published Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Locals want new homes on Tubman site, but Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has eye on industry

Avondale resident Anna Gaines talks about the distress of children who were displaced from the Harriet Tubman housing complex. Gaines, who lives only one block from the former housing development, gave young girls a place to go and play and learn. The city is negotiating with the Chattanooga Housing Authority to purchase Tubman and repurpose the property.
Avondale resident Anna Gaines talks about the distress of children who were displaced from the Harriet Tubman housing complex. Gaines, who lives only one block from the former housing development, gave young girls a place to go and play and learn. The city is negotiating with the Chattanooga Housing Authority to purchase Tubman and repurpose the property.
Photo by Tim Barber.
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Should the Tubman site be used for industry?
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    The Harriet Tubman homes are vacant in this Feb. 27, 2013 photo.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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When Fantasy Johnson packed her clothes, pots and pans inside her car and drove off the Harriet Tubman public housing site two years ago, she thought her life would get better.

Officials told Johnson and the 315 families living in the East Chattanooga complex that the leaking ceilings, trees growing through roofs and the decrepit conditions made it unfit to live there. And as at so many other large public housing complexes across the country, the federal government didn't want to support places susceptible to crime and poverty.

But when Johnson moved into a rental house several blocks away, she said, her hardships multiplied: The shootings became more frequent; the electricity could get turned off.

"At least [at Tubman] they kept the property up, the water and electricity stayed on," Johnson said. "It was a better quality of life than what's out here now."

Some neighborhood residents say they are disappointed that Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke wants to bulldoze the 35 acres of boarded-up brick buildings and turn it into an industrial site, trumping local bidders who wanted to develop housing.

Earlier this year the Chattanooga Housing Authority said five parties had made offers on the Tubman site ranging from $800,000 to $4 million, and four of the five indicated they would build housing or a mix of houses and commercial buildings.

But Berke, who is offering the housing authority $1 million for the property, has a vision he said will strengthen the neighborhood and bring jobs to the area, which is ultimately what he said is best for the community.

"I believe it's the best use of the land; East Chattanooga is in need of jobs," he said. "We have the opportunity to do the most amount of good."

Other business leaders, such as Greater Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce President Ron Harr, said Tubman is one of the most attractive pieces of property in the city to redevelop because of its proximity to downtown and easy access to railroads and the labor market.

Land is an extremely valuable commodity in the Scenic City, where space for industrial sites is running out.

As the Chamber markets Chattanooga as a hub for the automotive industry, leaders are eyeing Tubman as possibly the next site for an auto supplier, Harr said. Regardless of what industry moves into the forming housing site, the whole community will benefit in the long run, he said.

"A lot of growth was started with Amazon, Volkswagen and Wacker," Harr said. "There's no reason [why it won't happen in East Chattanooga.]"

•••

Next to the railroad tracks, the rows of boarded-up buildings sit vacant, looking as if a zombie apocalypse swept through and drove the residents out.

There's an empty playground. A few fragments of spray-painted graffiti. Trees or weeds cropping up in the gutters.

Nearby is the boarded-up Okie Dokie Market and the abandoned Mary Ann Garber School. Neighbors say the area is quieter now. Some of the former Tubman residents moved into other public housing; others found rental properties. Some are homeless.

Anna Gaines, who held a Bible study every week for the kids from grade school to teenagers, said she doesn't know where everyone dispersed. But she worries for their safety and where they lay their heads at night. What the community needs is places to live, she said.

"I don't know if that would be a good thing," she said about the city's plan to bring in a manufacturer. "It isn't going to be jobs for the inner city."

Three houses down the street, Marcus Watkins also is skeptical about whether his neighbors and friends, some of whom don't have high school diplomas, would be helped.

Berke and other city officials said there are other opportunities for affordable and quality housing elsewhere. Berke has proposed turning city-owned vacant property over to developers to build affordable homes.

"I take the issue seriously," he said. "It's not just affordable housing, but also quality."

And if the deal goes through, Berke said, the city is looking at multiple ways to develop jobs specifically for the community, from demolishing the buildings to construction.

But jobs demolishing Tubman and building something else there won't last, said Cynthia Cash, president of the North Brainerd Neighborhood Association Council. She said several community members would have preferred that CHA work with a local developer and use some of the land for affordable housing.

Harr said the community can help train the workforce for the jobs that come.

And Councilman Moses Freeman said an industrial site could be a catalyst for growth. Workers there would need places to eat and shop, providing opportunities for entrepreneurs to open restaurants, grocery stores, perhaps even a shopping area, he said.

•••

Before the City Council gave Berke the green light to negotiate with CHA for Tubman, officials were told by Berke's staff that the land is being eyed as a downtown version of Enterprise South industrial park.

That park now has only 64 acres left to develop, and Centre South Riverport off Amnicola Highway has just 75 acres left.

While 35 acres of land doesn't compare to the roughly 6,000 acres from the former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant where Volkswagen now sits, Harr said it's enough land for an auto supplier.

The Chamber of Commerce wants to market Chattanooga as an automotive hub for the South, highlighting lower wages, access to three major interstates, railroad support and proximity to auto suppliers. There are six automotive facilities within 180 miles of the Scenic City: BMW, Volkswagen, Honda, GM, Kia and Nissan.

Most auto suppliers are looking for 25 to 30 acres of land, Harr said. While the Tubman land won't be limited to the auto industry, it certainly fits the bill. It's a plus that the land is flat, and the cost of bulldozing what's there will be low.

Berke, who put $3 million for the Tubman project in the 2014 budget approved last week, said a letter of intent was sent to CHA, but there is no specific time line.

CHA Executive Director Betsy McCright said the city's is one of six inquiries into Tubman and that no recommendation has been made to the housing authority board, which is made up of members appointed by the mayor. The board's eventual decision will be sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for final approval.

James Farmer, a broker for ReMax Renaissance Realtors, whose client was willing to spend $4 million to purchase Tubman, said CHA was unwilling to work with his client to negotiate on the land.

But Farmer said he doesn't have a problem with the mayor putting in a bid for the property.

"I think it's smart. As a business owner and Chattanoogan, I completely support what the mayor is doing," Farmer said. "Our [dispute] is with CHA and their inability to negotiate."

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

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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