Community Voices

A Good Start

A wise man once said that cities are like forests. They live and die, grow and shrink, cycle and recycle. As such, cities can never be “finished”. It has been suggested, however, that downtown Chattanooga has reached such a point. The case has been made that we’ve done everything we can downtown and now our focus needs to shift to something else. Notwithstanding the fact that it’s not possible for a city to be finished, I still don’t buy the idea that downtown Chattanooga is “done”. In fact, the best you could say is that we’ve started a lot of things. I submit for your consideration, some of our unfinished business:


error With the completion of the 21st Century Waterfront our triumphant return to the river is complete. Right? Wrong. Clearly, our tremendous public spaces on the river are underused outside of the big festivals. This is, in part, due to that fact that a number of development sites that were slated to provide active edges have yet to be realized. To be specific, I refer to the western edge of the Green and the edges of Riverfront Parkway as it extends to the west.


error Unfortunately, any time Westside comes up for discussion, a familiar list of excuses gets trotted out: “the time isn’t right”, “the scale of the issues is too big”, “it’s too isolated from the rest of downtown”, “it requires a massive amount of resources to make a difference”. Excuses aside, there is work be done there. US-27 divided downtown and conquered the Westside in the ‘50’s. TDOT is now returning to finish the job. Unfortunately, we rolled over on that one and our children are now saddled with the problem of knitting the city back together sometime in the future. The challenge of the Westside is to work within the existing sub-urban scale to create a finer-grained place that is more animated, activated and connected. More importantly, there is a population in the Westside that has not shared downtown’s prosperity in the same way that other downtown neighborhoods have. The issues surrounding the provision of decent and affordable housing are complex, but that does not mean that our responsibilities are any less real.


error The blossoming of the Southside since the mid-90’s planning efforts by the likes of Calthorpe, McDonough and Dover is inspiring. The Southside now has a functioning market as the private sector is actively engaged in building the city. That said, there are still opportunities and challenges. Market from I-24 to Main has the potential to be one of the grand gateways into downtown. The quality of the existing development and public realm improvements in this stretch, however, belie that importance. 20th Street is one of the few good opportunities to connect the Southside with Westside. The quality of the existing development and public improvements here also belie that importance. Another potential connection between Southside and Westside is West Main from Broad to Riverfront Parkway. The great opportunity there is to use the corridor to connect with Finley Stadium and its associated developments. The stadium has been a bit isolated, but could be a part of a larger animated district.


error The community has a few challenges that are always greeted with the same tired (if not true) responses. For MLK, it is said that property owners have unreasonable value expectations, that politics will prevent substantial reinvestment, and that there are too many immovable, dead spatial elements to allow for critical mass. We always hear that UTC won’t engage with the downtown community, and that the transient student population means that campus edges will always be dead. The fact that we have excuses and reasons, however, does not mean that we don’t still have the responsibility to work to make things better.

Downtown Core

The City Center Plan provides a laundry list for what can be done in the heart of the city. In brief, every surface lot downtown is a potential economic development opportunity, and a chance for the city to increase its density. Density is one of the defining characteristics of any downtown, and increasing density is arguably our biggest task in the coming years.

I could go on at length concerning the unfinished elements of downtown, but I have already exceeded the Benwood Blog word count. Suffice it to say that there are myriad other opportunities in the neighborhoods north, south and east of the core.

One of the key arguments for beginning work in downtown Chattanooga 30-plus years ago was that the health of downtown has a direct bearing on the health of the region. Downtown serves as a symbol, not just of the city, but of the region. If we consider trends for the future and the demographics that drive them, we see that core urban areas will be facing tremendous growth pressures. In that light, does it make sense to shift our focus away from downtown and leave it to fend for itself? Now, more than ever, a healthy region is dependant upon a healthy urban core. So while some may argue that we have reached the finish line, I will argue that we’ve made a good start. 

“Now, more than ever, a healthy region is dependant upon a healthy urban core.”