Mayor pushes ahead with proposed park conversion

Nick Della VolpeInside 640, On the Grow

On Sept. 24, we reported on a packed-house community meeting with city officials over the proposed conversion of three parcels of land in Caswell Park into a 3-story, 47-apartment homeless housing project to be built by Volunteer Ministry Center, if it gets funding.

Area residents asked the city to slow down the proposal and consider alternative locations, rather than develop precious parkland.

Instead, the city is pressing its controversial plan before the Knox Planning Commission. The group’s Oct. 10 agenda, item 36, lists the city’s proposal to change the zoning on those three parcels from “Park – Open Space” (OS-2) to “Multi-family Housing” (RP-3). No mention of any alternatives was included either in the application or at the Sept. 23 community meeting, even though such Open Space designations were intended by the city council to be protected from development.

Recall that the city purchased the parcels for $237,000 over a decade ago, when building Caswell Park. Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons said at the meeting that the rezoned land would be transferred to VMC at no charge. Lyons saw no need to delay the process … the public meeting was just a base they had failed to tag on the way to the planning commission. The proposal had been discussed internally for over a year. Public input simply fell on deaf ears.

Several serious questions remain:

  • Can the city simply give away public land?
  • Must it be put out for bid to avoid sweetheart deals by politicians?
  • More importantly, what happened to the “hands off” rule about developing parkland?

Note that the city’s zoning code describes the use of such public property protectively: “This park and open space district is to create, preserve and enhance land accessible to the public as permanent space to meet the active park and recreational needs of the population.” Privately-run homeless housing does not meet that definition.

For more information, read the comments by UT associate professor of architecture, Micah Rutenberg, to Knox Planning, set out below. Among other things the professor points out that the repeated and excessive placement of such low-income facilities on the eastside of town hinders its rejuvenation and “perpetuates income segregation.” Surely that is not intended.

It has long been said that power corrupts. No wonder the people have voted in term limits.

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

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