Caswell Park update: Homeless may get part of park

Nick Della VolpeInside 640, On the Grow

Mayor Madeline Rogero changed hurlers for the Oct. 10 planning commission proceeding, benching development director Becky Wade and calling up policy director Bill Lyons from the bullpen to pitch the park deal. Lyons wasted no time hurling curve balls to win the commission’s approval of converting one acre of public green space adjacent to Caswell Park into a land giveaway to the Volunteer Ministry Center for homeless housing

So much for the city council’s decade-long designation of all parkland as “open space,” with a “hands-off” policy to prohibit future development, absent a fully-vetted, open public discussion of why such generally undesired action should be undertaken. That hands-off policy was certainly good enough to protect Lakeshore.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not pure whimsy. This administration favors providing affordable housing to the homeless. And her honor’s time is running short. But why park land? Is there not another one-acre tract available anywhere in our 100 square mile city?

How did we get here? Some facts and rumors need examination.

  • Internal memos show this bizarre deal got started when planning commission director Gerald Green apparently misread the tract’s “OS” map designation as “office,” instead of “park-open space,” and told Wade it was suitable for housing. So, Wade continued discussions with VMC’s Bruce Spangler to give VMC the $237,000 tract to build a 3-story, 47-unit apartment complex to house homeless individuals. Your tax dollars at work.
  • When they realized the zone-designation error, Wade took steps to get the planners to include the tract as residential on the August release of the proposed Recode Zone Map. It did. When the community and several council members cried foul, the city temporarily dropped the surreptitious Recode relabeling attempt. A mayoral apology followed. Of course, they would have to bring this up using regular public process.
  • The city applied for a zone change on the planning commission’s Oct. 10 agenda. Gosh, maybe there should have been some kind of public meeting before the planners’ meeting. City officials gave roughly a week’s notice that they would hold a public meeting on Sept. 23. The Parkridge neighborhood decided to print and send out a notice to interested community members, since the city did not undertake to do that. That standing room only meeting was reported here on Sept. 24.

Bill Lyons stated on Sept. 23 there was no need to delay the planning commission request. No alternatives had been examined at that point. It was said that VMC came forth with the proposal since the site was convenient to the Positively Living quarters next door which VMC hoped to acquire. It would reduce their caseworker needs.

Parkridge reps suggested two alternative city-owned sites just to the west of this park land that could be used instead. Those sites also had access to desired bus service, just like the original park lot.

Planning Commission meeting: At the Oct. 10 meeting, Lyons presented the city’s rationale: this wasn’t really park land, since it was outside the ballfield fence. It’s just green space with no present plans to use it more actively. It had convenient bus service on Magnolia, and VMC initiated this transfer for its service convenience. No alternatives had been examined.

In light of the existing lower density zoning in the area, Lyons agreed on the fly to reduce the request from RP-3 multi-family to RP-1, and thus seek only 24 units, not the original 47 units.

When asked by planning commissioner Andre Conte why not accede to the community’s modest request for a 60-day delay to properly vet this publicly, Lyons asserted a need to have title in VMC’s hands by Jan. 1, 2020, in order to facilitate a grant proposal. Most curious. That was the first time that was ever mentioned.

Surely this had nothing to do with his mayoral boss’s impending farewell from office in mid-December. Surely not. But she does love to cut ribbons.

And, when asked about possible alternative sites, Lyons fudged that the other nearby sites, mentioned by the neighbors on Sept. 23, were probably unsuitable. They might be too near the railroad or possibly could be in or near the floodplain. In short, we don’t want no stinking alternative … or delay. Just a rubber stamp.

Commissioners Tim Hill and Art Clancy were happy to abide his request, and moved its approval. Most of the commissioners went along.

So, it moves on to the city council. Let’s see if anyone there represents the community.

Nick Della Volpe is an attorney and a former member of Knoxville City Council.

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