After several years of relative silence, the city of Chattanooga is quietly beginning to tell neighborhood leaders its long-term plans for the former Harriet Tubman public housing site, which the city purchased in 2014.
On Monday, at a gathering of neighborhood leaders, and Saturday, at an Avondale neighborhood association meeting, staff from the city's office of economic and community development outlined an aggressive timeline for rezoning the former Tubman tract from residential to light industrial, or M1, with two conditions. The site cannot be used for poultry processing and the buyer must create a green buffer along Roanoke Avenue.
"It retains multifamily zoning. That makes it less attractive for companies looking to purchase the site," Charita Allen, the city's deputy administrator for economic development, told the group gathered Saturday at the Avondale Recreation Center. "We need to get the zone changed so that we can compete. What we want to do is level the playing field so that the next time a prospect comes, it is already rezoned."
In less than 10 days, by Oct. 22, Allen said the city expects to have a zoning change application submitted to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency. The rezoning process should be completed by January, she said.
"We feel good about the timeline we have created," she said.
Neighborhood residents, however, weren't comfortable with the timeline, or the plan.
After Allen finished her presentation, the meeting became extremely tense.
At the beginning, the 30 or so residents gathered were told by city staff that they could ask questions after the presentation, but they would need to write their question down on an index card and turn that card in for a city staffer to read for them. They needed the questions on index cards so they could have a record of each one being addressed, Allen said.
Some residents wanted to speak for themselves and when city staff tried to reassert their "ground rules" for the meeting, Dr. Everlena Holmes, a Glenwood block leader and East Chattanooga community organizer, stood up and refused to go along.
"Absolutely not!" she said.
"The concern I have is community trust," she added. "You have already made a decision. That is problematic."
Holmes and several other East Chattanooga neighborhood leaders have been deeply involved in the Regional Planning Agency's Area 3 planning process, which launched over the summer and promised to create a future plan for the area — which includes zoning for the Tubman site — informed by local residents, as well as other stakeholders.
Despite a flurry of meetings earlier this year, the planning process stalled several months ago when the Regional Planning Agency staff member leading the planning process left to take another job. A new staff member has taken over the planning process and the Regional Planning website says a public input meeting focused on "Community Choices" is tentatively scheduled for November.
"Why not wait until it [the area 3 plan] is done before you do anything?," Dr. Holmes asked Allen. "There needs to be a moratorium on all rezoning. Why is the city jumping over the planning process?"
In March, when the city received a state grant to study the site, Allen said the future of the site would depend, in large part, on the results of the Area 3 planning process. On Saturday, Jermaine Freeman, civic engagement coordinator for the city, said "we want this process to inform the Area 3 plan."
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has always intended the Tubman site — a total of 44 acres, including internal roads — for job creation. So far the city has spent $7.2 million on acquisition and demolition.
Job creation was also the stated intent when the Chattanooga City Council approved the purchase. Allen reminded the Avondale group as much on Saturday.
However, for just as long, residents have been saying the area needed affordable housing as much, if not more than, jobs.
"It was always a point of contention, whether there should be job creation or affordable housing," Eric Atkins, a community activist, told Allen. "There has always been an argument for mixed use. You need to stop saying that that was what the community wanted."
After the city purchased the site, the Regional Planning Agency and the Chattanooga Department of Transportation created multiple concepts for the future of the Tubman site and shared those plans with neighborhood groups, hoping to get feedback. Each recommendation was mixed use. One concept envisioned by Regional Planning and the Department of Transportation, at the time, combined a smaller industrial space with office space, multifamily apartments and mixed-use space with retail on the bottom floor and residential above. The one concept that Regional Planning and the Department of Transportation didn't recommend, at the time, was a "conventional" M1 designation, which would limit the site to a single use, documents show.
Gail McKeel, a Glass Farms resident who saw the concepts at a 2015 urbanism workshop hosted by Glass House Collective, a place-making organization working to revive the neighborhood around the former Tubman site, said she was much more excited about the ideas she saw that day than she was about the city's pitch Saturday.
When asked if the city had considered a mixed-use zone, Allen said no.
"When the site was purchased, it was for job creation, not a mixed-use district," she said. "When this goes before the planning commission, there are public hearings on it. That is when that conversation comes up. When it goes before the council, the community can say they don't want jobs, they want mixed-use development."
Contact Joan McClane at 423-757-6601 or firstname.lastname@example.org.