East Chattanooga group seeking public input on Harriet Tubman site sale

East Chattanooga group seeking public input on Harriet Tubman site sale

February 2nd, 2014 by Yolanda Putman and Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

The former Harriet Tubman Homes site in East Chattanooga, seen here from Missionary Ridge, was built in 1953.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

A new East Chattanooga neighborhood group clamored on Saturday for the city to buy the derelict Harriet Tubman public housing complex, though most members said they don't support Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's current plan for the site.

Nearly a dozen East Chattanooga residents stood in front of the boarded-up, dilapidated buildings to send a message to public officials that the effort to fix the decaying eyesore should include input from those who live nearby.

"We are asking the city to do the right thing, and in good faith negotiate to acquire the Harriet Tubman site," said Nori Moss, founder of the newly formed Good Neighbor Network, an offshoot of the Glass House Collective neighborhood revitalization project. Moss also is a reporter for WDEF News 12.

Though the Good Neighbor Network would rather see the city buy the site than any one of several private developers who have expressed interest in building housing on the land, all but one of the members opposed the plan by Berke and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce to bulldoze the buildings to make way for an industrial complex.

"I think they should still have some affordable housing out here like they did [in] the Alton Park area," said Jamila Dunigan, who grew up at Tubman. "So many people were displaced, and I know some people are still having a hard time that got displaced."

But Travis Yeagley, an East Chattanooga resident of nearly two years, said the community needs the jobs an industrial site would provide. Housing is good, but jobs are better, he said.

A public debate isn't in the cards, said City Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem, who called Saturday's event "a distraction."

Hakeem, a vocal proponent of the mayor's plan to use the Tubman site for economic development, said he would be willing to talk with anyone about the property, but said he couldn't commit to a public discussion before the city buys the site.

"It's like putting the cart before the horse. It's not in the possession of the city," Hakeem said. "Why should we set parameters if it's something we don't own at this time?"

Berke had offered $1 million and property the city owns, an offer the Chattanooga Housing Authority's board rejected because it was below federal HUD guidelines. Members of the Good Neighbor Network said Berke should up the ante, and should seek public input on whether the site should be industrial or residential.

"What's going to be here, we don't know," said Moss. "But once it's local then we can come back to the drawing board and say, 'These are the different things we want here.'"

The Good Neighbor Network is one of several groups to voice an opinion on what CHA should do with the 36.5 acres of land.

Another longtime neighborhood leader said members of the new group, which he has never heard of, are naive if they think the city will do what the community wants.

"I don't think that will happen," said John Lewis, president of the Avondale Neighborhood Association. "There's too much money involved and too many people."

Moss said Saturday's meeting was held in response to a Times Free Press article published Jan. 26 that chronicled the political delays, confused vision and repeated inaction behind two years of fruitless attempts to sell the site.

Two of Berke's top staff, spokeswoman Lacie Stone and chief adviser Stacy Richardson, attended Saturday's event.

CHA recently said it is rebidding the site after a bid from Chicago-based Lakewood Realty fell through.

Richardson said the city is still deciding what action to take.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.