Four years after establishing the Innovation District downtown, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke is offering a couple of under-utilized municipal buildings within the district for possible redevelopment for affordable housing and innovative office space.
Berke said two city buildings could be used to aid in the progress of the growing Innovation District, just as the city did five years ago by acquiring and then selling for private development the former TVA-owned Edney Building as the hub of the Innovation district.
"We will begin working immediately on the proposal to use the buildings and lots owned by city government in service of a growing, inclusive Innovation District," Berke said Thursday night in his State of the City address.
Berke said the City Hall Annex directly across from the historic Chattanooga City Hall now houses only the city's IT and 311 agency, which Berke said could be housed nearly anywhere in the city, and the city attorney's office, which could be relocated to another site.
One of the floors in the Annex building is no longer used at all by the city, but Berke said the 4-story building just a half block from the Edney Innovation District could be redeveloped. A newly released plan for the Innovation District recommends the addition of more modern office space and testing facilities, along with the development of more affordable housing for those working on startup ventures.
Berke said the city will offer the Annex building for possible private redevelopment to encourage the addition of more office, warehouse or other innovative uses for the growing number of entrepreneurs starting or relocating to Chattanooga to capitalize on the high-speed internet links in "Gig City," or to take advantage of the local business accelerators, tech training or venture capital funds.
Berke also said the city may give up its former wellness center at 274 E. 10th St., which now houses a few of its facilities management and engineering employees, to create space for affordable housing as proposed in the Innovation District study.
"While we will put many of the plan's recommendations into action, this first step shows city government will certainly do its part to make sure Chattanoogans can participate in the economy of the future," Berke said. .
Berke created the 140-acre Innovation District in the central city in 2014 to create a better entrepreneurial eco-system in Chattanooga's core.
"Over the last several years, the Innovation District has become one of the great modern Chattanooga success stories," Berke said. "Entrepreneurs, artists, non-profits, students — even the occasional government employee — all of them are collaborating in the blocks around the Edney. I believe we are seeing only the first stage in what the Innovation District can do for Chattanoogans; we still have tremendous potential for growth."
Berke said EPB, which helped attract an office from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory into the district, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which operates its computer simulation program in its SIM Center within the district, should continue to be key players in the growth of Chattanooga's innovation economy.
"Innovation runs on talent, which develops in our city when given the chance," Berke said. "While we certainly welcome the many people moving here, we also want homegrown Chattanoogans filling the high paying jobs that are opening up here. That means everyone should feel at home in our Innovation District — not just coders and developers."
Creating more affordable housing is designed to avoid the type of gentrification and displacement of low-income persons happening in tech centers like San Francisco.
Berke said the potential costs for the city, including any incentives or grants that might be offered to developers of the municipal buildings in the Innovation District, are not known yet. But he pledged in a presentation Thursday that any city investments "will be determined through a transparent and open RFP (requests for proposals) process."
Contact Dave Flessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.