The 40-Year Vision That Revitalized Downtown Chattanooga – Urban Land Magazine – Urban Land

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September 9, 2022
In early August, the Chattanooga City Council unanimously approved construction of a new $80 million baseball stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts minor league team on two former foundry sites on the east bank of the Tennessee River in an area known as the South Broad District.
The action capped years of discussions about how to revitalize some 400 acres (161.8 ha) just south of downtown that, in addition to industrial blight, contains Chattanooga’s only urban high school, a residential neighborhood, warehouses and street front commercial businesses. City leaders anticipate that the project will catalyze up to $1.5 billion in new housing, retail, office, educational and recreational development in the coming years.
More importantly, the South Broad District endeavor represents an expansion of Chattanooga’s wildly successful downtown revitalization over the last 30 years. The Tennessee Aquarium, the Creative Discovery Museum, an IMAX 3D Theater, the Tennessee Riverfront Park, and AT&T Field—the present home of the Lookouts—anchored the redevelopment beginning in the early 1990s. Billions of dollars of have poured into downtown since, with more than $1 billion in completed or ongoing projects in the last seven years alone.
But the seeds of these efforts were planted in 1982. That’s when, at the request of the Chattanooga’s Lyndhurst Foundation, the regional planning commission brought in ULI’s Advisory Services to evaluate land use strategies for Moccasin Bend, a 600-acre (242.8 ha) site in the horseshoe of the Tennessee River on the opposite bank from downtown. While the ULI panel identified a handful of specific alternatives for Moccasin Bend, it was the panel’s broader recommendation that the city build a consensus as to what Chattanooga wanted to become over the next 50 years that the community took to heart.
“It was the beginning of the rebirth of downtown Chattanooga,” says Leigh Ferguson, a ULI member who headed non-profit housing developer Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise from 1991 to 1999. He recently returned to the city after retiring from his role as a New Orleans downtown economic development official. “What Chattanooga has now is a very attractive, walkable downtown that has all the amenities we talk about at ULI—good public education, a good university, lots of ongoing public-private partnerships, new and revitalized parks with activation, and a downtown riverfront park,” he adds.
Benic “Bruz” Clark III, president and treasurer of the Lyndhurst Foundation, agrees. The foundation provides grants for initiatives, people and programs that contribute to the livability of the greater Chattanooga area.
“As I look at ULI’s mission, which is to shape the future of the built environment for transformative impact in communities worldwide, that mission was achieved,” he declares. “But nobody could have predicted it 40 years ago.”
City in Decline
When ULI held its panel, Chattanooga was in decline and on its way to losing 10 percent of its population amid the early days of globalization, Clark said. It was only about a decade earlier that heavy industry had dominated Chattanooga to such an extent that smog blotted out the sunlight, prompting Walter Cronkite to call it the “dirtiest city in America” in 1969.
Following the ULI panel’s report, Chattanooga launched several community planning initiatives, including Vision 2000, which largely focused on reviving downtown. Around the same time another citizens group, the Moccasin Bend Task Force, greatly enlarged its scope. Instead of concentrating on Moccasin Bend only, it shifted its planning to encompass a 22-mile stretch of the Tennessee River that passed through Chattanooga, from the Chickamauga Dam on the east to the Marion County line on the west.
These initiatives helped produce the Tennessee Riverpark Master Plan in 1985, a 20-year proposal that called for $750 million in mixed-used development along the riverfront. That fueled the creation of the River City Company, a downtown economic development group seeded with $12 million in philanthropic funds.
River City spearheaded the early aquarium, museum, and AT&T Field successes by assembling property along the riverfront on the north end of downtown, where the river begins an abrupt turn to the south. It also has been instrumental in the development of the Tennessee River Walk – a 16 mile path along the river that connects to those attractions as well as to parks on the river’s northern bank that are accessible by a popular pedestrian bridge.
Upon the completion of the riverfront development in 2005, River City turned its attention southward and began expediting and guiding development of new housing, parks, plazas, and educational and commercial space throughout downtown, says Emily Mack, president and CEO of River City and a member of ULI.
“The area around the aquarium was very successful and popular, but further south, there was still a decent amount of vacant lots and underutilized or abandoned buildings,” she said. “The area had suffered from significant disinvestment.”
Making Downtown Livable
River City often makes strategic property acquisitions and partners with local preservationists, philanthropies and private developers to rehab old buildings for adaptive reuse. In 2014, for example, it acquired the former Ross Hotel and partnered with a local developer to convert the 1888 building into 39 furnished micro-apartment units, shared social and work spaces, and ground floor retail space. Now known as the Tomorrow Building, the $9.4 million project helped sate pent-up demand for downtown housing.
River City also has partnered with the city to revitalize public spaces, such as Miller Park, which reopened in 2018 after a $10.6 million redevelopment that added a community stage and large lawn, and Walnut Plaza, a reconfigured street that has become a popular downtown hangout.
Pivotal to downtown’s turnaround has been the ability to attract residents. Part of the Vision 2000 plan called for decent housing for all Chattanoogans, which led to the creation of Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise. One of its founders, Bob Corker, who went on to become mayor of Chattanooga and a U.S. senator, asked Ferguson to head the organization, which was focused on rebuilding downtown neighborhoods by providing affordable housing to low and moderate-income households.
But a lack of homes that appealed to higher earners fueled concerns of downtown disinvestment, Ferguson says. Consequently, the organization developed some upscale market-rate housing, which attracted people with higher incomes. In turn, market-rate residential developers began to build downtown.
“We wanted to get people who could afford to live anywhere in Chattanooga to live downtown,” he explains. “So you have million dollar condos and apartments on the same block as LIHTC (low-income housing tax credit) affordable housing.”
Shifting Focus
Far from resting on its laurels, River City is returning to downtown’s riverfront as it begins to implement the ONE Riverfront plan. The initiative seeks to enhance activation of the riverfront park system, strengthen connections to downtown neighborhoods, and create a place that serves Chattanoogans as much as tourists, among other goals. The baseball park’s move to the South Broad District also presents an opportunity to engage the community and develop a long-term, comprehensive redevelopment vision for the site, Mack says.
But the development of the Broad Street District, which is outside of River City’s purview, is furthering Chattanooga’s revitalization. The site is an urban silo bordered by a rail line and creek to the south and east, and by Interstate 24 to the west and north, which blocks views of the river and separates the district from downtown.
Still, along with the deal to build a new baseball park in the district, other potential plans that emerged over the past few years included new housing and a high school expansion, says Eric Myers, executive director of the Chattanooga Design Studio, a non-profit focused on improving Chattanooga’s quality of life through urban design. He saw an opportunity to improve upon the piecemeal fashion of the plans.
“The impetus for creating a South Broad District master plan was to pull together a cohesive vision and avoid having development happen in isolation,” states Myers, whose organization began holding community and stakeholder workshops in 2017 and issued the plan in 2018. “We were able to establish pretty clear goals about connectivity, whether that was to the Riverwalk, to the river, or across the district and into downtown.”
Back Where It Started
Forty years after the ULI panel convened to discuss Moccasin Bend, Chattanooga leaders are finally turning their attention to the site. A public golf course, sewage treatment facility and state mental hospital occupy some of the vast acreage.
In 2003, the National Park Service designated Moccasin Bend a National Archeological District to reflect evidence of some 12,000 years of human habitation. That designation has helped provide guidance on how to approach planning for the site, Clark says, and lines up with ULI’s recommendation to maintain its natural identity. Additionally, the possibility that the hospital will relocate could expand Moccasin Bend, he adds.
“What is so ironic is that Moccasin Bend will be the last piece of the puzzle to be completed,” Clark observes. “It is the place where all of this started, and we will end by figuring out how to connect it with everything else.”
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