Chattanooga neighborhood expresses concerns over proposed apartment building

Chattanooga neighborhood expresses concerns over proposed apartment building

April 15th, 2018 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise has plans to erect new apartments and commercial space on a vacant lot at the corner of Union Avenue and Hawthorne Street. The lot is located behind The Mai Bell apartments fronting Bailey Avenue. (Staff photo by Tim Barber)

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

“If Highland Park is becoming more expensive and affluent, how do you create housing so people in the neighborhood can afford to stay there? It is rental.”
Martina Guilfoil, Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise CEO

The Mai Bell apartments are located in the 1700 block of Bailey Avenue. (Staff photo by Tim Barber)

The Mai Bell apartments are located in the...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Erecting new housing and commercial space in Highland Park may have drawn welcome raves not long ago when such development was seen as lending a helping hand to a downtrodden Chattanooga neighborhood.

But last week, some residents of the area that's undergoing a revitalization, including the head of the homeowners association, raised questions about a new project by Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise.

CNE's chief executive said some residents appear to be using language that was "code" for not wanting blacks or the poor in the community.

"Is it code for we don't want 50 percent African-American or poor?" asked CNE chief Martina Guilfoil.

But Emerson Burch, the Highland Park Neighborhood Association's president, said he is "super-offended" by such comments.

He said the nonprofit housing organization isn't listening to community members who are trying to provide feedback about the new proposal.

"We're eager to partner," Burch said.

Last Monday at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission meeting, CNE sought a rezoning of the nearly one-acre vacant parcel at 1715 Union Ave., in Highland Park near the Girls Leadership Academy just outside downtown.

Bob McNutt, CNE's director of real estate development, said the entity wants to put up a multi-level apartment building that includes about 14 units, along with ground-floor commercial space. CNE purchased the tract and others from Tennessee Temple University in 2013.

On a nearby parcel at Bailey Avenue and Hawthorne Street, CNE last year raised a 49-unit apartment building for $4.7 million called The Mai Bell.

All but eight of those units are leased, said Guilfoil, and she expects those to fill within about four months. Some of those units are offered as "affordable" apartments with reduced rents.

Plans also are to make some of the apartments in the planned building "affordable" units, according to CNE.

In addition, McNutt said, CNE could shift its headquarters to some of the new commercial space.

Burch, however, said the main concern among some in the neighborhood is the design of the proposed building.

"The main concern is lack of engagement," Burch said, adding that Highland Park is a community that wants to benefit everybody.

Paul Gifford, who lives near the planned apartment building, said neighbors have indicated that the planned structure doesn't fit the neighborhood and is an example of "poor architecture."

He said they've commented that the project is "ugly," that there's no green space and it's not "family friendly."

"We'd love townhouses," Gifford said. "We want breathing space and what's best for the space."

Burch asked that the planning commission to defer the project until CNE could receive more input from Highland Park residents. But the panel OK'd the rezoning and sent it on to the City Council, which is scheduled to decide on the zoning change on May 8.

CNE helped revitalize Chattanooga's Southside more than 20 years ago as it began building homes in what then was a struggling neighborhood outside downtown's core. Today, the Southside is seeing tens of millions of dollars in new housing going up.

A few years ago, the entity set its sights on Highland Park, buying 32 parcels from Tennessee Temple, said Guilfoil. CNE also holds lots in the adjoining neighborhood of Ridgedale, where it is working to build more housing.

Guilfoil said after the planning commission meeting that she thinks change is hard for some people in Highland Park.

"They prefer single-family homes," she said.

But Guilfoil said CNE has too much invested in the land, where it already has knocked down a former Temple dormitory building.

"There's some financial threshold we have to meet," she said.

Guilfoil predicted the proposed building would come in at more than $5 million, and work could start toward the end of the year, if the plan is approved by the city. Funding isn't decided yet, although CNE could seek a payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreement with the city to be able to use additional property tax revenues generated by the project for infrastructure and other costs.

Guilfoil said CNE isn't displacing anyone and it's adding more housing in Highland Park.

"One tool against gentrification is adding housing," the CNE chief said. "If Highland Park is becoming more expensive and affluent, how do you create housing so people in the neighborhood can afford to stay there? It is rental."

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.