Amid the new million-dollar riverfront condos being added at Cameron Harbor and the $160 million Novonix battery equipment plant and new medical offices taking shape at The Bend, Chattanooga's oldest and biggest public housing complex is nearing the end of its useful life.
The 497-unit College Hill Courts opened in 1940.
"In all honesty, it's impossible for us to keep it going long into the future," Betsy McCright, executive director of the Chattanooga Housing Authority, said in an editorial board meeting with the Times Free Press.
Nearby, the authority's Gateway Towers, while far newer having been built in 1977, suffers from microcracking in the envelope of the building that serves to insulate the interior from the exterior, forcing 23 of the 132 units to be deemed uninhabitable because of safety concerns.
The authority estimated years ago it would cost at least $60 million to repair College Hill Courts, and the price tag for rehabilitation has likely risen since.
In the past, Chattanooga's housing authority has abandoned such projects once they became too old and costly to maintain, dislocating tenants as the properties are ultimately sold for other uses. The authority demolished the Spencer McCallie Homes in 2003, the Maurice Poss Homes in 2005 and the Harriet Tubman housing development in 2012. Although replacement housing was built, the new development was often smaller and didn't always include the same tenants.
In the Westside of downtown Chattanooga, the housing authority has pledged a far different approach. The authority and city are determined to maintain an affordable, subsidized housing development, even as rising property values all around it are pushing up home prices and rents and gentrifying parts of the central city.
In the Westside plan developed by residents, planners and consultants over the past 18 months, all of the subsidized units in the Westside will be maintained, and there will be a "build first" strategy to ensure new affordable housing is built before the old units are torn down.
The area is home to more than 2,000 residents who live in subsidized housing at College Hill Courts and the neighboring Boynton Terrace Apartments, Gateway Towers, Dogwood Manor, Ridgeway, Golden Gateway, Boynton Overlook and Riverview Apartments.
"The housing authority has had a history of moving people out of properties and bulldozing our older properties and trying to get new development where maybe folks could come back," McCright said in a recent interview about the authority's plans for the Westside. "We do not want the process this time to be like the past."
With input from most of the residents who live in and around the Westside, a new plan was developed to build enough new housing units to maintain subsidized units for all existing tenants while bringing new services, businesses and recreational opportunities to the area. The 130-page plan recommends a mixed-use development on the 120 acres in the targeted area that could bring up to $1 billion of investment to the Westside over the next decade.
The new Westside plan proposes to relocate the administrative offices of the city's Youth and Family Development offices at 510 W. 12th St. to free up more property for mixed-use housing and open spaces. Many of the existing single-story brick and concrete public housing units in College Hill Courts would be replaced with more modern five-story housing facilities.
The new plan also envisions replacement housing being built along more pedestrian-friendly boulevards and a new walkway being extended along 12th Street to the Tennessee Riverwalk west of the Riverfront Parkway.
The James A. Henry school, which closed as an elementary school in 1980 and is in need of repairs, would be revamped and used as a community facility and the home of a relocated Head Start program and an art and culture center. Residents also hope to bring back a health clinic to the James A. Henry school, similar to what CHI Memorial operated for 14 years in the building before it closed its Westside Health Center in 2017.
The authority is hoping to tap a variety of federal loan and grant programs for low-income housing and neighborhood redevelopment to pay for its building plans. But to secure the extra money from Uncle Sam, even more money will have to be put up by private developers, foundations and local governments to match the federal dollars.
The Chattanooga Housing Authority is hoping to gain support from the city to soon apply for $50 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through its Choice Neighborhood Implementation program, which helps support communities that have undergone a comprehensive local planning process and are ready to implement their plan to redevelop a neighborhood. The Choice Neighborhood grants, first funded in 2010, replaced and expanded the former HOPE VI program, which the authority previously used to redevelop Alton Park after demolishing Spencer McCallie Homes.
To secure the proposed $50 million Choice Neighborhood grant under the 3-for-1 matching requirements of the HUD program, $150 million worth of contributions will have to come from the local community. The matching local contribution could include Chattanooga Housing Authority loans and investments in new housing, land contributions in the area from both the authority and the city and investments or contributions from the city or county, local foundations or private developers for everything from parks and recreational facilities to housing, health and educational facilities in the 120-acre area. A variety of tax-advantaged loan programs through HUD or the Tennessee Housing Development Agency may also be tapped for funding the new or rebuilt housing facilities.
For any private development, the Westside is also within a federal Opportunity Zone that offers tax breaks on investments in such areas. Because of its location near Chattanooga's central city and riverfront, the opportunities for redevelopment may be more attractive for many developers than other authority sites have been in the past.
As the city relocates the headquarters of its Youth and Family Development office, more property should be opened up within the next year for new housing while other vacant sites within the 120-acre area may be suited for business or mixed-use housing projects or replacement housing for the existing College Hill Courts units.
City hall support
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, who previously owned the Subaru dealership at M.L. King Boulevard and Riverfront Drive near College Hill Courts and Gateway Towers, has pledged to support the development of the Westside Plan and said he was encouraged by the participation in its creation, especially given the challenges of writing the plan amid the pandemic.
Kelly said the plan aligns with the city's One Chattanooga vision, and he said any redevelopment should ensure low-cost subsidized housing remains in the central city while providing more mixed housing in the area. The "build first" pledge in the plan ensures new housing units will be built before existing residents are displaced from units that may be demolished.
"Transforming this critical part of our city will not and should not be straightforward, easy or rapid," Kelly said in a statement about the Westside Plan. "My team and I are eager to support the continued growth - balanced with affordability, historic and greenspace preservation - of Chattanooga's Westside."
College Hill Courts "is one of the most historic neighborhoods - home to over five generations of our residents," Kelly said in the preface to the Westside Plan.
Engaging the public
The Chattanooga Housing Authority hired the Chattanooga Design Studio and the EJP Consulting Group last year to conduct the nine-month study of the Westside, which was launched in September 2020. The targeted area encompasses the area between U.S. 27, Riverfront Parkway, M.L. King Boulevard and Main Street and includes four properties owned by the Chattanooga Housing Authority, the Youth and Family Development facility owned by the city and several privately-owned housing and commercial properties.
When the authority launched its "Westside Evolves" study in 2020, local residents were hired to help try to survey all of the Westside residents to get their ideas on needed improvements for the area. A 45-page survey asked residents what they wanted for their homes and neighborhood - both the structural improvements to the brick-and-mortar housing and the community amenities for local residents.
The plan was developed after more than 85% of the residents responded to the questions about what they wanted for the area. Many said they are eager to preserve the flagpole, ballfields, the James A. Henry building and the large tree, known as "Grace," in the middle of the College Hill Courts housing units.
While preserving the past, the plan also calls for new and better housing at the 81-year-old complex. College Hill Courts lacks centralized heat and air conditioning, and some of the units suffer from mold or mildew, according to residents.
"This is home for a lot of families, but there are improvements that need to be made," said Sharon Dragg, a longtime resident of College Hill Courts who helped survey residents in the area for the Westside plan, in an interview with the Times Free Press "Don't tell me we can't afford to make these improvements when we're talking about spending millions of dollars for a ballfield for the Chattanooga Lookouts. The need and the money is there."
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @dflessner1.