‘Apartheid,’ ‘Jim Crow’: Chattanooga council has concerns over riverfront project

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly speaks as community leaders gathered to announce One Westside, a plan for The Bend and the Westside community on May 26.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly speaks as community leaders gathered to announce One Westside, a plan for The Bend and the Westside community on May 26.

As proponents seek to reserve up to $115 million in public funds to support the revitalization of approximately 300 acres in Chattanooga's Westside, they will have to address concerns from members of the City Council comparing the plan to past eras of segregation.

"When the Westside was built, it was intentionally a segregated neighborhood," Council Vice Chairwoman Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, said during a meeting on Tuesday. "We created apartheid with that."

She said she has no desire to use special tax financing to build a community that is "an exclusive neighborhood for a privileged few."

Although she was also complimentary of the plan, Hill said the resulting community must be affordable for working-class people — those pouring beer or using the cash register at the local grocery store — and not just higher-income employees working at new businesses attracted to the site.

Councilwoman Marvene Noel, of Orchard Knob, said the housing part of the plan "has Jim Crow sprinkled over" it, 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."

The plan calls for the redevelopment of prime waterfront land at the site of the former Alstom plant with housing, a grocery store, offices and more, being marketed as The Bend. The site is near the city's oldest public housing development, College Hill Courts, targeted for a separate but related redevelopment.

The council participated in an approximately two-hour presentation and discussion on Tuesday afternoon about the proposal, which bled into their regularly scheduled 6 p.m. meeting. The council is set to vote next week on an economic impact plan for the project, with consideration of the special tax district to support it still a couple of months away. The council intends to schedule a workshop to address more questions.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's Westside evolving with plans for $1 billion redevelopment)

The Bend development is proposed by Urban Story Ventures.

The developer and the mayor's office are proposing a 20-year tax increment financing deal, so named because it's designed to use incremental increases in government tax revenue generated by a given development to pay for infrastructure to support the project.

The city staff does not see the project as divisive — quite the contrary. When it was unveiled last month, it was branded as "One Westside," echoing Mayor Tim Kelly's overall unity plan, known as "One Chattanooga."

"This project has the potential to be as big as anything that we have ever done, anything that we have ever seen," Kelly's interim chief of staff, Jermaine Freeman, told the council. "When you think back to our massive redevelopment efforts for the city's riverfront, the aquarium, the revitalization of the convention center, the creation of The Chattanoogan hotel, this project has the ability to be as big as any of those and to propel our city into the future."

Developers and mayor's office staff say the new mixed-use project will spur at least $800 million in new investment in the Westside and include more than one million square feet of new commercial space plus options for retail, entertainment, recreation and housing. The project will generate at least 2,000 new jobs and has been master planned to accommodate multiple modes of transportation, including walking and biking.

(READ MORE: One Westside tax district in Chattanooga to help support over $198 million in public improvements)

Additionally, 10% of the housing units at The Bend would be affordable for households earning 80% or less of area median income.

City and county leaders have also tied the project to a plan led by the Chattanooga Housing Authority to construct 1,783 new housing units in the adjacent Westside community, which would include one-for-one replacements of 629 units of public housing at Gateway Towers and College Hill Courts.

A portion of the new tax revenue generated by private development would serve as a local match for a $50 million federal grant the housing authority will be seeking from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That would in turn provide access to low-income housing tax credits from the state that would support the construction of new units.

Council Chairwoman Raquetta Dotley, of East Lake, said in an interview that she wants to ensure existing Westside residents, mostly seniors, who want to stay in the existing footprint won't end up permanently displaced to other parts of Chattanooga as new units go up in phases. Overall, Dotley stated, it's a great project that she expects will act as a strong economic catalyst for that area.

(READ MORE: Special tax zone proposed to spur redevelopment of The Bend and Chattanooga's Westside)

According to data from 2020, officials estimate that almost half of the 2,600 residents of the Westside community live in poverty, greater than the 17% poverty rate citywide. A disproportionate number of those families — 87% — are Black compared to 34% of residents across Chattanooga.

Approximately 60% of the newly constructed apartments, which includes the 629 replacement units, would be reserved for people making between zero and 80% of the area median income. The remaining 40% would be intended for people making above that threshold.

Councilwoman Carol Berz, of Brainerd Hills, said she would like to see a cost-benefit analysis for the plan.

"I'm not opposed at all to investments," she said. "I'm not opposed at all to the economic impact of this, but I want to see the numbers."

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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