A perception that the city was going to build a road for a private developer on property near the Chattanooga Choo Choo caused a bit of a brouhaha in the Chattanooga City Council this week.
It turns out that's not what's happening — just the opposite, in fact.
But some council members chided Mayor Andy Berke's administration, not for the first time, over what they say is poor communication with them and the public.
Councilman Anthony Byrd kicked things off in the council's strategic planning session before the weekly agenda meeting Tuesday. A resolution up for a vote next week would allow the city's transportation department to accept design and engineering plans created by private firm LIV Development to rebuild and extend Passenger Street.
The short street runs north off East Main Street between the Crash Pad hostel and the Passenger Flats apartments, and dead-ends where LIV is building about 280 apartments on property it bought from the owners of the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
Byrd told fellow council members and city Transportation Director Blythe Bailey he was getting a lot of calls from constituents who thought the city intended to build a road for LIV's project.
"People are up in arms," Byrd said. "How do we pave over private land we don't own?"
Bailey explained LIV wants to extend Passenger Street past its new apartments, all the way to the north end of the Choo Choo property. The firm wants a decorative roadway, with pavers instead of asphalt, that will run from the north property line to Johnson Street, about 225 feet.
The paperwork with the resolution appears to suggest LIV will pay for the design and the city will cover construction. Only farther down in the document does it become somewhat clear that the city's part is labeled "Passenger Street Reconstruction" and LIV's "Passenger Street Extension."
It's two separate projects, Bailey said. If the council agrees, LIV will do the design for the whole street, then build its portion and turn it over to the city. Chattanooga, meanwhile, can bid out the rebuilding of its one-block segment from Johnson Street to just a tad north of East 14th Street.
This vote is just to agree to accept the design and engineering work, Bailey said. It doesn't commit the city to any construction; that would be a separate vote later.
Council members still had a lot of questions. Carol Berz asked, "What's the quid pro quo?" for the engineering work. "Is it a gift?"
"There is not a string attached," Bailey said.
Chip Henderson wanted to know about the funding source and whether the pavers mean it's a water quality project. No, but it could be, Bailey said. That might mean access to a new funding source, a key issue for a council uniformly concerned about the project's cost. Bailey said estimates are around $200,000.
Chairman Jerry Mitchell asked whether, if the city turned down the partnership, LIV would have to build its portion of the road. Bailey said no, but the city sees the road as a "steppingstone" to eventually run the street all the way to M.L. King Boulevard.
Ken Smith was still skeptical. "There's no indication whatsoever that we will ever be able to do that," he said.
But if the road extension doesn't happen, even the possibility of that opportunity will disappear, Bailey said.
Jon Kinsey, a Choo Choo Partners principal and former Chattanooga mayor, told council members there's no doubt the property at the north edge of the complex, which now holds a chicken plant, will be redeveloped at some point.
Kinsey said Choo Choo Partners sold the property to LIV and isn't involved in the apartment project.
He pointed out that his firm got a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreement for the 130 apartments of Passenger Flats. The partners are getting a $30,000-a-year property tax break and paying taxes of more than $150,000 a year.
With LIV, he said, "there's no TIF [tax-increment financing], there's no PILOT, they're just going forward and doing it."
The $145 million development will generate around $800,000 a year in city and county property taxes, Kinsey said, of which the city will get half.
"Anytime I can put up two hundred grand and get back $400,000 a year for eternity, that's a pretty good deal," he said.
The spirited discussion appeared to answer most members' questions, but Byrd said there's still a transparency issue.
"The constituents don't trust us," he said. They fear the council will "go behind closed doors and do something unethical."
Council members in December criticized the Berke administration for poor communication after a proposed insurer switch would have cut retirees off from the Chattanooga Heart Institute. Retirees flooded the council with complaints and packed the seats for meetings.
At the time, Councilman Russell Gilbert said pointedly to the city human resources director that "This will not happen again." Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod said the administration has "got to do a better job" of communicating with the council.
"We're being forced to vote on things we shouldn't have voted for because we're not getting the information," she said.
The administration canceled the change and stayed with its existing provider, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
At Tuesday's session, Byrd suggested the city look at whether the resolutions that will be voted on can be rewritten with more detail and clarity so city residents and their representatives can better understand them.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.