Alstom And Tubman: A Tale Of Two Sites

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The former Alstom industrial site on the riverfront and the former Harriett Tubman housing site in East Chattanooga both have a lot of redevelopment potential. And yet the city of Chattanooga seems to view them quite differently.  

Alstom is the fair-haired child; Tubman is the forgotten child. 

The Alstom area was recently designated as an "opportunity zone" in a new program related to the 2017 federal cut. The program's purpose is to encourage private investment in "distressed, low income census tracts" by giving developers substantial savings in federal capital gains taxes if they develop there. The county and city also prioritized the Downtown, MLK, South Broad and Erlanger areas, all places where development is already occurring or planned.  

Guess which census tract was not prioritized high enough to make the cut? Avondale, home of the Tubman site, where the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 61 percent of families have a family income below $25,000.  

But wait, there's more. The application submitted by Hamilton County--with help from the city of Chattanooga, the Chamber of Commerce and the Enterprise Center--mentions other potential local tax incentives for the Alstom site, including PILOTs and tax increment financing (TIF). The narrative even says that--because the site is included in two city plans--"development on the site is eligible for bonding financing." I doubt seriously if our city councilors or county commissioners realize this wording is in a document they likely have never seen and concerns a funding concept they have never discussed.  

Let's talk zoning. At the Alstom site, the local owners have talked about keeping one of the two manufacturing plants and redeveloping the other and the area around it into a mixture of light industrial, residential, retail and office uses. The entire site is currently zoned M-1 (Manufacturing). When the owners apply for a zone change to accommodate the change from M-1 to a mixed use zone, expect the Planning Commission and City Council to enthusiastically support it.

The Alstom vision of mixed use is the same vision shared by many residents of Avondale/East Chatt for the city-owned Tubman site. But here, Mayor Berke's staff proposed that the site be rezoned from residential to M-1, even though a city-sponsored planning process involving neighborhood residents is not yet over and some say the M-1 zone is too limiting.

An East Chattanooga resident said this at Planning Commission:  "There's no way a proposal for M-1 zoning would EVER make it to this point in more affluent neighborhoods throughout town. It feels as if this "M-1" designation is just being pushed on us because those in political power believe we lack the unity or willpower to fight." The Planning Commission recently recommended approval of the city's request.

Everyone agrees that the Tubman site should be used to help produce jobs. However, industrial development in a residential neighborhood is not the only way to produce jobs. The proposed M-1 zoning would risk precluding all kinds of development that may be a better a fit. Mixed-use zoning could allow living wage jobs through small business development, retail, commercial and light industrial, while also addressing other community needs like affordable housing.

The City Council will make the final decision on Jan. 8. Will the Council assert itself as a co-equal branch of government and deny this zone change to M-1, allowing for time to complete the Area 3 plan and explore mixed use zoning? Stay tuned.

Helen Burns Sharp



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