Have we found the real reason for Recode?

By Steve Hunley, Publisher


Have we found the real reason for Recode?

Last week we concluded The Knoxville Focus Publisher’s Position with a question, “What is the real reason for Recode?” We also asked Focus readers to call their city council representatives and ask the question, “Why do we need Recode?” We then asked those Focus readers who called their city council members to let us know what they had learned.

Journalism is about asking questions and searching for answers. If you ask those questions from a large diverse community you can learn a great deal. Sometimes the best answers to questions are asked to the people who are affected by new laws rather than the elected representatives who decide what those new laws will be.

We learned a great deal this past week. We spoke with a person who also put on their Facebook page, “I have called the city 25 times about my property and how Recode will affect it and left messages for them to call me back and I have never had a return call.”  This person had questions about their current zoning and the proposed future zoning under Recode. They told us they were being zoned out of business. They could not sell their business at full value and their property had become devalued because of Recode, and they might be stuck with a property they could not do business on but they would have to still pay city property taxes on. This is what five plaintiffs warned Mayor Rogero and city council about last week in a legal demand letter.

By far the most interesting conversation we had was about how Recode was a United States Housing and Urban Renewal (HUD) initiative. We were told to go to the HUD website and look on this page: www.hud.gov/program_offices/economic_development/place_based/other_initiatives

It did not take long to see that the text on the HUD website was very much like the text on the Recode Knoxville webpage.

On the HUD website we see, “Provide more transportation choices. Develop safe, reliable, and economical transportation choices to decrease household transportation costs, reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote public health.”

On the Recode Knoxville website we see, “Promote and balance our mobility options, travel by bus, car, bicycle and walking must all be accommodated in an urban community like Knoxville. The desire to increase connections between neighborhoods and destinations, by all modes of travel, continues to grow.”

It is clear that both HUD and Recode Knoxville want to greatly reduce the use of personal automobiles and get people into Knoxville Area Transit (KAT) buses, riding bicycles, or walking. HUD has grants for cities that increase bus ridership. Knoxville First District City Councilmember Stephanie Welch, who is also on the Recode Stakeholder Advisory Committee, was asked in a radio interview on WETR FM 92.3 recently, “How do we get people to understand that taking public transportation is a good thing?”

Councilwoman Welch replied, “I absolutely think it is a good thing and nobody will like my answer on this but I think you have to make it harder for people to drive. When it is so much easier to get in your car and drive, people don’t take public transportation. That is really what it comes down to.”

Do we see a cause and effect at work here? HUD offers a monetary incentive to get people out of their personal cars and into buses and it is incorporated into Recode. One of the most severe problems with Recode is that the new mixed-use apartments have greatly reduced parking requirements. Are HUD grants the reason why?

What other incentives does HUD offer that have found their way into Recode?

On the HUD website we see, “Support existing communities. Target federal funding toward existing communities-through strategies like transit-oriented, mixed-use development and land recycling-to increase community revitalization and the efficiency of public works investments and safeguard rural landscapes.”

On the Recode Knoxville website we see, “Promote and balance our mobility options, travel by bus, car, bicycle and walking must all be accommodated in an urban community like Knoxville. The desire to increase connections between neighborhoods and destinations, by all modes of travel, continues to grow.”

There are HUD grants for mixed-use apartments and Accessory Dwelling Units. Is this why city council has fought so hard to keep Accessory Dwelling Units in Recode despite great public protest? In the Tuesday meeting of City Council on the vote on Recode there was still no codified language to protect Established Neighborhoods from Accessory Dwelling Units. It was basically “trust us, we’ll figure the language out later”. It is still not known how many homes in a neighborhood have to opt out for the neighborhood to be protected from Accessory Dwelling Units. If it is not in the Recode Ordinance there is no protection.

Most people may not know what Madeline Rogero’s job was when she worked for city Mayor Bill Haslam. Rogero was the Director of Community Development where she dealt with HUD grants. It is no coincidence that Rogero’s perceived choice as her successor, Indya Kincannon, held a similar position as Special Program Manager doing community agency grants to over 65 Knoxville non-profit entities while working for Mayor Rogero from 2015 to 2018. Should Kincannon be elected mayor in the upcoming city election, no doubt she will continue to support and push Rogero’s Recode rezoning plan.

Are HUD grants the real reason the zoning consultant Camiros of Chicago was hired to write Recode because they are HUD grant specialists? What is interesting is that city taxpayers have paid Camiros over $300,000 for what appears to include a lot of HUD-speak that is found on the HUD website.

There is nothing wrong with getting HUD grants. Every city does. But as Knoxville resident Constance Every told city council, “what this whole agenda hides behind is extending downtown Knoxville and being deceptive about it. There’s nothing bad about that but don’t lie about it, tell the truth about it… Recode is not the answer right now.” The public has a right to know what HUD grants and requirements have to do with Recode. This is another area where there has been little transparency.

Council has yet to put language in Recode to protect non-conforming uses, which is what grandfathering does. Does council have any intention of protecting Established Neighborhoods from Accessory Dwelling Units? This is the same council that passed an ordinance stating they did not have to notify property owners about Recode. Council’s track record on transparency has not been good.

In last Tuesday’s vote on Recode, city council made substantive changes to Recode and again violated the Knoxville City Charter in their refusal to send Recode back to the planning commission for their approval. This is at least the second time council has violated the city charter making substantive changes to Recode and not sending it back to the planning commission. The city charter is not a suggestion, it is the law.

It is estimated that close to a million dollars of taxpayer money have been spent on Recode and the public is frustrated and angry with the process. Promises are made to protect Established Neighborhoods from Accessory Dwelling Units but are not incorporated into Recode in writing. Mayor Rogero is on record saying this has been the most transparent public process in the history of Knoxville.

What do you think?