Congratulations to the new mayor and city council. Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, too, while I’m at it. You’re more popular now than you’ll ever be again.
While you all (meaning Indya Kincannon, Amelia Parker, Janet Testerman, Lynne Fugate and Charlie Thomas) were sweating out election night, the incumbent mayor and council ensured a short honeymoon for you newbies by postponing a vote one of the most controversial issues of this year – the rezoning of a slice of Caswell Park to accommodate permanent supportive housing for the homeless.
(Parkridge neighbors opposed to the rezoning can produce maps showing that this parcel is part of Caswell Park, even though it is outside a chain link fence. The city calls it vacant land on Fifth Avenue next door to the building that housed Positively Living, an agency that provided services to people with AIDS and HIV. This inside/outside distinction is crucial, since a previous council passed an ordinance protecting parkland back when some feared that Lakeshore Park property was in danger of being used to house the homeless, and Parkridge residents figure that what’s unlawful in West Knoxville should be unlawful on the east side. It didn’t help matters when a zoning change got slipped into Recode earlier this year.)
It’s not like Mayor Rogero was looking to postpone this project, though. It’s something the Powers That Be clearly wanted to get done before the end, probably because the city has brought no such housing online since Bill Haslam braved a storm of opposition and presided over the opening of Minvilla Manor and Flenniken Landing some 10 years ago. For some time, Rogero’s chief policy advisor and deputy Bill Lyons pushed for speedy approval by citing a Jan. 1 grant deadline.
There was no mention of any such deadline at this week’s council meeting, which began with District 6 council member Gwen McKenzie – who represents Parkridge – securing a postponement. It appears that the rezoning would have failed 5-4, had a vote been taken that night. This was clearly a disappointment for housing advocates, who stuck around until the end of the meeting and spoke during public forum.
Then Rogero gave an impassioned speech that some called a tirade and others called a “gentle chiding,” telling the neighborhood advocates that she was “hugely disappointed in the attacks that have been launched on (my) staff,” and asking for a truce.
“What is the best use of that land?” she asked. “You see it as park land. We see it as land adjacent to the park.”
She hinted at better things to come and, voice quivering, asked them to “Step back from the hostility. For whatever I have done to bring that out in you I apologize…”
Council member Seema Singh’s voice also quivered as she endorsed Rogero’s sentiment, accusing the Parkridge group of sending her “venomous” emails and (gasp!) knocking on her door.
The next day, council member Lauren Rider took responsibility for the door knocking in a message she posted on the City Council Forum. She said she intervened when she learned that “the administration” was keeping tabs on anyone asking the city recorder for information about the Caswell Park controversy.
“This put staff in the Recorder’s Office in an awkward position. And unfair. … I asked a friend and fellow librarian to get copies of the 2011-era council meetings pertaining to discussion and passage of the OS-1 and OS-2 zoning. When the discs were picked up, a copy was made for each council member. Due to time and cost, my colleague dropped off the discs of old city council meetings (at members’ homes).”
Maybe peace will break out of the holidays and the New Year will dawn merry and bright. But probably not.
See you in 2020.
Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties. She writes Knox Scene each Friday. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.