A new type of downtown zoning is being proposed to aid the redevelopment of Chattanooga's biggest and oldest public housing project on the Westside.
Chattanooga planners next month will consider a plan from the Chattanooga Housing Authority to create two new zoning codes to allow for a mix of housing, recreation and commercial development planned on the 120 acres that encompass College Hill Courts, Gateway Towers, Dogwood Manor, River View Tower and surrounding properties.
As part of the Westside Evolves plan that city officials and residents have been working on since 2020, the housing authority is planning to rebuild the 497-unit College Hill Courts, which was originally built in 1940, and the nearby Gateway Towers, which was erected nearly a half century ago and suffers from microcracking in the envelope of the building, forcing 23 of the 132 units to be deemed uninhabitable because of safety concerns.
"College Hill Courts has needed to be replaced probably for 30 years, and Gateway is just falling apart," said Jessie Lewis, the president of the Gateway tenants association who has lived on the Westside for more than a decade and has been involved in the redevelopment planning. "I am really happy with their plan and the team they have used to put this together. I wish we could start on this tomorrow."
In a telephone interview, Lewis acknowledged some residents remain wary about possible dislocations or gentrification if more upscale housing and higher-income residents begin moving into the area.
The housing part of the plan "has Jim Crow sprinkled over" it, Chattanooga Council Member Marvene Noel, of Orchard Knob, said during a council meeting in June, referring to legalized segregation in the post-Reconstruction South.
"That's where I have the problem," she said. "It seems it is to move everyone away from instead of giving them an opportunity to have a better place to live, and that's not good for me."
Council Vice Chair Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, was complimentary of the plan, but she said the resulting community must be affordable for working-class people and not just higher-income employees working at new businesses attracted to the site.
"When the Westside was built, it was intentionally a segregated neighborhood," she said during a meeting Tuesday. "We created apartheid with that."
She has no desire to use special tax financing to build a community that is "an exclusive neighborhood for a privileged few," she said.
But housing authority officials stress the plan is committed to preserving all of the subsidized, low-income and public housing units in the area while adding new mixed-income housing and new commercial development in the Westside.
"I think it's going to be a good thing, and I can't wait for it to get started," Regina Robinson, president of the College Hill Courts tenants association, said in a telephone interview. "I think most people are excited about what is coming."
Most tenants participated in surveys and meetings to offer their input on the developing plans, Robinson said. The housing authority has committed to replace any demolished public housing units with an equal number or more of such units.
New zones and development
But the redevelopment is also designed to spur more mixed-income housing and commercial development in a part of downtown where nearly $2 billion of potential development may be coming. The former Alstom property known as The Bend along the Tennessee River is being targeted for housing, offices and industry, including the new Novonix plant, and a vocational high school is being planned for the former Golden Gateway site being sold by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
To accommodate the new types of development on the 120 acres in the Westside Evolves study area, the housing authority wants to create both a Westside Neighborhood Zone to allow a diversity of residential housing types without the current parking and street setback requirements of the existing zone, and a new Westside Parks and Open Space Zone to allow for park space throughout the Westside.
In an application to city planners, Jessica Stack of the consulting firm Tinker Ma LLC, said the current zoning mix of commercial and residential in the Westside area "are suburban in nature, only allowing for low- to mid-density commercial and residential uses, requiring large setbacks and large amounts of parking, which is inconsistent with the Westside Evolves Transformation Plan."
The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission will consider the new zones at its next meeting on Sept. 11. Any change must be adopted by the Chattanooga City Council, probably in October or November.
The proposed Westside Neighborhood Zone zone will allow for diversity of residential housing types, as well as hybrid and public types, Stack said. The zone will encourage minimal building setbacks and higher building frontage requirements to promote connectivity and street activation. The zone will not have minimum parking requirements.
The Westside Parks and Open Space Zone zone will allow for the protection and activation of park space throughout the Westside. The zone will not have minimum parking requirements. There are currently no requests for any rezonings to Parks and Open Space. Rezoning to Parks and Open Space will occur after the final site plan has been completed and permanent park sites are designated.
"We're excited about the establishment of the new zones that will allow the next steps of the plan the residents have created to move forward," Chattanooga Housing Authority Executive Director Betsy McCright said in an announcement of the new zones. "Throughout the planning process, we've been open and transparent with the residents who call Westside home."
Five neighborhood meetings are scheduled Thursday to share information about the proposed zoning with residents living at Boynton, College Hill Courts, Dogwood Manor, Gateway Towers and River View Tower.
Seeking federal aid
The housing authority has contracted with Columbia Residential to develop a plan for Chattanooga's Westside and to help the city secure federal grants and tax credits to finance new housing and commercial development in the area. Columbia Residential has developed more than 10,000 rental units at similar housing projects around the nation and will help the housing authority prepare an application for a Choice Neighborhood grant that could pump $50 million of additional federal funding and ongoing housing tax credits into the area.
In 2022, the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County both committed $2 million of federal assistance money for the Westside Evolves project to help renovate the former James Henry School and the Sheila Jennings Park, among other improvements. Another $3 million federal grant was awarded for other improvements and planning in the area.
The initial phase of the housing project will be a new 119-unit apartment complex on West 12th Street. The housing authority plans to ultimately to demolish and replace both the 497-unit College Hill Courts and the 132-unit Gateway Tower.
"We want to build first with new housing so that those who might be displaced during the redevelopment of this area will have a place to live," McCright said.