLUM that is often not acknowledged is that while the Plan’s Steering Committee was very involved in the charrette phase of the Plan’s development, the final product was done by the Mobile Planning Department. Steering Committee members requested repeatedly to see the plan before it was presented to the Planning Commission for adoption, but that opportunity was never afforded. In the end, the Plan’s FLUM fails to clearly indicate what the community emphatically said in the charrettes with the Plan facilitation team – that the community wanted no more new polluting industries at all in the Africatown Planning Area.
Today, the City of Mobile’s FLUM describes vast swaths of the Africatown Planning Area perpetually sacrificed to Heavy Industry, the most permissive zoning afforded by Mobile, as seen in the composite from the City of Mobile Planning and Zoning FLUM interactive online map:
In the image above, one can make out the distinctive triangular shape of the proposed Africatown Studios properties, which is thankfully not included in the area proposed for Heavy Industry.
B. Land Use and Zoning Background
A movie studio would best be described in the Chart of Permitted Uses (Sec. 64-2-24, p. 62) as “Media Production” and according to the Chart, that use is only permitted By Right in B-4, B-5, CW, and I-1 zoning designations. It is permitted by Special Exception at the Board of Adjustment in B-3 and I-2 zoning designations. It could also be permitted with its current R-1 zoning through a Variance of Zoning Ordinance process (Zoning Variance), which is also heard by the Board of Adjustment.
The promoters could also seek a Rezoning through the City Council like Bean Properties LLC, but they have indicated an interest in having the property remain R-1 should Africatown Studios not be financially viable, much in a similar way as to what happened with the old Scott Credit Union.
However, also like the old Scott Credit Union, if the eight warehouse soundstage with an office building Africatown Studios Phase 1 concept fails, then the community will be left with nine non-conforming structures on R-1 land instead of one and possibly, according to their rendering, a huge impervious surface to additionally complicate stormwater runoff impacts around the property.
Regardless of the zoning covenants on the land, if Africatown Studios Phase 1 is built, Residential or Neighborhood Business use will essentially be denied in perpetuity or require major demolition to reestablish. If Africatown Studios Phase 1 is built, an area bigger than the size of the entire campus of the Mobile County Training School would be taken out of not just possible residential redevelopment but also anything else that could go there. A sculpture garden could go there. A monument to the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade could go there. A beautiful greenway could connect the Africatown Community Garden and Jakes Lane with Hog Bayou, as the Africatown Connections Blueway suggests could be possible for the site. A neighborhood business or several could go there with mixed use residential and commercial development.
Below, you can see that the FLUM describes this land as “Traditional Center”:
The “Traditional Center” designation was developed out of the Map For Mobile comprehensive planning process. “Neighborhood Center – Traditional” is how it became known in the new UDC.
As cumbersome as municipal planning documents are, these are important, because they form the “logic” by which the City of Mobile must justify proposed changes to zoning guidance. Only certain types of businesses and forms of land use intensity are suggested for “Neighborhood Center – Traditional” zones in the FLUM.
Arguably, Africatown Studios’ proposed Media Production land use with its 10 warehouse soundstages and an office building would need to fit into to the UDC’s definitions of what sorts of design standards are congruent with “Neighborhood Center – Traditional” zones in the FLUM.
The UDC being a comprehensive document provides design standards in Sec. 64-2 for each zoning district defensible in a “Neighborhood Center – Traditional” zone including standards for R-1, R-2, R-3, R-B (Residential Business), H-B (Historic Business), B-1 (Buffer Business), and T-B (Transitional Business).
Of those, Africatown Studios could only be superficial justified as one of the Business zoning districts, but do the artistic renderings of the proposed Africatown Studios’ 10 warehouse soundstages and office satisfy the design standards for any of the business districts that the UDC idenitifes as appropriate for “Neighborhood Center – Traditional” zones in the FLUM?
Mr. Isakson repeatedly suggested that Africatown Studios would act as a “buffer” between the residential community and the heavy industry around it.
For what its worth, Buffer Businesss are defined in the UDC as districts “composed of land and structures occupied by or suitable for such uses as residential, offices and parking. Although usually located between residential areas and business areas, these districts are in some instances free-standing in residential areas or they may include hospital, college or other public or semipublic groups and related uses. The district regulations are designed to protect and encourage the buffer character of the districts by limiting the permitted uses to dwellings and uses of a semicommercial nature and to protect the abutting and surrounding residential areas by requiring certain minimum yard and area standards to be met, standards that are comparable to those called for in the residence districts.”
The Residential Business, Historic Business, and Transitional Business designations likely could not justifiably apply to Africatown Studios, which leads to some questions:
- Is Media Production a land use of a “semicommercial nature”?
- Because they appear not to at first glance, do the artistic renderings offer to the Africatown community of Africatown Studios satisfy the minimum yard size, building height, civic space, and landscaping requirements set forth by the Buffer Business standard?
MEJAC was able to gather almost all this context simply based on the graphic information presented on the flyer, but this information is not immediately explained for residents and stakeholders, raising and important question:
- How does a community make an informed decision when so much information is withheld from their full consideration?
3. How Has Community Engagement Been So Far?
When MEJAC volunteers arrived at the Saturday, March 4 community meeting, some immediately and politely requested clarity on the intentions around the Africatown Overlay and Safety Zone restrictions but were were received as hostile “outsiders” instead of carefully vetted longstanding advocates. The belligerence of some on the Africatown Studios promotional team was at times unnerving, but despite the communication challenges all seemed committed to additional talks at the time. Unfortunately, those have not yet been forthcoming.
At the Tuesday, March 7 meeting with the Africatown Redevelopment Corporation, a nonprofit agency representing different Africatown CBOs and elected official appointees created by the Alabama Legislature to handle the business of housing and economic redevelopment within the National Park Services Africatown Historic District, Africatown Studios promoters apologized for the short notice for the Saturday meeting after receiving some criticism about it. They chalked it up to lessons learned. Engagement with vulnerable and under-resourced communities is a practice, they were reminded, and they were also reminded that they had been advised months before on some community engagement best practices by at least some Africatown leaders that they chose to ignore.
Additionally, not very many facts were presented at all at either meeting. In both cases, many who started with some questions had just as many coming in than they did when leaving.
What was presented at both was an portrait of a nearly perfect, practically flawless project which would be of immense benefit to its Africatown neighbors and worthy of bearing the Africatown name. Surely reasonable people can agree that there’s a good, a bad, and an ugly with practically everything people do everywhere, so it’s hard to believe there are no down sides. The intelligence of Africatown residents should not be underestimated.
But the curiosity about corporate structure, community benefits options, and community oversight didn’t receive very much clarity at all aside from what was offered piecemeal on Tuesday. As of Tuesday according to what was told to MEJAC President Ramsey Sprague, a corporate board for Africatown Studios had not been formed except for Mr. Isakson. Anyone representing themselves otherwise can be assumed to be contradicting what Africatown Studios promoters are saying.
One could understand that the person who incorporated Africatown Studios wouldn’t seek to divulge huge amounts of information related to their financial tolerances for various sorts of community benefits packages, but the total lack of transparency about current corporate structure on Saturday was inappropriate and infantilizing of residents and stakeholders who have long expressed weariness of Africatown profiteers whose services to the protection, preservation, and promotion of the community aren’t clearly established.
Many had the following lingering questions:
- Who, if anybody, from the community is or will be on the board of these four Africatown-named corporations? How will they be determined to adequately represent the interests of the whole community?
- Who did Africatown Studios meet with prior to the Saturday, March 4 meeting?
- There have been some very strong insinuations of support from several Africatown community leaders from various Africatown Studios promoters, but there haven’t been any attempted meetings with the Africatown CBO boards of the Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation, the Clotilda Descendants Association, the Africatown~CHESS organization, or with MEJAC. Why not – especially when all these groups are directly associated with the Descendant film?
- Did any Africatown residents, elected officials, or CBO leaders offer clear endorsement of the project other than those present and identified at the Saturday, March 4 meeting during their introductory remarks?
- It was said on Saturday that if the community didn’t approve of the project, the promoters would seek to develop it elsewhere and that there were plenty of other options for them. By what metric will Africatown Studios promoters consider the community in a state of approval?
- Will the promoters further insulate themselves from skeptical or dissenting residents by exclusively deepening their alliances and dialogues with those who support the project?
More should have been said about concerns of this nature.
4. The Good: Who Will Africatown Studios Benefit and How?
It was repeatedly suggested that there were no down sides to Africatown Studios. But aside from the flyer and some words from promoters, the sales pitch lacked a lot of specifics regarding labor and educational opportunities for residents and students of all ages. We heard about jobs, of course. These were described as opportunities for unskilled labor, catering, and additional training tracks for cosmetology and other technical aspects of media production work. Unfortunately, no labor groups were actually present to further describe how these programs would work.
We also heard about partnerships with educators, but, again, none were present to describe them.
There have been rumors of charitable work being supported by Africatown Studios but even fewer specifics than with the labor and educational questions. Assuming the rumors the some are hearing are true, Africatown Studios may be considering forming another Africatown nonprofit foundation that would receive a percentage of the Studios’ gross profits annually. How the funds are being considered to be distributed by the Africatown Studios Foundation is an extremely important question.
If one must apply to receive assistance, one can be denied, and how direct assistance to Africatown residents is applied has long been a point on contention among Africatown CBO groups. Better models exist than foundations with restrictions on how financial benefit can be applied by applicants, and if Africatown is precious enough to slap onto a media production concept, it’s precious enough to pioneer new models of direct economic benefit to residential stakeholders.
For instance, a hybrid approach where some money is donated to an existing Africatown nonprofit foundation as restricted funds for infrastructure improvements (one with an appropriate financial infrastructure) and the rest is directed to Africatown residents who are enfranchised as recipients of a profit-sharing dividend would be quite innovative. It could also be arguably more appropriate as a model of direct benefit to impacted neighbors than another charity that polices and gate-keeps resources from residents in a barely modified trickle-down or, worse, patronage format.
Some present on Saturday, March 4 requested the development of a Community Benefits Agreement between Africatown Studios and the residents with oversight from established charitable stakeholder groups who have track records of handling residential and community business. Others wanted to hear about jobs quotas or first look opportunities for residents looking for jobs, as well.
Africatown Studios did make commitments to work with Africatown community leaders to ensure opportunities were made available for the community, but the answers to more pointed questions were murky, and that led to, you guessed it, more questions:
- Is there a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion so Africatown Studios at least vaguely resembles Africatown?
- Why were no educational professionals present to affirm opportunities about which they have become aware and supportive?
- Why were so few (if any) media industry workers present to affirm the same? They would be the ones to reassure the community how studio production work actually works and the best ways to ensure their access to fulfilling production jobs.
- Where were the representatives from the Alabama Film Office or even the Mobile Film Office?
- Why were those in the community, who because they were featured in and have been involved with promoting Descendant with the film’s production and impact teams arguably have the most experience in the media production world in the community, not approached as a trust-building exercise to offer an opportunity to deliberate with their professional contacts and friends media world about Africatown Studios ahead of time?
- Has local organized labor been approached about the goal of bringing in larger studio and union-made films?
- Have there been any economic feasibility studies to suggest a strong enough media production market to justify the burden of trading away potential residential, monument, greenway, etc spaces?
- Why was there no mention that there is already a fairly state of the art soundstage in the Expo Hall downtown that gets routine use? Why were none of its users present?
- Is Africatown Studios intent to compete directly with the existing film infrastructure in Mobile and the workers it employs?
- What percentage of local talent, labor, and services make up the most recent film shoots in Mobile? In Alabama?
- Of the proposed 600 jobs, how many would be full time with benefits? Are the positions’ wage projections developed already?
- How should locals employed by Africatown Studios expect to fare between contracts?
- Will the studio be work-for-hire? Are there plans to generate original content? Will there be opportunities for local content creators, particularly those from Africatown, to have a space to work their craft, as well?
- What types of companies and filmmakers does Africatown Studios intend to work with?
- Has Africatown Studios identified the primary type of content they’re looking to make (films, television, advertising, etc.)?
Africatown Studios promoters mentioned a total reliance on the possible expansion of the Alabama film and media incentives annual rebate cap but no draft legislation was shared, nor was it shared who intends to co-sponsor the legislation that would apparently carry the only viable future for Africatown Studios. They. made clear that Africatown Studios is not a viable project without in-state media production incentives being competitive with those of neighboring states and other across the country. But the thing with legislation like this is that it would benefit the entire state’s media production interests, not just Mobile’s or Africatown’s, leading to the following questions:
- What is the threat that Birmingham, Montgomery, and Huntsville media production entities could pose to the long-term viability of Africatown Studios?
- Does this explain why “Africatown” is being used to prominently in the title of the Mobile Studio? For competitive edge?
- What efforts will be undertaken to prevent the use of pass through businesses exploiting incentive loopholes? In other words, what steps will Africatown Studios take to ensure its supply chains and labor pools are in fact not misrepresenting their status as in-state resources? Is the Alabama Film Office incentive audit process enough of a protection?
We were also told about how Africatown Studios will be quiet and non-polluting, but there are related questions residents have:
- What sorts of progressive environmental standards or certifications will Africatown Studios carry?
- What hours will Africatown Studios operate?
- How much outdoor activity should neighbors living within a couple hundred feed of Africatown Studios expect to experience as noise and visual incursion?
5. The Bad: What Risks would there be for Residents?
Unfortunately, residents and advocates didn’t get much of a candid read from Africatown Studios promoters about potential risks, because as mentioned before they have been fully committed to selling the idea and getting enthusiastic buy-in from residents. But in their commitment, they have declined to admit any faults with the plans except that it all hinges on a media production incentives bill passing through the state legislature. Mr. Isakson, for his part, did indicate at the Saturday meeting that his team “may not have all the answers”.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any risks or that Africatown residents aren’t intelligent enough to consider them.
As was the case with the Bean Properties LLC bid to rezone the area, the fact that development on that site would happen 250 feet from occupied homes along Jakes Lane is likely to prove a sticking point for some potential Africatown Studios neighbors. However, unlike the Bean rezoning attempt, Africatown Studios has indicated it would likely seek a Zoning Variance with conditional permission to operate as long as the Studios land use remains the same. Practically speaking, that means Africatown Studios would revert back to a strict R-1 zoning if it were to go out of business.
But should Africatown Studios Phase 1 get green lighted, construction of 8 warehouses and an office building happens, and the business goes under, the community would be left, again, with non-conforming structures on R-1 Residential zoned property, much like the dilapidated former Scott Credit Union building.
And despite the rosy forecast for Alabama film making (if the financial incentives makes Alabama competitive with its closest market challengers), market forces can go both up and down. If the Studios partnership with Africatown residents and stakeholders isn’t carefully executed and direct cooperative economics goes unexplored by the studios proponents for its Africatown resident neighbors, the blowback from unhappy residents could prove a public relations challenge for the media studio in a highly-sensitive-to-public-image economic arena.
It would be a crying shame if Africatown Studios became a bottom-of-the-barrel soundstage option for Alabama media production due to stiff competition from other cities in the state and reluctance from some quarters to work with those who might have mishandled a precious world heritage jewel like Africatown.
Could you imagine a flailing Africatown Studios desperately producing Trumpian-level content to stay viable? How embarrassing would that be to everyone involved!
Without trusted leadership in the media production world attached to these efforts, legitimate fears of these sorts can’t be simply waved away.
Regardless, should the Africatown Studios vision become reality and hundreds of jobs become available and sustainable to residents, other risks including residential property tax increases in and around Africatown becoming unmanageable for otherwise long-term residents as well as community-connected property owners who don’t qualify for a Homestead exemption or for whom a Homestead wouldn’t otherwise provide protection from tax increases.
Property tax freezes, Homestead Exemption protections, and other forward-thinking measures to protect vulnerable populations from displacement form their neighborhoods and roots have certainly been discussed over the last 10 years, but none have resulted in solid proposals from elected officials against which community support could even be gauged seriously.
Housing education has been part and parcel of the the efforts by the constellation of Africatown advocacy nonprofits who have worked together for at least as long as MEJAC has been around – about 10 years now. However, the outreach efforts stalled, as much else did, during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and response, putting the community in a more vulnerable position today than it was prior.
Worse yet is the possibility that real estate speculation around the Africatown Studios project reaches a fever pitch before any Africatown housing market watchdog and community housing education work is clearly re-established post-pandemic. Such speculative real estate activities are not unknown to Black and poor communities around the Mobile area, though community advocates have been warned by leadership that gentrification is not a major concern in the city.
Whether posited as “gentrification” or “revitalization”, the how is just as important as the why.
Ultimately, there are very real risks that the community could face and treating the project as a zero risk/only benefits proposal is insulting to the intelligence of residents and stakeholders who simply want the best for the place they love, which poses a different sort of question:
- Why have Africatown Studios promoters not discussed risks more candidly?
6. The Ugly: Why Was the Community Told Houses Can’t Be Built There?
During the Saturday, March 4 presentation, Mr. Isakson asserted, “This is a piece of property that we have here that has, I think, 20 something pipelines underneath it – virtually a worthless piece of property. Nobody can reside on it, because it has gas pipelines underneath it. But it also has sewage pipelines, water pipeline- every pipeline known to man perhaps. So we’ve taken a property that we think is not able to be used for regular stuff and tried to put it into commerce.”
When given the opportunity Saturday, MEJAC President Ramsey Sprague showed Mr. Isakson the map of Methane/”Gas Transmission” and Hazardous Liquid (crude oil) Transmission Pipelines that cross the proposed Africatown Studios Phase 1 site. It is illustrated below:
In the image taken directly from the US Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Administration (PHMSA) National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS) above you can make out the very distinct triangular shape of the Bean Properties LLC parcels together actually outlined fairly neatly by pipeline easements within the lime green circle MEJAC added to highlight the area. There appear to be two distinct pipeline easements that follow the property boundary lines with two pipelines in each easement – not an uncommon arrangement in the pipeline world.
The easement that follows along the Africatown Community Garden border to the south contains two Hazardous Liquid (crude oil) Pipelines that belong to the Plains Pipeline LP system that runs from the Plains Petrochemical Above Ground Storage Tank Farm underneath the Africatown Bridge through the Mobile County Training School athletic field to Ten Mile Terminal in Central Mobile County.
The easement that follows along Paper Mill Road on the northeast facing side of the property contains one Hazardous Liquid (crude oil) Pipeline, which is a Shell Chemical pipeline that goes to Shell’s refinery on Bayou Sara in Saraland, and one Methane/”Gas” Transmission Pipeline, which is operated by Spire Gulf Inc (formerly Mobile Gas) and runs from the notorious Eight Mile methane treatment and transmission station to Kimberly Clark’s new methane-fired power plant turbines.
Sprague asserted to Mr. Isakson that, while it is true that most hazardous pipeline easements forbid the construction of any permanent structures anywhere on the easement they occupy, according to PHMSA’s NPMS there aren’t any hazardous pipelines located elsewhere on the site that would prevent homes being built, which leaves several acres for potential residential home construction or the development of another project altogether.
Mr. Isakson insisted there were at least 20 pipelines crossing the property, which Sprague didn’t dispute but about which Mr. Isakson provided no evidence. More evidence was requested at their next meeting about how those could possibly make residential or recreational development of the site impossible. That meeting has yet to happen. No phone calls to attempts to set up a meeting have been made by Mr. Isakson or the Africatown Studios promotional team.
Mr. Isakson then took Sprague to task berating them about why MEJAC should care about such things? “What’s it to you?”, he shouted.
Ramsey responded that Africatown residents founded MEJAC in 2013 to fight for Environmental Justice in our region and that as President there are expectations that come along with that role including asking critical questions in pursuit of truth and justice. Africatown’s losing of residential zoned land to encroachment via the promises of economic development representatives who misrepresent the facts of their case is a well documented concern of MEJAC’s and many across the region and, now, around the world.
It left those who observed the exchange firsthand and those who heard about from those who experienced it asking:
- In the context of this tremendous opportunity with no foreseeable down side, why bother embellishing the facts about something so important to so many in the community?
After more exchanges and some pretty big promises about health clinics, which is a whole other conversation with its own sets of concerns, Mr. Isakson sought dinner for himself and ate at the table still occupied by MEJAC President Ramsey Sprague and Africatown~CHESS Executive Director Joe Womack, and he appeared to calm down after he ate. Maybe Mr. Isakson was simply hangry, but the outburst was observed as unprofessional, degrading, polarizing, and manipulative by many who witnessed it.
That incident wasn’t even the first time Mr. Isakson raised his voice at the MEJAC President. Earlier in the evening before most of the crowd had arrived, he bitterly accused the MEJAC President of plotting to shut the Africatown Studios down because he was questioned about where the project was in terms of the planning, property acquisition, and permitting phases and if he was at all familiar with the Africatown Safety Zone land use and zoning intensity restrictions described above.
Those measures were hard won and primarily came to be due to proven residential and stakeholder engagement around and support for the protections. Many in the community are committed to preserving their integrity should their lingering questions and doubts not be addressed.
7. What’s Next? How Does the Community Weigh in?
Ultimately, we believe that the project could be early enough in its infancy that with the proper disclosures to more residents and clearly established stakeholder groups, something special whose benefits outweigh its burdens could be developed, but the overhyped sale pitch with its distortions of fact so far hasn’t been helpful towards reaching a resounding or even passive consensus among those who approach the Africatown Studios project cautiously.
We encourage Africatown Studios to pump the brakes and spend more time talking direct benefit instead of trickle down charity in exchange for the use of a phenomenal cultural brand and its potential real estate regenesis.
In the meantime, those who may have already taken an adversarial stance should know that Africatown Studios has committed to more and ongoing community engagement. For as flippantly as MEJAC President Ramsey Sprague was told by Mr. Isakson that he’d be happy to take his business elsewhere during their first conversation at the opening of the Saturday meeting, Mr. Isakson and other Africatown Studios promoters don’t appear to have given up yet. This doesn’t have to be taken as a bad sign.
As always, MEJAC encourages public participation by residents and residential stakeholders. The same way to stop Africatown Studios in this iteration is the same way to champion it – residents and residential stakeholders speak up.
Africatown residents should contact their elected officials, stay engaged in public meetings associated with the project, and KEEP ASKING QUESTIONS.
To reiterate, no matter how much planning and deliberation goes into a particular piece of property, a neighborhood, or a community, property owners often have many options to pursue if they wish to attempt to alter a current land use to one that is not recommended by planning documents and overlay districts. They are just required to demonstrate extraordinary need and to often prove the zoning changes and/or permits would be “a substantial justice”.
If Africatown Studios gets to the point that it seeks to acquire a Zoning Variance or a Rezoning and you as a resident or stakeholder are not happy, know that other Africatown projects have been halted by unhappy residents and stakeholders attending and speaking up at Public Hearings about the cases that concerned them.
Ultimately, “Substantial Justice” can matter.
This article was updated on March 20, 2023 to provide more context around the City of Mobile Future Land Use Map and the Africatown Studios website.