Community leaders want Andy Berke to pull Chattanooga rezoning request for former Harriet Tubman housing site

Unity Group of Chattanooga Chairman Sherman Matthews, third from right, speaks during a public statement by the Unity Group of Chattanooga about the former Harriet Tubman site on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and the city council need to stop efforts to rezone the city-owned, former Harriet Tubman public housing site until a planning process for East Chattanooga neighborhoods is completed, said community leaders, who spoke during a news conference in front of City Hall on Tuesday.

The public hearing on the city-proposed zone change is scheduled for Monday's Regional Planning Commission meeting.

The Unity Group, a 50-year-old coalition of neighborhood groups focused on social justice issues in Chattanooga, spearheaded the news conference, which was attended by around 30 people.

"We are concerned about the limitations that the newly proposed M-1 industrial zoning will place on future development possibilities," reads the group's statement released Tuesday. "We wholeheartedly support the redevelopment of the Harriet Tubman site, but there must be clear measures of accountability to ensure that our input is acted upon and that low-income and working- class families will actually benefit from redevelopment."

For more resources on community benefits agreements:

Partnership for Working Families, Stand Up Nashville, Source: The Unity Group of Chattanooga

The M-1 zoning the city is requesting would allow only one use, such as light industrial.

The Unity Group also made four other requests of City Hall.

' Choose a zoning district for the Tubman site that allows for a mixture of uses, including light manufacturing, retail, commercial and housing.

' Consider leasing the property and not selling it. Ensure the land remains publicly owned long term.

' Cooperate with East Chattanooga stakeholders in the creation of an enforceable community benefits agreement (CBA) with a developer or developers of the site. A CBA is a project-specific agreement between a developer and a broad community coalition that details the project's contributions to the community and ensures community support for the project. They can address a wide range of issues and are legally binding when properly structured.

' Inform community stakeholders prior to any requests for proposals or rezoning proposals related to the redevelopment of the Tubman site.

Sherman Matthews, chairman of the Unity Group, said the group "is speaking to the interest of the community," not for the community.

"Communities of color or low-income communities are often excluded from the decision-making process when developers eye their neighborhoods for development. CBAs hold developers and elected officials accountable," he said during the press conference.

Berke didn't attend the news conference, but several city council members were there. When asked about their take on the Unity Group's public statement, a Berke administration official emailed a statement.

"The City of Chattanooga's Economic & Community Development department has been working closely with residents and stakeholders in this neighborhood for years as we consider future uses for the former Harriet Tubman public housing property. We will continue to do so in order to determine the best possible development plan for this critically important site," said Charita Allen, deputy administrator for economic development at the city.

Helen Burns Sharp, a former planning director and founder of Accountability for Taxpayer Money, a public interest advocacy group focused on tax incentives and government transparency, spoke at the news conference and said she supports the Unity Group's requests of City Hall.

"We respectfully request that the city withdraw its rezoning application," said Sharp. "If this doesn't happen, the message is: 'We are going to do what we are going to do.' Avondale could see this as another example of being marginalized. The city put concrete bleachers in the new Avondale recreation center when other centers get retractable wood bleachers and didn't prioritize the Avondale census tract, where Tubman is located, when deciding federal Opportunity Zones, which were supposed to assist neighborhoods like Avondale to attract development."

Former longtime state Rep. Tommie Brown - a plaintiff in the 1987 federal lawsuit that established the city's history of discriminating against black voters and forced the transition from city commission to a mayor-council form of government - said she attended the news conference to give her support to the community members speaking out against City Hall.

"The city needs to acquiesce," said Brown, who owns a home in the neighborhood around the Tubman site. "Those community organizers coming together are not alone.

"When you see them at City Hall, don't think you are looking at two or three people. We will be organizing."

At a recent meeting between City Councilman Anthony Byrd and his District 8 constituents, James Moreland, an Avondale homeowner, said he and others in the neighborhood support the mayor's plan for the Tubman site.

Moreland told the crowd that the Avondale Neighborhood Association begged Berke to intervene when the Chattanooga Housing Authority was going to sell the Tubman site to "a slumlord" from out of town who was going to keep the deteriorating buildings open, said Moreland.

"It was a hellhole before it was torn down. We were on the news every day concerning crime," he told other residents at the meeting in November.

The neighborhood needed jobs, and the mayor wanted the crime level to go down, Moreland said. That was the tradeoff.

Others have said they remember the circumstances and discussion of potential zoning of the site differently.

After the city purchased the site, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency and the Chattanooga Department of Transportation created multiple concepts for the future of the Tubman site and shared those plans with neighborhood groups, hoping to get feedback.

Each recommendation was for a mixed-use development. One concept envisioned by the planning agency and the transportation department, at the time, combined a smaller industrial space with office space, multifamily apartments and mixed-use space with retail on the bottom floor and residential units above.

The one concept the planning agency and transportation department didn't recommend, at the time, was a "conventional" M1 designation, which would limit the site to a single use, documents show.

Those who attened the news conference, want a decision on zoning to be delayed while the planning process for Area 3 plays out. The community-based planning process is designed to guide future decisions about everything from sidewalks and infrastructure to development. The plan is for neighborhoods such as Avondale, Battery Heights, Boyce Station, Bushtown, Churchville, Ferger Place, Gaylan Heights, Glass Farms, Glenwood, Highland Park, Missionary Ridge, Oak Grove, Orchard Knob, Ridgedale, Riverside, Waterhaven and Wheeler Avenue.

Contact staff writer Joan McClane at jmcclane @times or 423-757-6601.