published Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Chattanooga: Partners sought for M.L. King plan


by Cliff Hightower
Audio clip

Karen Hundt

For the plan to revitalize M.L. King Boulevard to become more than a dream, it will take partnerships between the M.L. King Neighborhood Association and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a local planner said last week.

Karen Hundt, executive director of the Design and Planning Studio for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, said it is up to the neighborhood, the university and others identified in the plan to implement the recommendations.

  • photo
    Contributed art
    View looking north along Lindsay Street at ML King Boulevard.: This illustration demonstrates a venue for evening concerts or small scaled “struts” that make more regular use of the “MLK Bessie Smith Gateway“area. The block has great potential for the creation of a large gathering space by occasionally closing off the street. A new mixed-used building is also shown as a compliment to the existing Bessie Smith Hall & African American Museum site to help frame the space and bring additional activity to this crucial gateway and district identifier. Also envisioned are market stalls for vending, arts & crafts and local produce sales.

That was news to some M.L. King residents, who said Friday they had heard nothing about the neighborhood association being given responsibility for driving the plan forward. Moses Freeman, a longtime resident of the neighborhood and developer of some of the first new residential homes in the area, said the association is all-volunteer and has no money.

“We couldn’t do it,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone that could step forward and push a plan like that forward.”

William Smith, another resident and member of the M.L. King Neighborhood Association, said he was surprised to hear that the plan would be handed over to the association.

“I’m not sure how the neighborhood association would implement a plan that they got our input from,” he said. “The plan means nothing if there’s no money associated with it.”

City Council members unanimously approved the M.L. King land-use management plan Tuesday night.

  • photo
    Contributed art
    View looking north at ML King Boulevard.: This rendering conceptualizes a portion of historic ML King Boulevard between Douglas and Mabel Streets to feature new infill construction as well as renovations to existing buildings. Any new developments should include a plaza area to provide public space and a connection to UTC housing as seen in the background at 8th Street.

The planning agency, with help from the design studio, spent more than a year putting together the study, which includes history of the M.L. King area, economic development, housing and social services and the neighborhood’s relationship with UTC and downtown.

Ms. Hundt said as first steps, the groups involved would need to talk about what recommendations could be handled right now and what to tackle in the future.

forming PARTNERSHIPS

Merri Mai Williamson, a member of the M.L. King Neighborhood Association, admitted that the neighborhood by itself could not carry out the plan. But involvement of UTC, the Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce and the Enterprise Center could make it happen, she said.

The groups also will need to speak with current landowners along the business district of M.L. King Boulevard if the economic development portion of the plan is to evolve, she said.

“They’re part of the alliances we need to form,” she said. “It will certainly take years, if not a decade, to realize the dream of the plan.”

Dr. Richard Brown, vice chancellor of finance and operations at UTC, said many parts of the plan already have started. For example, the university committed more than $80 million in student housing projects along McCallie Avenue over the last 10 years to enhance the M.L. King corridor.

The university will meet with neighborhood residents to see how the plan can move forward, Dr. Brown said.

The potential partners admit one void is a lack of representation within the business district. There is no officials merchant’s group and the M.L. King Community Development Corp., which took charge of bringing the business district back to life, has ceased day-to-day operations, said Elijah Cameron, former board member of the CDC.

He said landowners will be key for any success in making the boulevard a lively entertainment district.

“It’s going to take getting those property owners down there to the table,” he said.

FARMER’S MARKET AND THE PLAN

One of the most controversial aspects of implementing the new plan is how to handle social services in the area. Most of the controversy centers on the old Farmer’s Market site on 11th Street, which Mayor Ron Littlefield wants to be the home of the city’s homeless services center.

The topic has entered the mayoral race recently between Mayor Ron Littlefield, Rob Healy and Thomas Smith II. Both Mr. Healy and Mr. Smith have said they do not support any type of centralized location for homeless services.

Mr. Healy said he heard such a place would “create a slum.”

“I’d look for alternatives for that property,” he said.

Mr. Littlefield said detractors of his idea are a small minority. One of the steps that will be taken is to locate a police precinct at the site, which should help provide protection, he said.

“We’re not trying to hurt anyone’s neighborhood,” he said.

Mr. Smith said he sees the services center as a way to increase the homeless population in the neighborhood.

“This homeless shelter is going to open up all kinds of people from all over,” he said. “After a while, this street is going to be infested with crime.”

Ms. Williamson said that’s why the neighborhood association must continue to monitor what goes on at the site while moving forward.

“We have to focus on weeding out the bad elements of our neighborhood while going forward with out revitalization,” she said.

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