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Owners of the former Arsenal Courts public housing project in Rock Island, now known as Century Woods, are seeking to designate the neighborhood as a national historic district in conjunction with its ongoing renovation.

Listing on the National Register of Historic Places would make The Millennia Companies, of Cleveland, Ohio, eligible for federal historic preservation tax credits that could be used in the $14 million-plus overhaul of the area that began in May, Chris Auvil, director of design and construction for Millennia, said.

The renovation project is the latest chapter in the life of a storied property that began during World War II when it was built as emergency housing for defense workers at the Arsenal — hence the name Arsenal Courts — and that has seen a few "ups" and many "downs" since then.

At one time in the 1980s, it was cited as an example of everything that was wrong with public housing.

But Millennia, which specializes in preserving existing affordable housing, not building new, promises "a new day" for its properties, Auvil said last week during a visit to Rock Island to check on construction progress. The company is experienced in dealing with rundown properties with a bad name.

"We take our renovations seriously," he said. "We don't cut corners."

In addition to possible historic tax credits, another part of the Century Woods project is the use of tax-increment financing. In 2018, the city of Rock Island approved a controversial TIF district that means the extra taxes generated by the improvements go back to the developer for a certain time period to be used in the project rather than going to the taxing bodies.

The TIF that Rock Island approved includes a second property owned by Millennia: the 169-unit Heather Ridge Apartments at 9500 14th St. W. That site also is undergoing a renovation, expected to cost $9 million, Auvil said.

All told, Millennia expects to spend $65 million on both projects, a number that includes what it paid to buy the buildings as well as legal fees, architect and engineering costs, and financing, developer and low-income housing fees, Valerie Jerome, marketing technologist, said. 

Work should be finished by the end of 2020.

History of Arsenal Courts

Long-time Quad-City residents may be surprised to hear the neighborhood of Arsenal Courts — once synonymous with crime — mentioned in the same breath as the Broadway Historic District in Rock Island or the McClellan Heights Historic District in Davenport.

But when it comes to historical significance, the property at 1400 5th Street — highly visible from the Centennial Expressway/Illinois 92 on the city's west side — is off the charts.

The neighborhood's original 52 one- and two-story brick apartment buildings  constructed during 1940-41 are a direct link to the emergency creation of defense worker housing at the onset of World War II, the biggest armed conflict in history.

The complex was built by the United States Housing Administration for the sole purpose of providing below-market rate apartments for essential defense employees at the Rock Island Arsenal to support the war effort, according to the nomination for listing on the national register.

As such, it is  — according to a criterion for listing on the national register — "associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history."

And, despite changes over the years, the neighborhood continues to be a "visually distinct place," according to the nomination prepared by a contractor for Millennia.

The biggest change occurred in April of 1995, when a ground-breaking with golden shovels was held for an $8 million, 11-month renovation project that reduced the density of the complex.

Eleven of the original 52 apartment buildings were demolished, reducing the number of apartments from 305 to 230, and the area was redesigned into individual neighborhoods with limited access and their own courtyards. All roofs also were replaced through a cooperative effort that involved the city of Rock Island, Century Woods Management and residents.

On July 28, 1995, Arsenal Courts was renamed Century Woods.

All this happened after the complex hit rock bottom in 1993. At that time, only 78 of the property's 305 apartments were rented, and a majority of its windows were boarded up. Newspaper accounts alluded to it as a place of violence, crime, desolation and despair.

The city of Rock Island, which had purchased the property in 1980, voted to demolish it.

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But a group of residents filed a class-action suit to keep it open and won. In the settlement agreement, the city agreed to overall repairs and a new management firm to replace the Rock Island Housing Authority.

Millennia bought the properties in April after several years of managing them.

A closer look at renovations

Century Woods: Units are being completely overhauled on the inside with all-new kitchens, bathrooms and finishes (drywall, paint, flooring), windows and doors.

"They will end up looking as nice or better than some market rate apartments," Auvil said.

Improvements also will be made to the exterior and common areas.

The administration building will get a monitored computer room that will be available for residents, and its community room will be redone in a more home-like fashion that will be a good place for the Thanksgiving and Christmas parties Millennia hosts for its tenants, Auvil said.

The administration building re-do will include porcelain tile, soft seating (upholstery), art work and sunburst mirrors.

"What we do provides a lot of value for the people who live here," he said.

Outside, a large greenspace behind the administration building that is dotted with towering sycamore trees will get a pavilion large enough to accommodate parties "to try to bring a sense of family and neighborhood back," Auvil said.

A playground also will be built.

When the company first contemplated the overhaul of Century Woods, it wasn't going to seek historic status, but as employees got into it, they decided it was worthy, Auvil said.

While historic status can make tax credits available, it also adds requirements, particularly on the outside, he said.

For example, the company first expected to dress up the windows with shutters and mullion bars, to lend a Colonial look. But because the property did not have shutters and windows with mullion bars originally, they could not be added.

The National Register is administered by the National Park Service.

• Heather Ridge: Unlike Century Woods, Heather Ridge has no particular historical significance, having been built in 1972. It consists of 169 apartments in 24 buildings on 19.6 acres.

Dramatic changes already are visible to anyone who drives by the complex south of Illinois 92.

The formerly (dingy) white buildings are being resided in a mix of complementary colors. There's brick red, gray, tan,  gray, cream, slate blue and sage. New windows and doors also are being installed and insulating house wrap is going on under the siding.

A community center also will be built on the 19.6-acre site.

Both complexes are for people of low income, with rents subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development under a program called Section 8.

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