Plans are being made aimed at creating a bright future for the Westside neighborhood of Chattanooga. The area bordered by MLK Boulevard, Riverfront Parkway, Main Street and U.S. Highway 27 is the location of one of the oldest public housing developments in the city, College Hills, which was built around 80 years ago. Over the years, Boynton Terrace, Dogwood Manor and Gateway Towers have also been built which doubled public housing units in the Westside district.
The neighborhood is surrounded by others areas which are growing and changing such as downtown and along the river. Planners believe it is time for Westside to follow the lead. Three partners have joined forces to make this happen: The Chattanooga Housing Authority, the city of Chattanooga and The Chattanooga Design Studio, a nonprofit that promotes excellence in urban design, which is taking the lead. These groups will be guided by EJP Consulting Group.
The plan will be done through a process known as “Westside Evolves,” said Rhae Parks with EJP Consulting Group. She said the goal will be to work with the community to help develop a road map for the future of the neighborhood. There will be two areas of focus, the physical infrastructure and the people. Goals include replacing the existing housing units because of their age and to develop a mixed income community with a range of housing options. Now the area is 100 percent affordable units but the goal will be to add unsubsidized housing to the mix. The plan also aims to leverage existing partnerships to provide residents opportunities with businesses in the surrounding areas including downtown. The overall plan will include a creative piece, incorporating public art and landscape design.
Hunter Gee, a partner in EJP Consulting said the first stage was to determine a baseline by looking at existing conditions in the Westside district. This will help the planners to understand the past and present in the neighborhood. These elements include knowing that around 2,000 people live there currently. The character of the community, the history, the way land is being used, transportation connectivity, education, employment and crime and safety of the neighborhood has all been studied. In the close look, the planners found there are a lot of challenges but also some strengths.
As planners and architects, said Mr. Gee we want to understand how the community uses the neighborhood. The group had found that most housing is owned by Chattanooga Housing Authority with only a few privately owned properties. The proximity to downtown and the river are great assets and there is a significant amount of open space that is underutilized. There are a few commercial spaces, but most are vacant. Housing consists of relatively small units, with few having three-four bedrooms.
Connectivity by public transit is good but scheduling presents some problems and increases commuting time. Less than half of residents own their own vehicles, and transportation is seen as a problem to 25 percent of people who live there. The area is surrounded by some very busy roads, and Highway 27 isolates the neighborhood and creates a barrier to downtown, yet there are also quiet tree lined streets in the interior of the area. Topography creates challenges to connectivity, said Mr. Gee.
Kathy Carton, also with EJP Consulting, in helping to develop the plan, will focus on support and services needed and wanted by the people who live there. She said the median income is extremely low, about $12,000 a year and that most are employed in the low paying service industries. A lack of internet access hinders both remote learning and job searches.
There is good access to health insurance and care, yet premiums that people pay are high and most depend on hospital emergency rooms for health care. There are a lot of chronic health conditions that need to be addressed and the need for disability services. There is a high rate of food insecurity in the Westside neighborhood.
As for education, there is good participation in early childhood learning and there are five schools that serve the area. But, according to Hamilton County there is chronic absenteeism and a high rate of suspensions and a large failure to achieve proficiency in standardized testing. Despite being available, there is less than 40 percent participation in after school programs.
Crime and safety concerns show a high rate of violence and vandalism. In Gateway Towers, people perceive the police in a positive light. In College Hills, which has a younger population, people perceive police as a threat. There is a need for better lighting, community policing and anti-gang initiatives, she said.
Moving the plan forward will be done in four stages, and only the first has been done at this time, which is understanding the neighborhood. Stage two will be to hold community meetings and determine a shared vision for the future. During stage three, the planners will create a detailed plan for the buildings, services, infrastructure and public spaces. The different stages of the plan will be presented to the community for input. The fourth and last stage which should be done in around nine months, will to make an action plan to guide the implementation of the project.
The public is invited to ongoing workshops. Discussion of the buildings, places and connections will be held on March 6, 8, and 11. Meetings to discuss people, services and opportunities will be on March 8,13 and 15.
The program can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMP5C-FGbkM&feature=youtu.be
Detailed data about the plan and future meetings can be seen on the website www.WestSideEvolves.com.