published Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Chattanooga: King-size controversy

Audio clip

Karen Hundt

Audio clip

Merri Mae Williamson

Chattanooga City Council is expected to consider a new M.L. King business district plan tonight, and it could be a lively meeting.

At least one council member already promises to recommend an amendment to the plan, though he won’t say exactly what the amendment is.

And a resident who helped steer the plan’s development said Monday she has withdrawn all support of it due to “unprecedented interference” by the mayor’s office.

“It is not our plan (anymore),” said Merri Mae Williamson, who lives in the M.L. King neighborhood. “It is the mayor’s plan. ... The MLK neighborhood will not support the adoption of this land-use plan, as it has language inserted by the mayor that allows homeless services to be expanded.”

Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said the mayor didn’t insert anything into the plan: The regional planning agency did in order to replace what he called “opinionated” language with “neutral” language.

The 116-page study is intended to be a road map to revive the history and culture of the street many have hoped might eventually become the Beale Street of Chattanooga. But it also touches on a proposed homeless services center in the neighborhood.

“A lot of the plan focuses on reinvigorating the commercial core on M.L. King Boulevard,” said Karen Hundt with the Chattanooga Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency’s Design and Planning Studio, which prepared the plan.

The first two recommendations include a multiuse building at the M.L. King gateway across from the Bessie Smith Hall and another multiuse building — perhaps a grocery story — at University Street and M.L. King Boulevard.

But the third recommendation centers on future use of the Farmers’ Market site on East 11th Street, and both planners and City Council members acknowledge that issue presents a challenge.

The mayor has proposed a services center for the homeless at the former Farmers’ Market, and in the past week the mayor has talked about the possibility that the Salvation Army and its federal prisoner halfway house may move there.

Ms. Williamson and other M.L. King community members feel a homeless services center will be a magnet for trouble in the community. In their visioning process with regional planners, they listed “creation of a magnet for more homeless individuals and predators” at the top of their M.L. King challenges list.

On Monday, Scott Haulsee, another community resident, said he is “truly outraged” by what he called “the continued bullying” to push the plan through the system.

“The community has voiced opposition time and time again, and the mayor ... refuses to hear us,” Mr. Haulsee said.

Mr. Beeland said he believes the problem is over one paragraph, which city officials have no problem deleting from the report.

Council members Leamon Pierce and Sally Robinson on Monday said they were aware of the neighborhood’s concern. Ms. Robinson said she doesn’t think the plan will be approved tonight.

“I think this one needs to be studied,” she said.

Mr. Pierce, whose district includes the M.L. King community, said residents have asked him to amend the plan and he is “comfortable” with the request. He declined to specify what his amendment will be.

Ms. Hundt has said there have been 24 studies conducted on the M.L. King Neighborhood since the early 1980s. Most were written by professors at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and focused on specific issues within the community, such as the proposed homeless complex or revitalization of the residential area.

This new study, she said, is the first to look at all issues of the neighborhood, from economic development, housing and social services to the district’s relationship with UTC and downtown.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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