published Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke drops Tubman site purchase plan, cites price

Mayor Andy Berke has backed away from his proposed purchase of the former Harriet Tubman public housing site, even though the land was a key part of his plan to create new jobs in Chattanooga.

It was in late July that Berke first revealed the plan to purchase the East Chattanooga public housing site and use it to attract industry. The project was included as part of his overall budget to tackle job growth along with other key initiatives such as public safety and youth and family development.

But two months later and after gaining City Council approval, Berke withdrew his $1 million offer and pointed to the Chattanooga Housing Authority, which owns the 35-acre tract of land.

"It is clear that CHA will accept the highest bid, which is an amount beyond what we are willing to pay," Berke said Monday in a statement.

The mayor later explained that he initially believed the CHA board would consider his $1 million offer. But, he said, CHA Executive Director Betsy McCright told him Friday that the board was now only considering selling Tubman to the highest bidder.

At the time of Berke's original proposal, five other offers for the dilapidated property were on the table. Those offers ranged from $800,000 to $4 million and all but one proposed putting affordable housing on the site.

McCright said Monday afternoon that after following up on the other offers, CHA was left with three -- two for $1 million and one for $2.85 million. McCright said she couldn't comment further because she was on a plane headed out of town.

City Council Chairman Chairman Yusuf Hakeem and Chamber of Commerce leaders said they had hoped the deal between the city and CHA would go through.

"We're extremely disappointed," said Ron Harr, president of the Chamber of Commerce. "We think the mayor's idea was the right one. He took a bold stance to create jobs."

  • photo
    A piece of abandoned playground equipment sits off of Heaton Street in the Chattanooga Housing Authority Harriet Tubman complex in East Chattanooga. The city may buy the property for use as an industrial site.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
    enlarge photo

But locals who had asked for a public meeting with CHA, Chamber and city officials in an effort to persuade officials to consider affordable housing on the site, took Berke's decision as a small victory.

"There was a vision that came out of the mayor's office and the Chamber of Commerce for the use of the property, [and] that vision wasn't in line with what the community wanted," said Perrin Lance, co-founder of Chattanooga Organized for Action.

It was just Monday morning that a coalition of former Harriet Tubman residents and East Chattanooga community members led by COA asked for a meeting next week with CHA. They had hoped to convince officials to reserve the housing site for affordable housing for low-income people and push for one-to-one replacement of the number of units offered at Tubman.

Avondale Association President John Lewis said the community will still hold a meeting with CHA next week to talk about housing options for the community, hoping to urge the future owner to offer both quality and reasonably-priced single-family houses.

Meanwhile, Berke said he doesn't know what the city will do with the $3 million from this year's budget allocated for purchasing Tubman and bulldozing the buildings for redevelopment.

He defended his original plan.

"I've heard from many people that are excited about potential development," Berke said. "We believe our plan is the best and highest use of that site."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at 423-757-6659 or jlukachick@timesfreepress.com.

about Yolanda Putman...

Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...

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