In a project that would keep the wrecking balls and bulldozers busy for months, workers may soon transform the shuttered Harriett Tubman housing complex in East Chattanooga into an industrial site if the city council accepts a plan proposed on Wednesday by Mayor Andy Berke.
Berke wants to buy the dilapidated complex from the Chattanooga Housing Authority for $1 million, spend $2 million bulldozing the 35-acre site and open it up to one of the nearly 40 employers currently bidding to open a manufacturing plant on one of the handful of available properties.
If combined with a handful of vacant parcels to the north, including several owned by Berke's father and uncle, the total site would measure 70 acres and offer rail access to a manufacturer willing to build on the site. Though there is currently no plan to include the adjoining property, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Ron Harr confirmed that he had discussed it with the mayor.
"We're open to whatever produces the most jobs," Harr said.
1953: First phase of Harriett Tubman completed
1963: Expansion grows size of complex
2005: Chattanooga Housing Authority demolishes 10 buildings
2012: CHA evicts residents, puts complex up for sale
2013: Mayor Andy Berke signals intention to buy for $1 million
But Berke's $1 million bid would undercut the existing offers from private developers who have been bidding on the complex since 2012, and would eliminate Harriet Tubman as a possible low-income development to support the city's oft-cited need for affordable housing.
"That's not good," said Anita Pickett, former secretary of the Harriet Tubman residential council.
There's plenty of vacant manufacturing space all over the city, she said, and precious little vacant space for renters to rest their heads at nigh.
"A lot of people on Section 8 have no place to go," she said. "They should modernize those apartments, don't just take them away."
Developers have been trying to do just that in response to a request for multi-family housing proposals, but say their offers were met with silence. Real estate officials say the Chattanooga Housing Authority entertained multiple bids ranging from $800,000 to $4 million, then went quiet. In 2013, the agency seemingly reversed itself again, renewing its contract with Kirkland Co. to continue marketing the site as an apartment complex.
"Some of those offers were pretty high, so I was surprised that they hadn't sold to those people," said developer Ilya Dyskin, who considered buying the site initially but later bowed out.
Jason Farmer, broker and owner of Re/Max Renaissance Realtors, said he made two offers for the complex on behalf of a client, but was confused by the agency's response to what he was told was the high bid
"In the real estate world I live in, you make offers and make counter-offers and you accept, reject, counter, and there's a spirit of negotiation in every offer," Farmer said. "They did not have any spirit of negotiation."
Betsy McCright, executive director of the Chattanooga Housing Authority, said what the developers called bids were more like "inquiries," and that the agency was still in "information gathering mode." However, the agency will review and give consideration to the city's proposal, she said.
"The way it would work is that we the staff will review all of them, we will make a recommendation to our board, the board would have to approve, then it goes to [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], and HUD has to approve it,"McCright said.
While it would be nice to have the complex's 440 units online, the fact is that residents don't like living in the big complexes, and government entities have moved toward smaller developments in recent years, she said.
Many residents had already left Harriet Tubman before it officially shut down due to the violence and dilapidation of the units, leaving the housing authority with more maintenance expenses than income from the project.
"The housing authority is not going to subsidize another Harriet Tubman," she said.
That would be fine by Aileen Young, a former Harriet Tubman resident of seven years who now lives less than a mile away.
"A lot of the people who have been displaced still don't have jobs, so that would be a great idea if they create jobs with that land," Young said. "To give people a job would be helping them out of a rut. A lot of people who lived there have lived there since the day they were born and still want to go back."
Chattanooga City Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem said some neighbors and developers may prefer to keep the site as a residential property, "but the reality is that we need the jobs.
"In that area, there is unemployment that is 20 to 30 percent so it makes sense that we have to do something as far as industry is concerned in that area," Hakeem said. "I think this is a great move and I'm encouraged that the administration is looking at acquiring that property for the purpose of industrial development."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com or 423-757-6315.