In 1940, Chattanooga erected its biggest public housing project as part of a federal urban renewal project on the Westside billed at the time as "slum clearance" to make way for a new highway into downtown Chattanooga.
Eighty-one years later, the city and its Chattanooga Housing Authority are using a far different approach toward re-imagining the city's Westside into a more diverse, vibrant and connected community. The new community plan for the aging College Hill Courts and surrounding development was unveiled Saturday during a street party after more than nine months of community engagement and planning that involved more than 80% of the local residents.
The new plan envisions more than doubling the number of housing units in the area while preserving and enhancing many of the long-time fixtures of College Hill Courts, including the James A. Henry school, the historic flagpole and the Sheila Jennings community park. As proposed, the 429-unit College Hills Courts and the 132-unit Gateway Towers erected nearby in 1977 would be refurbished or replaced with other subsidized housing and private developers would be encouraged to develop more subsidized and market-rate housing as well as new retail and recreation in the area.
With more multi-story housing and pedestrian-friendly walkways through the area and connecting to downtown and the river, the new plan is designed to keep and enhance open spaces, walkways and community facilities while increasing the supply of in-demand housing.
"We think we've delivered a little bit of something for everyone," said Rhae Parkes of EJP Consulting Group, the Florida consulting firm that worked with the city, residents and other stakeholders to develop the "Westside Community Evolves" plan for the future. "The plan maintains all of the subsidized housing in this area while creating opportunities for more such housing along with market-rate housing and other new development to create a more diverse and vibrant community. We've also preserved some of the things that the community has said are important."
Planners are proposing to relocate the administrative offices of the city's Department of Youth and Family Development at 510 W. 12th St. to free up more property for mixed-use housing and open spaces. The new Westside plan also proposes replacing many of the existing single-story brick and concrete public housing units in College Hill Courts with more modern and attractive five-story housing facilities.
Lonnie Edwards, a project manager at CHA, said College Hills Courts "were built like a tank" with concrete floors, bricks and few amenities, which was typical of early housing projects in America. The new plan envisions replacement housing being built along more pedestrian-friendly boulevards and a new walkway being extended along 12th Street to the Tennessee Riverwalk west of the Riverfront Parkway.
The James A. Henry school, which closed as an elementary school in 1980 and is in need of repairs, would be revamped and used as a community facility and the home of a relocated Head Start program and art and culture center.
"I think the plan looks great and it reflects a lot of what people want for this area," said George Short, the vice president of the College Hill Courts tenants association who has lived all of his 63 years of life on the Westside. "But we'd like to have more of grocery store, laundry store and some other retail options."
City and Chattanooga Housing Authority officials said they are eager to also provide those retail options in the targeted area and nearby as a revamped Westside becomes more connected.
What's next for the Westside?
The proposed improvements will take years to implement and could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fully build out and implement. The Chattanooga Housing Authority board on Tuesday will consider the plan and take steps to hire an implementation manager, and the city will be asked to endorse the overall concept to help CHA solicit more federal aid to help implement the ideas.
CHA Executive Director Betsy McCright said the housing authority is likely to seek a Choice Neighborhoods grant from the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help pay for part of the project costs.
Choice Neighborhood grants provide up to $35 million of flexible funding to a community that provides matching investments that help transform low-income or distressed neighborhoods into mixed-income communities. Such grants require a 3-to-1 match with local investments, so Parkes said Chattanooga will need to leverage investments from the city, foundations and private developers who can take advantage of tax-advantaged borrowing rates for subsidized and market housing in the area.
The Chattanooga Housing Authority estimated a couple of years ago that bringing up College Hill Courts to today's HUD standards in its current design would cost $63.2 million. McCright said earlier that up to $94 million was needed to make all of the needed repairs along with other supportive infrastructure in the community, and that cost has likely risen since those estimates were prepared.
> Add up to 1,600 new apartments, replacing the aging 629 units in College Hill Courts and Gateway Towers, and adding more subsidized and market-rate housing.
> Refurbish James A. Henry school into a community center for training, arts, Head Start and other community services.
> Improve open spaces, including the Sheila Jennings Park, and improving sidewalks along new boulevards with connections along 12th street to the Tennessee River.
> Heighten security, lighting and safety in the area.
Source: Westside Comunity Evolves, developed for the Chattanooga Housing Authority
Residents sound off
Rather than relocate or replace the aging facilities as CHA did with its Harriett Tubman, Spencer McCallie and other older projects in the past, the authority launched a yearlong community planning process known as "Westside Community Evolves" last year to re-imagine the 120-acre area that is home to nearly 2,000 residents along with the city's Youth and Family Development Center and a handful of other properties, including the former James A. Henry elementary school, the Renaissance Presbyterian Church and a handful of businesses.
CHA spent $561,000 on a comprehensive planning effort over the past year, employing EJP Consulting Group in Florida and the Chattanooga Design Studio in Chattanooga to gather ideas from the community about how to redevelop the area to maintain or increase the number of affordable housing units while adding more market-rate housing, business services and recreation for local residents.
"We want to revitalize this whole district, not just CHA's College Hill Courts and Gateway Towers," McCright said.
City, CHA support
The new plans were unveiled Saturday just after city leaders celebrated the completion of the $13 million renovations of the three Boynton Terrace towers also in the Westside. CHA also previously renovated Dogwood Manor nearly a decade ago.
"These investments show that we are committed to make this entire area a much better place to live and I think the Westside Evolves project will help bring in different aspects of revitalization such as retail and perhaps some medical and social opportunities," McCright said.
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, whose family built a car dealership on the Westside in 1971 that continues today as a Subaru dealership, said he hopes to encourage more mixed-use development and create a diverse community in Chattanooga's Westside for all income levels. Already, million-dollar condos in Cameron Harbor have been built just a couple of blocks from the public housing units in College Hill Courts.
"This process has been a lot more thoughtful, deliberative and consultative with the community and it's encouraging to see the possibilities for the future," Kelly said Saturday while reviewing the preliminary plans during the block party. "This is a very cohesive community and we want things to be done with them, not to them."
Residents in Chattanooga's Westside worked throughout the pandemic to provide input into what they'd like to see for their community's future. EJP used a variety of tools from surveys, door-to-door interviews, community discussions and even art drawings to engage local residents in giving input into re-imagining the region.
"It wasn't just about the brick-and-mortar," McCright said. "We really tried to find out what types of things our tenants want in this community."
Throughout the past year, more than 1,600 of the community's residents and stakeholders responded to surveys, participated in planning meetings or shared in both art drawings and community discussions about what they would like to see for the 120-acre site owned by the CHA, the city and other nearby subsidized private housing developments in the area between U.S. 27, Riverfront Parkway, M.L. King Boulevard and Main Street.
McCright, who has worked in public housing in different cities for more than three decades, said the planning process has been one of the most inclusive she has ever seen. CHA spent $561,000 on the planning project.
Preserving a community
Parkes said the James A. Henry school could be redeveloped as a community facility for workforce training, preschool programs, medical care, and arts and culture programming. Local parks, bus benches and sidewalks could be re-imagined to encourage more social interactions, walking activities and connections to both downtown and the Tennessee River just a couple of blocks away.
From the start, the city and CHA have been committed to maintaining at least as many subsidized housing units to ensure affordable housing remains in Chattanooga's central city for all incomes.
"We wanted to make sure that our residents, who are people of low income, have the opportunity to enjoy our downtown," McCright said.
CHA is using a "build first" approach so before any College Hills Courts units are taken down, work would have begun on replacement facilities, she said.
New approaches to public housing
Under the proposals for the future, CHA could solicit private developers using tax-advantaged loans from HUD to take over and rebuild the aging public housing units with a more modern and attractive look.
The CHA has put out a request for proposals for an implementation manager for the plan and at the next CHA board meeting Tuesday the authority expects to begin to take some early steps to begin implementing some of the recommendations in the plan.
"I don't think we'll see a shovel in the ground for 18 months or two years and it's going to be a long project," McCright said. "But we keep encouraging our residents, don't move. It's going to take a while, but these are exciting plans."
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6340.