By Christopher Salmons
On Tuesday, November 5, 2019 the fate of Caswell Park and subsequently all Knoxville City Parks will be decided. Is the park system a land bank for politicians to gift or develop for pet projects or is a Park a Promise?
City of Knoxville officials have been on a quest to rezone and gift a section of Caswell Park to the Volunteer Ministry Center to be developed by this private entity for a 3 story housing project for those identified as chronically homeless. In 2010 a near similar plan was earmarked for Lakeshore Park after the state gave the land to the city and public outcry was so great that city council invented and passed a new city zone called Open Space (OS-1 and OS-2) which prohibited the sale or development of public parks and instructed the MPC to conform all sector zoning plans to the new ordinance. Since all parks were rezoned OS the people of Knoxville have continued under the presumption that our parks were safe… until now.
The Parkridge Neighborhood was alerted in May of this year that city officials were attempting to sneak a zoning change of our park through via a revision in one of the Recode Knoxville maps which would change the park zoning from OS to a high density residential. This back handed move is particularly heinous because if the city had succeeded in its efforts the park would have been rezoned without any of the usual necessary public process. After the neighborhood went public with this information Mayor Rogero changed course and had Community Development Director; Becky Wade issue an apology and assure the public that *IF* the park was going to be rezoned it would follow a lengthy public process. In August Mayor Rogero changed course again and issued a letter to the Parkridge Neighborhood outlining the rezoning and gifting of Caswell Park to the VMC, the timetable to get her request through the MPC and City Council, Oh and by the way the FIRST and ONLY public meeting about this is “to be announced at a later date”.
Since that time the Parkridge Neighborhood has been battling a circus of half truths that is steadily marching out of the mouths of city officials. In the past few months we have been told that the land isn’t part of Caswell Park, that it wasn’t meant to be part of the park, that it was an oversight for the land to be covered by the OS zoning, that OS zoning is more or less irrelevant, and my personal favorite—from MPC Commissioner Art Clancy at the MPC meeting last month “the city has too much parkland and it is a burden to maintain them.” So if this land isn’t a park, then why do the city council meeting minutes, the park design applications, and funding statements say that it is? If OS zoning wasn’t meant to cover that parcel, then why does the application the city submitted to MPC in 2010 state all parcel numbers including the ones in question? If we have too much parkland, then why did the city budget for this year alone include more than $300,000 to buy MORE parkland?
Now there are those of you out there saying that the need for homeless housing is great and sacrificing a park is a worthy cause. To you I would ask the following.
Why would you support taking a park that local families play on after city officials admitted that they considered NO other sites for this project?
Did you object at city council meetings this year when council approved half a million dollars for a sculpture in a PARK downtown, or several hundreds of thousands of dollars for murals in an alley, or the $60,000 spent on cast bronze water spitting frog statues that have since been installed on a fountain in a PARK in west Knox?
If the need for supportive housing is so immediate as to forego our tax payer funded city amenities then why hasn’t the Mayor included funds to purchase land for such a project? Why is it necessary for city officials to fudge the facts surrounding the project in effort to pass this rezone?
I am a resident of an inner city neighborhood, I can see the need is great and yet we can still budget for such city improvements. I am in NO WAY an enemy for affordable or supportive housing, as far as I am concerned this issue isn’t about being against supportive housing but rather, demanding the city to uphold the promise of my neighborhood park when we spent all those millions of dollars on purchasing and constructing it almost 20 years ago – which leads us to the conundrum we find ourselves in today.
Is a park a promise?
This question is one that everyone in Knoxville needs to be thinking about and addressing. Collectively, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent purchasing and improving our city parks over time. Neighborhoods, commercial districts, and even government infrastructure is planned around land use, with park land being an important feature for many of them. The people of Knoxville play, relax, and fellowship on our city parks, but as our city grows and faces future dilemmas, when is it acceptable to go back on a developmental promise? The people of Parkridge as well as adjacent neighborhoods see Caswell Park as a promise made to us by the sitting mayor and council almost two decades ago. That promise included the ballfields, playground, and surrounding green space as an amenity to our district. Caswell Park is important to our quality of life, the same way parks across the city are to the neighborhoods in all parts of our town.
If the time has come to dismantle our parks to make way for other needs, then we as a city need to have a conversation. On Tuesday night City Council will decide whether the OS zoning protects Caswell Park and if they will move forward with the Mayor’s wish to give away tax payer purchased land. If they vote in the affirmative on this project it will set the precedence that city parks are no longer protected and subject to development, sale, or gifting to private entities. This possibility leads to more concerns/questions. What kind of developments will be allowed on city parks? Will there be a system setup to make sure that parkland is developed equitably? OR… Should we take the Mayor’s Deputy Director; Bill Lyons at his word? – “VMC contacted us and told us that they were interested in the land and we made it happen.”