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November, 2008:

Wondering what’s next for the Horizon Center

According to a news story in Thursday’s Knoxville News Sentinel (“Horizon park option runs out”), HN Properties (headed by former auto dealer Herb Newton) was the prospective buyer of the Horizon Center industrial park in west Oak Ridge, and HN’s purchase option has expired. I don’t know what this is going to mean in the long run — and I don’t know what to make of the story’s being released on Thanksgiving Day, when few people are paying attention.

The Horizon Center is a beautiful industrial park. It was established with much political fanfare in 1997 (or thereabouts) on about 1000 acres of DOE (federal) land, to become a high-tech private-sector industrial park as part of an ambitious program of “reindustrialization” in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Only about half of the 1000-acre tract was determined to be eligible for development due to environmental considerations — much of the acreage is floodplain and riparian forest that has high ecological value. The lands earmarked for potential development are now owned by a subsidiary of CROET (although the Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board holds title in order to provide a property tax abatement on the site, CROET is the real owner). To foster reindustrialization, the Department of Energy gave the land to CROET and provided about $11 million in federal money for the construction of an industrial park. I’ve lost track of the other public resources that have been plowed into it over the years. In spite of all those resources dedicated to the park, only two industries have ever located there: Theragenics (large facility that never really operated and is now closed and “available”) and Philotechnics (smaller physical facility including its main corporate offices, in active operation). The scuttlebutt I’ve heard is that CROET set the price of the property too high for the market, so industrial prospects headed elsewhere.

HN apparently hoped to convert the industrial park to “mixed use”, including retail and residential uses in addition to industry. Before this could be considered, DOE would have to relax the deed restrictions requiring industrial use, which would have required DOE to produce a new NEPA environmental assessment (I guess this might be the “exhaustive environmental report” that Newton refers to in the News Sentinel article). The City would also have to change the land use designation and zoning. Nevertheless, the available land in this fine industrial park could not be promoted to industrial tenants for the duration of the real-estate option.

I hope the expiration of the option to purchase will lead to renewed efforts to market the Horizon Center to businesses that will create “basic jobs” for our community — the kinds of businesses and jobs that form the backbone of a community’s economy. Considering all of the expensive public resources that have been plowed into this property, I think the public should get the benefits that those resources supposedly paid for. And although people sometimes assume otherwise, industry is generally more compatible with protecting wildlife habitat than retail or residential uses. (However, AFORR, of which I am an officer, would like for the westernmost “development area” in the Horizon Center to be returned to federal ownership for environmental reasons. This area of about 35 acres is isolated from the rest of the Horizon Center and has had no infrastructure development, and developing infrastructure would be very costly in dollars, environmental impact, and the loss of a large segment of the popular North Boundary Greenway.)

The Horizon Center has an impressive-looking website touting the benefits of the site (“centrally located in the Eastern United States,” “state-of-the-art fiber optic telecommunications system,” “unspoiled greenspace with creekside walking paths”, etc.) and Oak Ridge (“more than 5,000 engineers, 2,400 scientists, 2,300 Ph.D.s, more than 9,000 college students majoring in science, math, engineering or information technology,” etc.). I look forward to renewed efforts to recruit business to the industrial park, instead of merely trying to sell it at a price that will convert public resources into a real-estate profit for CROET.


Things are rough all over (loitering dept.)

It seems (according to this article in the New York Times) that Santa Monica, California, has a problem with people conducting fitness classes in traffic medians and other public places. The exercisers make noise and annoy the neighbors, especially when they have outdoor classes during hours when many people are trying to sleep. To control this unusual problem, the police are actively enforcing a Santa Monica city ordinance against congregating on traffic medians. They’ve issued 8 citations (with a fine of $158) and issued about 600 warnings, but unhappy exercisers are threatening to challenge the legality of the ordinance.

Oak Ridge doesn’t have a problem with outdoor fitness classes (at least not that I’ve heard of), but we do have problems with people disturbing neighborhoods (one neighborhood in particular) by congregating in the street and on sidewalks at all hours, sometimes blocking traffic, and often interfering with peace and quiet, as well as the neighbors’ peace of mind. They are generally assumed to be engaged in illegal activity (not kickboxing or pilates!), but it would be nice if the behavior could be stopped even when the police don’t catch them redhanded.

One thing we have in common with Santa Monica is that there are issues with the legality of anti-loitering laws (people should be able to congregate peacefully in a public place), but the City legal staff says we do have laws against disturbing the peace and quiet, and there are Tennessee state laws against blocking traffic, so it should be possible for our local law enforcement to reduce the loitering activity.

It sure would be nice if our biggest loitering issue was people doing sit-ups and push-ups on public sidewalks!


Next steps for the marina/lakefront

The City Council agenda for the November 17th meeting included a resolution to direct the Oak Ridge Planning Commission to undertake a planning process for the lakefront, with a defined geographic scope (from Elza Gate to the tower at the finish line of the rowing course) and a schedule (finish up in spring 2009). Council did not act on the resolution, but instead discussed the need for the Planning Commission to define an appropriate scope and schedule. My main concern is that I felt that the schedule should not conclude with “award of contract” in spring 2009 shortly after the conclusion of the planning study, because I don’t believe that we will be in a position to award a contract at that point. Other Council members commented about aspects such as the geographic scope (for example, why should the finish-line tower be a boundary for the plan — why not extend it farther along the lakefront?). I’ve documented some of my thoughts on the process in an op-ed column that the Oak Ridge Observer published on November 13. Rather than writing a new piece for this blog, here (for the benefit of folks who haven’t figured out that they need to read the Observer every week) is what I submitted to the paper:

I imagine that everyone has had the experience of going shopping for something specific, but coming home with something that is completely different, but altogether better, than what we thought we were going to buy.

The City of Oak Ridge seems to be embarking on a similar “shopping” experience regarding the Melton Hill lakefront and marina. It’s likely that Oak Ridge will end up with something far better than what we thought we were looking for, but I see a danger of failing to protect the public’s best interest in this process.

In late May of this year, the city went shopping for a “qualified marina developer/operator” to “construct, manage and operate the Oak Ridge Marina.” The city’s Request for Qualifications (RFQ) envisioned that construction would include the removal of the existing marina and “replacement with covered walkways/slips, new security gates and water/electric service to each slip” and it asked for a “concept plan” for the marina and the “adjoining property” (identified in the RFQ as including the site of the New China Palace restaurant).

The RFQ was sent to experienced marina operators and developers. Several of them attended a pre-submission meeting, but on the September deadline just two proposals were received. One bidder proposed to redevelop the marina and operate it under contract with the City. The other proposal (from R&R Properties) presented a far-reaching plan to redevelop a large swath of the lakefront, including not only a revamped marina but also roadway changes, a new boathouse for rowing, relocation of existing recreational facilities in Melton Lake Park, and new commercial and residential construction on private land and on other city-owned property in the area. In its proposal, R&R pointed out the benefit of a master plan over a piecemeal approach. R&R said the company had worked closely with the Oak Ridge Rowing Association and had toured many waterfronts and rowing boathouses in the eastern United States in the process of developing a comprehensive plan.

R&R was right. Although Oak Ridge went shopping for a marina operator, what the city really needed was a clear vision and a coordinated plan for the lakefront, including the rowing course, park amenities, roads, parking lots, and everything else that connects.

Appropriately, R&R’s proposal has led the city to step back and start a structured public planning process to develop a comprehensive vision and master plan for the lakefront. One thing that became clear at the very first public-input meeting on October 29 is that most of the interested public (not just rowers and other nonmotorized recreational enthusiasts, but also some powerboat owners) thinks that a new powerboat marina would be incompatible with the rowing venue and other things at the lakefront that people value. We could easily end up with a lakefront plan that does not include the one thing that the city thought it was looking for when we first went shopping with that RFQ.

I have high hopes for the outcome of the planning process that the city is about to undertake. However, at the same time I’m concerned that we are setting out on a path we that may not lead to the best decision for the city and its residents — unless we do some additional “comparison shopping.” Regardless of how the planning process is structured, the R&R proposal will be the starting point for most public discussion of the lakefront because it’s the only plan we have seen. The city only asked for proposals for a marina — what other concepts would have been proposed if the city had contacted lakefront developers instead of marina operators? What other possible visions for the lakefront will we overlook because we are focusing on a single proposal?

Also, while the focus of public discussion is on physical aspects of the lakefront, finances are another important part of the picture. City staff was hoping for a private partner to assume the financial risk of any new development, and R&R responded by saying they would build new rowing facilities and other new public amenities, but they would need a 99-year rent-free lease in return for their investment. Before the city signs on to that deal or any other, we should know what our options are. What new public facilities are needed and what are their costs? What are realistic estimates for the revenues from commercial ventures proposed at the lakefront? What are the pros and cons of the city financing some or all of the work?

Oak Ridge is indebted to R&R for showing us that what we went shopping for isn’t what we really wanted. We need to seriously consider the R&R proposal. However, I believe – and I hope my fellow city officials will agree — that the public interest demands some careful comparison shopping before we buy into any new plan for the lakefront.


Oak Ridge is receiving a Safe Routes to School grant

There’s some great news this morning! The state has announced that  the city of Oak Ridge will receive a Safe Routes to School grant totaling $239,079 for sidewalk and crosswalk improvements, traffic devices, and signage near the Robertsville Middle School campus. The grant will also fund educational programs and promotional activities for middle school children, to encourage walking and biking as a practical and healthy initiative.

That’s a substantial sum that should pay for physical enhancements that I think will benefit the entire community for many years to come. (It’s not just school children who benefit from safe areas for walking and bicycling.)


Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge

Wonderful things are happening at the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge.

Yesterday the museum unveiled the Appalachian Heritage exhibit, an expanded version of the old log cabin exhibit. I’ve been a longtime fan of the Children’s Museum, but I found the quality of this exhibit — both the quality of the items on display and the professionalism of the interpretation — much better than I imagined it could be. The three original log cabins in the exhibit (all displayed indoors where they are protected from the elements) are set up to show children and adults what life was like for siblings “Jonah” and “Sarah” in an earlier century. Associated displays contain numerous artifacts, and together with artwork and “Heartland series” videos, they provide a lot of good information on topics like clothing production, shoemaking, farming, foods, shape-note hymn-singing, and the roots of country music.

I’ve often urged visitors and newcomers — with or without children — to include the Children’s Museum in their Oak Ridge itineraries, but now I’m going to become more emphatic about recommending it. A visit to the Children’s Museum has long provided an excellent introduction to life in Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project (featuring numerous photos by Ed Westcott, and in recent years also including displays focused on Oak Ridge icons Westcott and Bill Pollock). Now I predict that the expanded Appalachian Heritage exhibit will surprise even veteran visitors to the Museum of Appalachia with  something “new and different.” And that’s not to mention old familiar kid attractions like the polar bear that stands near the entrance, the model of an erupting volcano in the lobby, the model rocket and indoor play structures, Anna Cebrat’s puppets, and the “waterworks” — nor the doll house room and model railroads, which seem to have tremendous appeal to the kids hiding inside most adult visitors.


Autumn means falling leaves — and the annual city leaf collection

The City of Oak Ridge fall leaf collection schedule has been released and is on the City website. Leaf collection is scheduled to start on November 24th in the Scarboro neighborhood, and if all goes well it will finish up on New Year’s Eve (December 31) in Country Club Estates, the Oklahoma Ave-Westover Drive area, Southwood, and Rarity Ridge.

Picking up the fallen leaves is always a logistical challenge.  I’m pleased that the beginning of the collection has been delayed compared with some years past, so that it will not start until after most of the leaves are likely to be off the trees. I’m even more pleased that City staff and the City’s contractor (Waste Connections of Tennessee) put their heads together earlier this week to find ways to accelerate the schedule to try to get the job finished by the end of December, at no additional cost to the City. (Earlier this week the schedule showed that leaf collection would continue until January 9, 2008, and I asked what it would cost to get the leaves up more quickly in future years.  To my surprise, a faster schedule was developed for this year. With luck, maybe all the leaves will be picked up before our first snow.)

There are a few important reminders included in the official announcement, including:

*Place leaves near, but not beyond the curb. Leaves are not to be placed in the street due to possible clogging of storm drains and posing a traffic hazard. Hazards so created will be removed by the City at the resident’s expense.

*Leaves should be free of tree branches and twigs as these can cause the leaf vacuums to clog up. Leaf piles found to contain these items will not be picked up.

*All leaves must be placed outside fenced areas.

*Leaves in plastic bags will also be picked up at the curb during the scheduled program.

*The city-wide household trash and brush pickup will be scheduled in April or May of next year. Only leaves will be collected during the fall program.


Election results are in… (November 2008 edition)

The election returns are in, and I’m elated by the election of Barack Obama. He will be inheriting a country that has serious problems, but between his pragmatism and his amazing ability to inspire people, I am hopeful that he will provide the leadership America needs.

The Oak Ridge City Charter Commission election results are also in, thanks to some late evening work at The Oak Ridger (thanks to Donna, John, Darrell, Carmen, and Leean). Although the newspaper’s headline says that “Status quo candidates” won, it appears to me that the reality is that voters elected the individual people (or at least the names) that they knew and respected best: Gene Caldwell, Pat Postma, Leonard Abbatiello, Chuck Agle, and David McCoy from the ORION list and Virginia Jones and Pat Fain from the CDAR list. I hope that these 7 people will recognize that they were elected primarily for who they are — not necessarily for the platforms they campaigned on — and that they will fulfill the public’s trust by undertaking an open-minded evaluation of the pros and cons of various arrangements for electing our local government.