Planning commission unanimously approves rezoning for former Harriet Tubman public housing site

Portion of property reserved for residential use

Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press - October 13, 2014 The former Harriett Tubman homes are in the process of being torn down.

The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission voted unanimously Monday to approve the city's request to rezone the former Harriet Tubman public housing site for light industrial use, but a portion of the property along Roanoke Avenue was reserved for residential use.

The planning commission staff recommended the city reserve property along Roanoke Avenue and Southern Street for residential use. The rest of the property could be zoned for light industrial use, with many restrictions, such as poultry processing, a staff member told the planning commission. The surrounding area is single-family residential and the city's request is "not compatible with adjacent development forms," staff said.

Cherita Allen, deputy administrator for economic development with the city, said businesses have been interested in the site but won't move on purchasing it until the rezoning is complete. The city did not want any of the site to be reserved as residential, she said, because an exclusive M1 zoning would allow businesses more flexibility.

Charles Wood, vice president of economic development at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, spoke in support of the city's request for rezoning the residential site as M1. The data says the neighborhood needs jobs, he said.

The unemployment rate within a mile of the site is 10 percent, and the median household income is $23,000 a year. A third of residents don't have access to a car.

"We have to bring jobs to the neighborhood," Wood told commissioners.

Before the planning commission vote, several residents asked the commissioners to deny the city's request.

Nicole Lewis, an Avondale resident and community relations manager at the Glass House Collective, said the city is turning its back on the "Chattanooga Way."

The city launched an Area 3 community planning process earlier this year that asked residents and shareholders to envision the future of East Chattanooga, including the Tubman site. Lewis said any decision about the Tubman site should be postponed until that process, which the city has delayed, is complete.

"We [Chattanoogans] are proud of the tradition of hearing voices," she said. "Why would we abandon that concept now?"

"People have sacrificed time because they thought they were part of a vision," Lewis told the commissioners. "We need to be ready to invest in their vision. This community has been marginalized for decades, and we deserve better."

Jonah Williams, a Glass Farms resident who lives near the Tubman site, said he wants his area of town to benefit from mixed-use development just like the Southside and the North Shore have.

"There's no way in hell a proposal of this type would ever make it to this point in the more affluent neighborhoods throughout town like St. Elmo, North Shore, Highland Park," Williams told the commission. "I sincerely pray that enough of you will step back and really take a hard look at the negative impact an M1 designation will have. Not only will it hurt, but it will leave a long-standing scar as the revitalization of Chattanooga makes its way fully to the final frontier of East Chattanooga."

The city of Chattanooga bought the Tubman site in 2014. At the time, the Chattanooga Housing Authority was considering selling the site to an out-of-town owner that planned to keep the deteriorating public housing site open. The Avondale Neighborhood Association, frustrated by crime, asked Mayor Andy Berke, who had made crime an administrative priority, to intervene.

Berke's administration and James Moreland, then the head of the Avondale Neighborhood Association, have said the site was always intended to be used to recruit jobs to the neighborhood. However, documents show that 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. The only 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.

Last week, several community leaders, including members of the Unity Group, gathered on the steps of City Hall to speak out against the city's efforts to rezone the Tubman site. The city began telling neighborhood groups about its plan to push for rezoning two months ago after several years of relative silence about the future of the site.

Helen Burns Sharp, the founder of Accountability for Taxpayer Money and supporter of the Unity Group's statement on Tubman, was one of the local residents who left the Hamilton County Courthouse disappointed Monday.

"The applicant is the city of Chattanooga. The staff at the RPA is the city of Chattanooga. One-half of the planning commissioners are appointed by the city of Chattanooga. One of the planning commissioners is the mayor's deputy chief of staff who could have recused himself but did not," Sharp said. "It felt like the decision was made before the hearing ever began."

Contact staff writer Joan McClane at