The new plan for Hillocks Farm, formerly called Chattanooga Village, calls for a mix of high-end apartments, offices, restaurants and retail along Highway 153 If approved, the ambitious 190-acre project would be built in phases and finished by 2020 The Chattanooga City Council will vote today whether to give the project the go-ahead.
The City Council will decide tonight whether to give a local developer approval to build the largest commercial project in Chattanooga since Hamilton Place mall, adding $2 million annually to the city and county tax base.
After two years of conflict, an official rejection and months of efforts to address concerns with the project, the only things standing in its way now are tonight's vote and a recommendation from members of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's staff that the project be denied.
Opposition has dwindled to the more than $100 million retail, office and residential development along Highway 153 in Hixson. The project, formerly known as Chattanooga Village, was killed by the previous council in January 2013 amid heated community protest.
But many initial opponents have since turned a 180, throwing their support behind the effort after environmental advocates, neighbors and civic leaders held a series of public meetings over five months to address concerns with flooding, water run-off and how to integrate the commercial project with the residential neighborhood around it.
Berke's spokeswoman Lacie Stone said the mayor agrees with his Transportation Department and Economic Development Department staff, who believe the project will snarl traffic in the already congested area.
"It's something he's been regularly updated on and he absolutely approved the staff recommendation," she said.
While a handful of neighbors still say they would move if the project is approved, some of the harshest critics are convinced that the development, if built as planned, will be of much higher quality and have less environmental impact than anything else built along Highway 153.
"I've been opposing it for the last three years, for all the iterations. So for me it's very surreal to look at it now and not have an objection, because I've had objections for so long," said Ellie Wallis, executive director for the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy. "But the developer really came and said, 'What can we do, I'll do anything.' When they meet all the conditions and give us all the information we ask for, we'd be hypocritical to say we're still opposed to it."
When the project was revived at the January 2014 Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission meeting, the room that more than a year ago had been filled with two dozen opponents was filled instead with supporters -- except for the Regional Planning Agency's staff and a critical report from Berke's transportation director, Blythe Bailey.
In a five-page document, Blythe detailed why the project should be denied.
"The proposed site plans do address the immediate impacts to the surrounding neighborhoods and demonstrate sensitivity to the site's existing features," the report stated. "[However] the fact that the current road improvement plans do not account for improving the Dayton Boulevard-Highway 153 interchange or the local road network ... the staff recommends denial of this request."
Even so, the planning commission recommended the project for approval. The city's Economic and Community Development director, Donna Williams, cast one of the three dissenting votes out of a panel of 15.
Every day, about 31,000 cars drive the stretch of Highway 153 that Hillocks Farm would connect to, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. That compares to an average 43,000 on the roads around Northgate Mall, about 3 miles away.
Traffic conditions on Highway 153 aren't ideal, but TDOT considers the traffic flow acceptable. The stretch of Highway 153 impacted by Hillocks Farm earned a "C" rating from TDOT, which means traffic can flow steadily, but drivers need to be careful when changing lanes.
The stretch is not expected to meet or exceed its capacity in the next three years, TDOT regional director Raymond Rucker said in a letter to Hillocks Farm developer Duane Horton.
At least two City Council members, who worked with neighbors to address objections to the project, were surprised by the transportation staff's recommendation, since several staff members attended the multiple public meetings held last fall.
"It was a little bit of a surprise to me," said Councilman Chip Henderson. The overall infrastructure of the area, "isn't the developer's problem. It is a city problem and it's also a state problem."
And Hamilton County Commissioner Joe Graham, who is also on the planning commission, said the developer is already going beyond what's required by offering to add turn lanes to Highway 153 near Hillocks Farm and widen a connecting road.
"Nobody is going to spend any money on taking care of a congestion problem on a road that doesn't have development," Graham said. "If you let this development happen, then the money you generate in tax will more than take care of the problems with the road."
Both Henderson, who represents the district where Hillocks Farm is proposed, and Councilman Ken Smith are pulling for the project.
Before last year's City Council vote, the fight over the proposal stirred the passions of scores of Hixson residents, and grew to involve two of the city's most prestigious law firms, a pair of public relations companies and then-Mayor Ron Littlefield.
The rallying point for opposition to the original Chattanooga Village plan was a campaign dubbed "Don't Chop the Hilltop," which centered on the development's potential possible negative environmental impact. But this time, those concerns are taking a back seat.
The Don't Chop the Hilltop website hasn't been updated since January 2013, the last time the City Council voted on the proposal.
The new plan for Hillocks Farm leaves about 60 acres -- one-third of the entire project -- as green areas and open space, including pedestrian trails, community greens and a 100-foot, undeveloped buffer between the development and surrounding residential neighborhoods.
Horton's new plan also aligns buildings along the site's slope to minimize grading and calls for bio-swales -- landscape elements designed to improve water quality by filtering pollution out of storm water.
Last time, CBL & Associates Properties, owner of Northgate Mall, hired Waterhouse Public Relations to help make the case to the City Council that there's already a lot of empty commercial space in Hixson.
But this time, the Lebovitz family, who own CBL, have been silent on the Hillocks Farm plan. At least 10 members of the Lebovitz family are Berke supporters -- together, they gave at least $13,000 to his mayoral campaign in 2013.
Stone said that no one from the Lebovitz family had approached Berke about the project.
CBL has poured millions into Northgate to upgrade some of its previously rundown storefronts to create an urban Main Street feel and attract new tenants. Several store owners inside the mall said they oppose the Hillocks Farm development.
"I know just about everybody in the mall would say they're against that place opening," said Jeff Bass, whose parents have owned Colony 13 in the mall since 1978. "It's going to hurt all of us. And more than that, it just doesn't make sense with all the vacant space."
Northgate is currently between 80 and 90 percent occupied. But while some shop owners and employees are afraid of cannibalization, at least one thinks the project will actually spur economic growth in the area.
Brandon Siltz, who works at Vitamin World in Northgate, said the area around the mall needs new retailers, like a restaurant, to draw more residents to the area.
"I think it would be good for everyone," Siltz said. "Do you want jobs? Do you want businesses? If you want your city to grow, that's what has to happen."
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at email@example.com or 423-757-6659.
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at sbrad firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6525.