South Broad Street Publix project is in 'jeopardy,' site owner says

This rendering shows the proposed South Broad Street Publix. (Rendering by Hiscutt & Associates)

The owner of a South Broad Street tract in Chattanooga where Publix is looking at placing a store says the project could be in jeopardy after the proposed tenant said it is considering other options.

Landowner Jeff Messinger said Friday he disputes a Chattanooga Department of Transportation (CDOT) statement this fall that site plans for the project are not supported by the community and contradict an urban-focused zoning for the site.

"The feedback we are receiving from the community is in full support of the site plan as presented," he said.

But CDOT Administrator Blythe Bailey said the department was strongly leaning on an earlier recommendation against the Publix plan by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency staff.

"CDOT was reflecting the staff recommendation at that point," he said.

But by the time of the CDOT statement, the planning commission had already agreed to not follow the staff recommendation and voted to grant a zoning variance in favor of the plan to construct the proposed 32,000-square-foot Publix along with small shop space.

The new comments from Messinger and CDOT come as a deferral was sought by the Publix development group of a hearing next week before the Chattanooga Board of Zoning Appeals amid some continued opposition to the proposal. Approval by that zoning panel is the next step to move the grocery store ahead.

In a statement, Mike Price of MAP Engineers said last week the grocery tenant was "going to consider its options and then decide whether to continue to pursue this development as proposed."

In a letter to the city attorney, Price sought the deferral for no more than three months, or not later than the board's April meeting.

"In the event the client determines to not move forward with the case and withdraw, we will submit a written notification of that decision," said Price, who represents developer Alliance Realty Services.

Messinger, longtime owner with wife Cindy of the former Mt. Vernon Restaurant on the South Broad site, said this week that in addition to Publix, a convenience store chain has looked at the property and expressed "serious interest."

"Convenience stores are permitted under the Urban General Commercial (UGC) zoning," he said.

To help comply with the existing UGC zoning on the 4-acre tract where the Publix is proposed at St. Elmo Avenue, Messinger submitted a request earlier this year to buy "surplus property" from TDOT along South Broad.

The idea was to combine that small right-of-way parcel with the larger tract and help move some small shop space up nearer the street.

Some people who have opposed the Publix plan want the store to go against South Broad for a more urban feel, rather than sit at the back of the lot with parking in front. The developer countered, saying it would build small shop space nearer the street and buying the TDOT property would help.

According to emails obtained from TDOT, that state agency sought the city's opinion, and CDOT responded that it would not support a land sale to the development group.

"Please remit a letter from the City endorsing approval or offering objections to the proposed sale," said a TDOT official on Sept. 14 to CDOT, adding that if a response wasn't received by Sept. 26, then the sale process would continue.

On Sept. 26, CDOT sent a letter to TDOT saying it could not support the request by developers. CDOT said it was unclear if the request met two city criteria: if it was a "significant private/public interest" and if it demonstrated the public had no further need for the right of way.

"Even as presented with outparcel buildings utilizing the right of way, the site plans so far presented to the community are not supported by the community and contradict the urban-focused zoning for the site (UGC)," CDOT's response said.

On Oct. 10, TDOT responded with an internal email about the request to buy the tract, saying there were a few concerns.

"First and foremost, the City of Chattanooga opposes it, and I wouldn't want to recommend something of this nature if the city is opposed," the TDOT email said.

That email also cited concerns from a traffic engineering standpoint, saying if land is purchased up to the sidewalk, something could be constructed that obstructs the view of motorists on 35th Street trying to pull onto South Broad. Also, there could be no room for TDOT or the city to install needed signs or traffic control devices, the email said.

Bailey said on Friday that the Regional Planning Agency staff recommendation was using the intent of a land-use plan for the South Broad area adopted by the city, which recommended UGC zoning on the Messinger tract.

"This was the adopted planning process," he said. "It resulted in a plan adopted by the City Council."

Bailey said TDOT requested the review of the excess land and CDOT did so through the lens of the city's adopted right-of-way policy.

"We did not intend to, and have not taken a position in support or or in opposition to the development," he said.

Kerry Hayes, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's deputy chief of staff, said the mayor's office has been in conversation with Publix since it expressed interest in potentially developing the site on South Broad.

"We were then and are still willing to work with them to accomplish a plan that fits with the vision for this area that was laid out in the community plan," Hayes said. "We remain committed to working with Publix through this process and welcome any additional dialogue."

Bailey said he respects the Messingers and the restaurant they ran for many years.

"I have the utmost respect for Jeff and others. It's not anything other than what I tried to say - this is a matter of us trying to make sure we're implementing the plan we adopted," he said.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318 or follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.