Has the city administration been open and transparent regarding Caswell Park? You be the judge

By James Waldrup

Parkridge resident

The City of Knoxville, and, more specifically, the political appointees of Mayor Rogero’s Administration, are desperately trying to steal OUR park land and give it away (for free!) to a private nonprofit developer.  Many partial-truths and some outright misrepresentations have been generated about this park and the process by the City Administration (such as the land is “adjacent to Caswell Park” and “it was never meant to be a park”).  These misrepresentations are all very easily proven false yet they have had no qualms about stating, spreading, and full-throatedly supporting them in public.  Do they really think citizens are that stupid?  Unfortunately, even if citizens aren’t so stupid as to take Administration officials’ statements at face value, it only takes five votes from City Council to achieve their goal.

Since the City Administration has effectively stone-walled the neighborhood organization and anyone the City feels might be adversarial to their cause,  the only method of obtaining information has been from submitting Open Records Request.  If you’ve never submitted an Open Records request, consider doing so–an engaged citizenry is the best weapon against corruption.  You can ask for information on who your Council representative has been talking to or just what some commissioner on a bureaucratic committee might have emailed to/from a developer.  It is a good way to gain insight into the “sausage factory” of backdoor government.

Parkridge neighbors decided to submit an Open Records request to MPC [now Knoxville|Knox County Planning–how much money was wasted with that idiotic rebranding?]  to determine  the how, when, who, where, and why on this Caswell Park illegal land grab.  The email chains received from MPC were shocking. MPC never fully complied with the requests; any emails from staff lawyer Christina Magrans were not included even after being asked for specifically (the official response was they didn’t exist–even though MPC clearly says in these emails they received them).  You can read the best of the conversations and email chains online at http://bit.ly/CaswellPark or view here and here.  We’re going to focus on four email chains, the first is between Becky Wade, head of the Community Development Department, and Gerald Green, Director of Knoxville-Knox County Planning:

 

Hi Gerald,

A few months ago, I requested that the proposed new zoning in Re-Code for 1605, 1615 and 1617 E Fifth Ave be RN4 like the adjacent property. These three lots are currently owned by the City and zoned OS and there is a small multifamily development (46 units) proposed for these lots. Can this change be made now, or do we need to request re-zoning after Re-Code is adopted. Thanks Becky

Becky Wade

Community Development Director

 

Further in that email chain, this surprising bit comes up; MPC staffer is responding to Becky Wade:

 

I requested that the area be zoned RN-4 like the adjacent parcels. The vacant City –owned land is planned for mul -family, approximately 46 units on the 3 parcels. It doesn’t look like RN-3 would allow for that density. Am I correct? Could it be accomplished with a Use on Review? Thanks, Becky

 

Why would Becky Wade want to avoid a rezoning by sneaking in a Use on Review?   Not much public attention is gained by a Use on Review request.  The staffer then tells Becky Wade:

 

Becky,

The three parcels appear to have a total size of about an acre – less when the property is resurveyed to exclude the part of the park that intrudes onto the property. RN-4 allows about 20 units an acre, so it would not work for the density you want. Nor would RN-5, which permits about 27 units an acre. Even RN-6

 

Gerald finally gets involved and tells Becky:

 

For this proposed density you may want to use the planned development approval process. While I am reasonably comfortable proposing a change from Open Space zoning to RN-4 as part of the code/map update, I am uncomfortable proposing a more drastic change especially since Council has told us many times that we should not change the permitted use of properties as part of the zoning map update.

 

And YET THEY CHANGED THE RECODE MAP ANYWAY!  But the bureaucracy is just gaining steam on this train of getting out of control; Gerald informs Becky that:

 

We will propose RN-4 and help you build the bridge later!

 

Becky responds:

 

Thanks Gerald. The RN4 zoning will at least get it to residential use. We will have to cross the “PUD (sic – should be HUD) bridge” later in the process of development of the site. Becky

 

Now if that isn’t the perfect backdoor bureaucratic deal, I don’t know what would be.  Mr. Green should be rewarded for his apparent sense of impending political doom–because that change in the map nearly was the death knell for ReCode.  Read the rest of this three-ring circus show in the file “Zendel_Email_20190327.pdf”.

Apparently, the City Administration isn’t just eyeballing Caswell Park.  An email from Sheryl Ely, Parks and Recreation Director, to MPC is intriguing; she is asking MPC to look at parks that need rezoning.

 

I check the proposed zoning and the existing zoning on our parks. It appears we may need to do some rezonings for several properties. Please take a look at the spreadsheet to give me your thoughts.

Thank you!

Sheryl

 

The first MPC Open Records request did not include the spreadsheet referred to in this email; subsequent requests for this spreadsheet produced a document that did not match the description provided in the email chain.  Check it out for yourself–the title of this email is “Email_Fwd_ParkZoning.pdf.”

 

In another email chain, a local media outlet journalist is attempting to fact-check Becky Wade’s press release that states the land in question is “adjacent to, but not part of, Caswell Park.”  If you want to read the farcical email chain, it is “Email_Once more on Caswell Park.pdf.”

 

Sorry to bother you all again, but I want to ask each of you definitively – the city, its parks department,and the planning commission: Are the lots at 1605, 1615 and 1617 E. Fifth Ave. officially part of CaswellPark or not?

I see they’re zoned “park and open space,” but was that land ever formally incorporated in the park?

If not, what is its status – simply city-owned land that’s kept cleared and is treated as an appendage to the park, or what?

 

This email was sent to the deputy director of Communications, the Parks and Rec Department Head, Becky Wade, Gerald Green, and  the MPC Communications person.  It bounced around like a hot potato until finally Fiona McAnally, the deputy director of Communications, asked Becky “Becky–you got this?”  Becky Wade then proceeds to reply:

 

No, it is not part of Caswell Park. It is City owned land that is kept mowed and cleared.

 

And just like that, a park is suddenly no longer a park.  No facts to back up that statement; indeed, all the facts readily and publicly available (that the journalist asked for but was, for whatever reason, unable to find for himself) including City Council meeting videos that declare it a park, the original development plan for the park, MPC rezoning paperwork including the land–without any reservations or exclusions–in the OS-2 zoning process, and previous news articles covering the park all declare this to indeed be a park.  But with one unchecked and incredibly misleading line, a bureaucrat has declared that a park isn’t a park.  As a side note, any attempts to get that media outlet to correct their story, even after providing irrefutable evidence that what was published was not correct, were ignored.  They stood by their approach of “asking the City and the City responded”.  Never mind the statement they were attempting to fact check was being responded to by the exact same person who made the statement!

But the grandest email of all is Mr. Green warning Becky Wade that her reckless scheduling trying to condense the process as much as possible–presumably to minimize any chance for public input–would generate attention!  Gerald sends Becky Wade an email saying:

 

Left you a voicemail earlier today. With the Planning Commission meeting on Nov 14, we do not have time to advertise before the Dec 3 Council meeting. we could advertise the Council meeting prior to the Planning Commission meeting, but this may attract attention. Let me know how you want to proceed or call me to discuss.

 

BUT THIS MAY ATTRACT ATTENTION.  Well now, that wouldn’t be good would it?  I encourage you to go read through the emails; the City tries their best to make them illegible so some editing has been performed for clarity.  Make your own conclusions about the motives and intent of our appointed bureaucrats.  But if all this lack of being completely open and transparent (you can see an email chain where MPC staffers are feeding information from the neighborhood Facebook group to the City),  and underhandedness is necessary to avoid public input, perhaps we need to clean house and empty our barrel of rotten apples.

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