Western Heights to get $220 million facelift

This illustration gives an idea as to what Western Heights will look like once the $220 million project is finished. (Source: KCDC)

For decades, the Western Heights public housing project in Northwest Knoxville has been synonymous with poverty and violent crime.

But officials are betting they can change all that by pouring more than $220 million into the housing complex and surrounding neighborhoods.

In fact, by the time the ambitious Transforming Western initiative wraps up in late 2028, it’s projected to be a thriving mixed-income neighborhood with parks, restaurants, social services, and hundreds of new apartments.

On Monday, officials from Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation (KCDC) announced that Knoxville was one of only four cities in the nation to be awarded a Choice Neighborhood Implementation grant from the federal government.

The $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) brings the amount earmarked for the project to just over $220 million, including $26.5 million from the City of Knoxville and $120 million from 95 other partnering entities, officials said. 

Western Heights, which opened in 1939, is the largest public housing development in Knoxville. Located off Western Avenue and Keith Avenue, it contains 440 units of affordable housing.

An unnamed child in the Western Heights project around the time the development opened in 1940. (Source: KCDC)

The Transforming Western project will include rebuilding or significantly renovating the affordable housing already available at Western Heights and will offer more affordable housing units than currently located on-site. Additional units for people of varied income levels will also be available.

“Transforming Western truly represents a collaborative effort after 14 months of intensive community engagement,” said KCDC Executive Director Ben Bentley. “This plan is a synthesis of the dreams and ideas of the residents, community members and stakeholders and will transform Western Heights and the Beaumont neighborhood into a community where families and residents can thrive.” 

Though the Transforming Western plan is for the entirety of Western Heights and the surrounding Beaumont neighborhood, the Choice Neighborhoods grant is specifically for 196 units that were built in the 1950s. Those 196 units will be demolished and replaced as subsidized housing, according to KCDC officials.

Site-wide, the total number of units at completion is anticipated to expand from 440 to 711 and will offer affordable housing for a range of incomes, similar to the mixed-income development that’s currently being built at First Creek at Austin. The First Creek initiative, which is located just east of downtown, is expected to provide 446 housing units on the former site of the Austin Homes public housing project.

The Western Heights community as it looks today. (Source: Western Heights Baptist Center)

Because vacant land is available at the Western Heights site, KCDC will first build units so current residents can be relocated during construction. If residents prefer, they can opt to relocate to other KCDC properties but officials expect most of them to return to a new unit within Western Heights.

The prospect of new affordable housing units could hardly come at a better time. Both Knoxville and Knox County are currently facing a severe shortage of rental units, which has in turn caused housing costs to skyrocket and put immense pressure on lower- and middle-class residents.

As if that weren’t enough, the community is also facing a humanitarian crisis caused by the growing number of people forced into homelessness.

The awarding of the competitive Choice Neighborhoods grant from HUD followed a process that began last year with insight from Western Heights residents followed by meetings with 17 stakeholder groups. The resulting Transforming Western plan covers the renovation and replacement of residential structures as well as employment opportunities, transportation, safety, better access to health care and improved internet access.

“We took the time to listen to the needs, concerns, and most importantly, the dreams of the people of Western Heights and Beaumont,” said Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon. “The City is committed to investing $26.5 million to support infrastructure and affordable housing in this community. This grant also means residents will have more access to early education, recreational spaces, transportation resources and health care, all which can lead to a brighter future.”

Another illustration showing how Western Heights will look after the project is completed. (Source: KCDC)

One of the most important partners in the effort is the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee (CAC), which is slated to offer case management, coordinate supporting services, and provide programs tailored to the needs of the residents. 

In fact, the project’s first step will be opening the $5.4 million Western Heights Head Start facility at West Oldham Avenue and Reed Street. Officials said the center is nearly finished, and when it opens it will provide Head Start and Early Head Start programming by CAC to more than 130 children.

“Place matters, and for low-income families growing up in an area of concentrated poverty, it can be difficult to get good outcomes,” said CAC Executive Director Barbara Kelly. “This is a chance of a lifetime for CAC to bring coordinated services, relationships and expertise to a neighborhood that has experienced concentrated poverty for decades.”

The community is invited to a celebration in Western Heights on Friday, Sept. 23, at 1 p.m. near the intersection of McSpadden Street and Virginia Avenue. Officials from KCDC, the City of Knoxville, HUD and other organizations will share further details about the Transforming Western plan.

Published on September 20, 2022.