Cooper: Berke has had heart for Tubman

Cooper: Berke has had heart for Tubman

December 12th, 2018 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

The former Harriet Tubman Homes site in East Chattanooga, as seen from Missionary Ridge, before its 2014 razing.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

It's been more than seven years since the Chattanooga Housing Authority (CHA) informed residents of the Harriet Tubman public housing complex that they would be evicted and the buildings would be sold because they required an untenable $33 million in repairs.

It's been more than five years since, with no valid offers for the complex in the offing, the city — under new Mayor Andy Berke — was asked to consider purchasing the complex. The city's offer was rejected by the CHA, and the bid eventually was withdrawn.

It's been more than four years since, with still no viable bids for the by then-boarded up, dilapidated site, groups of East Chattanooga residents begged the city to buy the complex, which it eventually did. The city's stated goal for the property at the time — though others may have been considered internally — was redevelopment into an industrial site.

The city spent $2.6 million for the complex, then paid $4.3 million to raze the dilapidated housing on it. To help show good faith to the community, the city employed at least 14 residents of the area to help demolish the complex.

Over the past four years, whenever Berke was asked about the project, he was forthright about the lack of proper industrial suitors for the site but passionate about his desire to create something positive there for the East Chattanooga community. Good-paying, industrial jobs, he said, would be a boon for the neighborhood, would be a short walk or drive away from home, and would give employees wages they then could plow back into the local economy and provide their families better lives.

He knew, after all, that unemployment within a mile of the site was 10 percent (in this era of near full employment), that the median household income was $23,000 and that a third of area residents didn't have access to a car.

Now that the city is ready to have the site rezoned M-1 (industrial) in order to help recruit a proper tenant, groups in the community are screaming, "Wait!"

For Berke, apparently, no good deed goes unpunished.

Seven years after residents were told the complex was no longer inhabitable, the vocal groups now say they want more flexible zoning that allows a variety of uses, want the city to consider leasing and not selling the property, want a potentially legally binding community benefits agreement with any potential developer or developers, and want the community to be informed of any requests for proposals or rezoning proposals related to the site's redevelopment.

Not that some of the proposals don't have merit, and not that there weren't pockets of residents who always wanted the area kept as housing, but where have the groups been since area residents pleaded for the city to come to the rescue of the crime-infested, tumbledown complex? Where were they as Berke and City Council members made no bones about the fact that if they got back into the bidding for the complex it was with the goal of it being redeveloped into an industrial site? Where were they as Berke has bent over backward looking for the best fit for the site?

Among those not happy about the mayor's rezoning proposal is former state Rep. Tommie Brown, who served with her fellow Democrat in the legislature and who has a home in the area.

"Right now the honeymoon is still on," she said in 2013 of the mayor and potential plans for the Tubman site. "Because it could turn."

For Brown, it apparently did turn.

"The city needs to acquiesce," she said recently, referring to Berke's zoning request.

Some area residents, though, have appreciated what the mayor has tried to do.

"I am waiting on the bulldozer to go over there and start tearing that eyesore down," James Moreland, who lives about 1.5 miles from the Tubman site, said after the city bought the property in 2014.

"It was a hellhole before it was torn down," he said this week. "We were on the news every day concerning crime."

At Monday's Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission, members voted unanimously to rezone the site for light industrial use. But, in what appeared to be a nod to those who prefer a more mixed-use space, the board ruled a portion of the property along Roanoke Avenue and Southern Street would be reserved for residential use.

The City Council also must vote on the rezoning.

Our feeling is if Berke holds out for the right employer, it can only benefit the neighborhood. In time, if the right employer doesn't come along, the site can be rezoned for more mixed-use development.

But the mayor, we believe, had — and has — the best interests of the community at heart.

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