Staff File Photo / College Hill Courts residents walk through the housing complex, with Lookout Mountain in the background, in a photo from several years ago.

If hundreds of valuable acres of prime real estate in downtown Chattanooga were occupied by deteriorating, outdated public housing, one naturally might conclude that residents there in the next 10 years would be looking for new places to live.

But that's not the plan for the Westside neighborhood, an area roughly bordered by U.S. Highway 27, West Main Street, West Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Riverfront Parkway.

Instead, the Westside community in partnership with the Chattanooga Housing Authority (CHA), the city of Chattanooga and the Chattanooga Design Studio have developed a new vision for the neighborhood, one that would allow most people in public housing to stay as the area is developed around them and then move into new housing as the project is completed in phases over several decades.

The plan — first published in December 2021 — is bold in scope, aspirational in its vision and inclusive in its collaboration. Indeed, 82% of residents in the area that contains the College Hill Courts public housing project — the city's oldest — and the Gateway Towers, among other housing units, offered input by completing a 45-page survey on their hopes and dreams for the area.

It is a project that intentionally — and perhaps more humanely — seeks a different outcome from the demise of other recent housing projects in Chattanooga.

In 2004, for instance, the Chattanooga Housing Authority sought and received a federal Housing and Urban Development grant to demolish the 188-unit Maurice Poss Homes in South Chattanooga. Residents had to find other places to live while the 275-unit Villages at Alton Park affordable family rental community was built. Some residents of the Poss Homes eventually moved into the new community; many did not.

Beginning in 2011, some 300 residents were relocated from the Harriet Tubman Homes in East Chattanooga, and the 440-unit housing project was sold to the city and razed in 2014. In 2019, the city announced Nippon Paint would build a $61 million auto paint factory on the 30-acre site and employ at least 150 people.

However, the Westside project, like the Villages of Alton Park, will require what CHA Executive Director Betsy McWright calls "challenging" financing of $1 billion. Collaborators hope parts of that can come from a competitive federal Choice Neighborhoods program grant, which leverages public and private dollars to transform neighborhoods with public housing. They also hope to receive funds from, among other federal sources, the American Rescue Plan, a 2021 stimulus package passed by Congress that was pitched as a COVID relief bill but held funds for much more.

"Right now, we have no money," McWright said in an interview with Times Free Press editors. "We plan to find some. Nothing's off the table in terms of finance.

Among the first steps, though, are the transfer of the city's youth and family development administrative office in the area to CHA. Ultimately, and depending on financing, the site could be the first in the project for new housing development.

The project, in time, envisions 629 affordable units (which could accommodate the 497 current residents and then some), up to 1,700 units on land CHA already controls and as many as 3,000 units if collaborators are able to acquire adjacent parcels for redevelopment. If it is completely built out, the area would see rental costs than run from deeply subsidized to market rates.

And we like the neighborhood feel of the plan that incorporates beloved existing sites like the former James A. Henry School (which would be in early phases of the project), the Sheila Jennings Park, the Grace tree and community center flagpole.

The expanded former school would afford a new gymnasium, 60 to 100 Head Start preschool seats, a health clinic and a computer center, among other things, and the adjacent area would offer a community garden, splash pad, pickleball court, performance corner with amphitheater, and public art. Grove Street, which runs along the front of the former school, would be narrowed to slow traffic.

Since the Westside project is likely five years from receiving adequate initial funding, McWright said, its "footprint has not been integrated into the wider community." But since collaborators want it to be a vision of the entire community, they still want people to weigh in.

The CHA executive said the agency had been approached over the years with inquiries about buying the land on which the aging public housing sits. Twenty years ago, such inquiries might have been considered. However, she said, people of low income deserve a place where they "can enjoy the viability of downtown."

We admire the vision, the plan and the incorporation of residents in what they'd like to see happen in their community. The proof, obviously, will be in the doing. But we relate it to what President John F. Kennedy said in 1962 about the dream of sending men to the moon.

"We choose to [do these] things, not because they are easy," he said, "but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone."