The city’s race to convert a park to homeless housing

Nick Della VolpeInside 640, On the Grow

Let’s face it. The mayor wants what she wants … public be damned. At least in this one instance.

The city is proposing to convert a parcel in Caswell Park along East Fifth Avenue into a three-story homeless housing facility with 47 one-bedroom apartments to be built and operated by Volunteer Ministry Center. The property is located adjacent to the existing Positively Living facility.

City officials Becky Wade, Bill Lyons and Michael Dunthorn participated in a public meeting Monday at the offices of the Urban League, located across the street from the park, and explained the proposed plan with the help of Bruce Spangler, chief executive officer at VMC.

Over 120 people packed the meeting hall and doorways where standing room was all that was left at the start of the 6 o’clock meeting. At least four council members were present in the audience (Gwen McKenzie, George C. Wallace, Andrew Roberto and Stephanie Welch).

The city-owned land is currently zoned “Parks – Open Space,” and is used by the adjoining Parkridge neighborhood as a small picnic and neighborhood recreation area. The bulk of Caswell Park is devoted to ball fields but apparently those fenced-in areas are locked down and unavailable for local use. The land is reserved for organized team sports run by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

It is an understatement to say the proposal is controversial and opposed by the Parkridge neighborhood. VMC apparently started discussions with the city 18 months ago. A redesignation of the tract to mixed use – residential was quietly included on the proposed Recode map released for comment by MPC last winter. That was challenged at city council and wisely postponed to allow a more public process to address a proposed change to park land.

This was the night for public discussion. But it seems like this is a virtually done deal. The plan is to take the proposed zoning change (RP-3 – planned residential) to the planning commission on Oct. 10 and to city council in November (11/5 and 11/15).

The public questions brought out these facts:

  • No alternative sites were considered by the city or VMC
  • The city originally bought the land, three lots with three houses, for $237,000 for the park
  • VMC will be given the land at no cost
  • VMC says it favors this site because it can buy the Positively Living building next door and realize efficiencies managing the two together
  • The neighbors point to an underused 3.9 acres on the western side of the park, where the city presently dumps waste rock and concrete rubble
  • The nearby city pension and police offices will be vacated when the new headquarters is moved to the former St. Mary’s site, and is closer to needed bus service
  • The city has not built affordable housing on any other park land
  • Some neighbors asserted they feel like the city treats the eastside as a “dumping ground for such projects,” which need to be “shared responsibly with other parts of the city.”

It is not clear how the meeting’s information will be used. When asked, Bill Lyons stated he would not consider postponing this decision for the next mayor to consider. Process – late in the game process – was apparently satisfied. One woman exclaimed: “This is being forced down our throats. You don’t care what we think.”

To an observer, it appears the Rogero administration is hellbent on establishing this as part of its legacy. By contrast, Parkridge neighbors, like David Nix asserted, feel “we’re being railroaded.”

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

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