City Council Candidate Q&A: Robert Marlino, District 1

Our complete interviews with 2009 Knoxville City Council candidates

Robert Marlino, 47, works as a production manager for Smee+Busby Architects. A native of Oak Ridge, he has been living in Knoxville on and off since the 1970s, living in District 1 for the past four years. He came here to attend the University of Tennessee, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture. He is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Knox Heritage Society. He currently serves on the Knoxville City Council’s Transportation and Mobility Committee. Marlino has two children.

Read other candidate interviews at our 2009 Knoxville City Council Election Guide.

On July 14, the city passed an ordinance making it illegal to sit or lay on public sidewalks downtown. One month before that, Judge Stephen Bushong in Oregon ruled that a similar Portland law was unconstitutional. He based his ruling on Oregon state law, but he also told the city’s attorneys that enforcement of the law could very well be challenged as a first amendment violation. Similarly, the lawyer arguing against the ordinance and citizens seeking its removal said that it was discriminatory, since it was specifically designed to target the city’s homeless population. If you are elected, will you support any action to repeal this ordinance in Knoxville?

Marlino: My answer to the question at the forum was yes, I would have voted for the passage of this ordinance. That doesn’t answer your question, but with questions of legality, there are many different tacks you can take on that. I have not actually read the ordinance itself. I’ve just gotten background from people in the community. The ordinance is trying to address a behavior like people blocking sidewalks and stuff like that. It’s a public nuisance type of ordinance. It’s for the residents, and it’s for the businesses downtown that have had problems with that.

If the ordinance should be reevaluated, I think my tack on that would be, rather than repealing it, but modifying it if necessary to enhance its effectiveness. What the police are basically doing is talking to homeless advocates, talking to the homeless to say, “How is it going? How is this affecting you?” All of this needs to be looked at and, if necessary, revised.

Converting South Knoxville’s Flenniken Elementary School into a supportive housing facility has been a controversial project since its inception. In the candidates’ forum on August 27, many candidates said we ought to, so to speak, “spread the burden” of supportive housing throughout the city rather than concentrating it in a few core areas. Do you have any ideas as to places where we could put more supportive housing? What happens when its neighbors almost inevitably have the same concerns? Does the need for this type of housing and the fact that the Fair Housing Act does not seem to permit the city to deny this type of housing simply based on these types of objections outweigh business and political interest here?

Marlino: When I have spoken to people who have made suggestions about where to put the housing—in every case—they’ve said it needs to be near public transportation. It needs to be close to services, like shopping and things like that. But one of the things that is key that I’ve heard mentioned a lot, is it needs to go into a neighborhood that is relatively stable, possibly somewhere with a higher concentration of owner-occupied homes. The reason why is that the success of these programs, studies show that this is where these programs work best. They work small-scale and in relatively stable neighborhoods. Putting high-density housing into a bad area, it tends to fail. Do I have any ideas where we could put transitional housing? I don’t have a list, no. I believe it’s definitely worth studying, and what I would like to see is a more comprehensive plan. I would hope that a plan that comes before council would include several sites rather than council voting on just one site.

I think a lot of the controversy that happened with Flenniken—in speaking with the neighbors, speaking with community organizations—there was a lot of issue of a high concentration of this type of housing in that area. The Ten Year Plan talks about spreading it out through the city. South Knoxville has many halfway houses. Helen Ross McNabb just approved permanent supportive housing on Baker Street just a couple of months before this. Also, one big issue that kept coming up along those same lines is the question as to why areas that didn’t already have a lot of permanent supportive housing weren’t given consideration first.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I think a lot of people believe in permanent supportive housing in this city. People in South Knoxville in particular are very, very open to that. However, what they don’t want to see is something on the scale of Flenniken. They believed in the Ten Year Plan which said it would be spread out through the city, but that’s not what they’re seeing. When we take those two factors and present them to people, a lot of these issues—these NIMBY issues—may be relieved somewhat because people see that the whole city is sharing in this.

So, number one, that fairness issue has to be addressed. Number two, I think there are many, many cases—particularly with Helen Ross McNabb doing the management of a very successful program—there are many, many cases where this adds a lot to the community. It’s an asset. You could be doing a building project or a clean-up project, and you say, “Hey we need some guys.” And they send them. It can be very community involved. There’s a selling that has to go on, but I think we can definitely say that small-scale, permanent supportive housing is not going to wreck your neighborhood. If it’s well-managed, it’s not going to negatively affect your neighborhood. It can be an asset to your neighborhood.

We have to take the Fair Housing Act very seriously. But, for example in Flenniken’s case, there are some parts of it we may have considered. Is it going into a pretty disadvantaged area? You can’t have a protected class infringing onto another protected class, from my understanding. I think the neighborhood concerns have to be first. It’s coming into a neighborhood. We need to engage the neighborhood. I find that neighborhoods are often very willing to work with the Ten Year Plan, or VMC, or whoever who are planning on building something. Look at what recently happened on Baker Street with the Old Sevier neighborhood. Helen Ross McNabb was going to put in permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless. They gave Helen Ross McNabb a list of reasons why they objected to it. Helen Ross McNabb examined those reasons, came back and said, “Okay, we want permanent supportive housing for mothers with children.” The community accepted that. They were very pleased with it. So, a lot of it is just working with community organizations. You don’t have to bulldoze something through just because someone says there’s a potential lawsuit if it doesn’t happen. There’s always compromises that can be made.

You’ll be coming in to an iffy real estate market if you’re elected. Foreclosures continue to be high in the area and around the country, and recently, City Council lowered the property tax rate from $2.81 to $2.46 so as to be in accordance with state tax equalization law. On top of that, a lot of people continue to be unemployed or at least a bit more careful with money, leading to decreases in sales tax revenues. All of this seems to spell potential revenue issues in the future. Given all that, are local incentives, particularly for higher-end projects, a wise idea right now, especially considering the recent foreclosure of a partly TIF-financed project like Cityview at Riverwalk?

Marlino: Talking about city finances, I’ve got to go back to a meeting I had with Jim York, the director of finance for the city. I would say it was a timely issue financially, considering the economy. We’ve actually had very good management under the Haslam administration. Our bond indebtedness has gone down. The fund balance has gone way up as well. We had to raise taxes a few years ago. But now, given that management, my hope is that we won’t have to raise taxes again.

TIFs and PILOTs should only be used as a catalyst to revitalize an area, in this case the South Waterfront for instance. We need to get investment in there, and we need to work on the infrastructure, so a TIF is a perfect solution for that. Do I think TIFs have been overused? Using them for suburban areas, for shopping centers, there has been controversy about that. I would not support that. In areas that have a momentum going, like downtown, I would say we have to look at them as individual case-by-case projects. For instance, if a building is on its last legs, about to fall down, and a developer proposes a redevelopment plan that he says has to have a TIF to be successful, then we’d have to look at that. Maybe he’s correct. If a building is in a prominent location, you have to look at that. The Hampton Inn got a TIF to redo its facade. I was for that because you’re close to the entry of the city, where people come in. Overall, in areas with that momentum, I think we should really look at cutting back TIFs and not doing that. But, we have to look at doing this for developing areas.

Give us a for instance: What would have to be on the chopping block in order for you to support a tax increase in a budget?

Marlino: Probably police and fire services.

What about non-essential services and budget items like, say, parks or the city’s nonprofit grants? Are those ever worth a tax increase?

Marlino: Grants for nonprofits, I think, I would try to find a different avenue to work with the nonprofits. I would definitely want to work with all the nonprofits in the city, but that doesn’t merit a tax increase. I’d be very willing to work with them—to help them restructure—to get them through a difficult period, but that doesn’t merit a tax increase. Parks and Rec, well, if the maintenance of the parks is suffering terribly, then maybe that’s something we have to look at. If we’re facing a situation where we’re having to put a moratorium on services—athletics or something like that— in some of our parks, I would tend to favor something in the way of a public-private partnership to find some additional funding.

Is the city’s plan for a HOPE VI replacement for the Walter P. Taylor homes a good one? Is it a priority for you to maintain the same level of KCDC housing units as we have now?

Marlino: I’m all for it. I think the HOPE VI program has worked great for College Homes. I’ve worked with Mechanicsville community organizations a lot, and that was a big, big boost for that neighborhood. And Walter P. Taylor is probably in the worst shape of any of that type of building in the city right now, so I’m all for it.

Generally, HOPE VI projects work out so they may have the same number of units, but they may be mixed income units. And I support that, a mixed income community. Now also, KCDC has many houses on the private market that they provide vouchers for. Plus, the federal government provides tax credits for low income housing. So, I haven’t studied the numbers, but I don’t think there’s an overall loss of low income housing in the city. To answer your question, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for KCDC to keep the same number of low income housing units to make up for Walter P. Taylor.

The thing we’re trying to get away from here is, you know, “projects,” so this sort of program is great to move in that direction. Of course, people will be displaced from Walter P. Taylor because they’re going to demolish it. But, will they be displaced from Knoxville? No, I don’t think so. There’s enough going on as far as the building of new homes, vouchers for income-based housing, that we can certainly make up for the loss.

Is the Magnolia Avenue Corridor plan a positive sign that the city is putting its attentions toward an area that has arguably been politically neglected? What else, if anything, should the city, as a public entity, be doing beyond Magnolia to improve infrastructure, the economy, or simply the standard of living in this part of town?

Marlino: Yes, I do. I think Magnolia Avenue is a terrific street. I am so glad the city and MPC have taken it on because the potential there is great. The possibilities for retail and new business are unbelievable there. So I’m very, very glad. Secondly, I’m very glad they’ve gotten the American Institute of Architecture involved in the process because we can guide this process and help make this a very attractive street and a great asset to the city.

I think we need to look at other corridor plans definitely. In the 1st District, my district, we had the Chapman Highway Corridor Plan, which needs to be revived. I think we need to look at all our major arteries and ask what we can do to improve the attractiveness, the traffic flow, and development along those corridors. I’m sure you’re aware that there’s a big national movement, especially among younger people, to come back into the city. We can prepare for more high-density development in closer-in areas. As long as we plan for it, it will happen.

Planned Parenthood recently backed out of a move to move to a facility in Bearden following a large and well organized movement protesting its move there. Now, before I get to the question, let me present two givens so they will not have to be included in your answer. (1) People have every right to protest Planned Parenthood if they feel that what they do is wrong. (2) What Planned Parenthood does is perfectly legal. So should city government have taken a greater role in perhaps mediating this dispute?

Marlino: It is a tragedy what has happened in other cities, with the violence that has erupted over this, which I absolutely do not support. Knoxville is not a radical city. It’s been spared a lot from radical elements on both sides. It’s been spared a lot of the violence that’s happened in other cities. But we need to always be conscious of that. So, should the city have been involved in some kind of mediation. Again, like Flenniken, I think that the neighborhoods should be able to come together on something like this, so the people who live there can express their opinions about what services they want to come in. The city needs to take a little bit more initiative in guiding services and development in its neighborhoods. I think this would be a perfect case in point where the city should have talked to the neighborhoods, ask them what they think of it. And I think the city should try to take the side of the neighborhood.

An attendee at the August 27 forum expressed some concern that, as she sees it, City Council is too often a “rubber stamp” for mayoral policy. It was a comment that really seemed to resonate with the audience. In your opinion, have what some have categorized as an overly friendly media environment when it comes to the mayor, as well as his family’s deep and significant connections, and now his gubernatorial campaign, produced a situation where it is politically difficult for City Council to go against mayoral policy? In other words, is it at all possible that the mayor's too popular for our own good?

Marlino: Well, I think— That’s an interesting way to put it, is what I’m thinking. I think the mayor is very popular. I think he has overall done a very, very good job, and I think everybody sees that. Now individually, can you oppose him on certain things? Absolutely. The way politics work is that the mayor, if he has a project he’s very supportive of and he asks council for the support, you’ll have to make that judgement. Am I going to support the mayor over another group? You have to make that judgement. Maybe it was a predictable answer—but it’s how I feel—everybody at that forum said, “We’re independent thinkers, and we’d have to take each project by its own merits.” For instance, if I were on Council, and I know the mayor supported Flenniken, I would have absolutely voted against the appeal on Flenniken because people in that neighborhood were affected. Again, I think the mayor’s great. I think he’s done a really good job. I would love to support him in a lot of his initiatives, but everything would have to be looked at individually. You have to weigh your conscience and think about a district. That is what it is to be a Councilman.

Have you seen the Hillside-Ridgetop Task Force’s preliminary recommendations? Would you be in support of policies that, in the interest of the long-term benefits of environmental stewardship, might limit a property developer’s ability to “maximize” a hill or ridge property?

Marlino: I went to the presentation at South Doyle, the one with Lumpy.

I’m all for developers maximizing their property but with certain protections in place. The Task Force is looking at policies that protect the hillsides and the ridgetops from the type of really harmful development that’s gone on. I think it’s been proven in recent developments that whole ridgetops can be obliterated. We can’t just go with what is profit-intensive because we’re losing our natural beauty.

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