Unfinished Business

At risk of sounding like a broken record, cities are like forests – there is no finished state, they grow and shrink, change, cycle and recycle. But for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s possible to finish a city- to achieve an ideal state or a state that is “good enough” for its citizenry. If you listen to some voices in the community, downtown Chattanooga has reached that point. On more than one occasion, I have heard or overheard people making the case that we’ve done everything we can downtown and now need to shift our focus to (fill in the blank with the name of an industrial park, suburb, region, etc).

Notwithstanding the fact that cities can never be finished, I still don’t buy the concept that downtown Chattanooga is “done”. That’s Hogwash. In fact, the best you could say in that regard is that we have started a lot of things.  Please consider the following items, and then see if you can say we’re finished with a straight face. Please note that this post is not an exhaustive list of opportunities and challenges, this is just what I came up with off the top of my head on a Saturday morning. Brighter minds than mine could probably double or triple this. In any event, I submit for your consideration, some of our unfinished business:

With the construction of the 21st Century Waterfront we’ve completed our triumphant return to the river, right? Wrong.

- The “town green” is almost always dead as a doornail. 

Part of the reason for this is the fact that parcel 3a never got built. Having an animated western edge would go a long way toward giving the green some scale while providing more opportunity for activity and engagement. That parking lot now contributes to the fact that…

- The waterfront peters out as it heads west.

The original plan for the waterfront called for vertical buildings along Riverfront Parkway and at the Marine Max site. Obviously, mixed-use buildings there would have inherent value by adding people and activity to the district. However, they also served as very important role as edges to the waterfront. The Marine Max site created one of two “dueling” anchors (opposite The Passage) that make the space in between them more viable, interesting and valuable. Without this western edge, the waterfront loses momentum as parks and buildings give way to parking lots, services areas, and awkward “park” and playground spaces. Unfortunately, the Spring Hill Suites built farther down on the riverfront do nothing to mitigate this, but they do highlight the fact that…

- A massive swath of the riverfront has not been addressed. 

The 21st Century Waterfront Plan called for improvements from Ross’s Landing extending west around the bend all the way to a proposed extension of MLKing (on both sides of the river). The land between Parkway and the River on the Westside represents a massive opportunity for the continuing evolution of our waterfront. Which brings us to the…


It is readily apparent to all that things aren’t ideal on the Westside. Despite that, any time the topic comes up a familiar list of excuses gets trotted out: “the time isn’t quite right for that”, “the scale of the issues is too big”, “it’s too isolated from the rest of downtown”, “it would require a massive amount of resources to make a difference”. Excuses aside, there is work be done there, because…

-Downtown is cloven by TDOT interventions.

It’s not a secret that in the 50’s, US-27 divided downtown and conquered the Westside. Well TDOT has now come back to finish the job. If we want to give our kids a chance at making the downtown whole again, then we have to fight for the highest and best level of connectivity and permeability across that damned road now. 27 and the Westside are inextricably linked, and this is partly because…

-The scale is suburban.

Everything on the Westside is large scaled: The Blue Cross Compound, the Jaycee towers, the Alstom site, the Aerisyn site, the car dealerships, the housing projects. There exists the opportunity to work within some of the larger-scaled elements to create a finer grain and to make the Westside a more animated and activated destination. But beyond attracting new residents and visitors, it needs to be done because…

-There is a disenfranchised population.

I struggled with how to characterize this headline sentence, and perhaps it’s not phrased exactly right. It is evident, however, that there are large residential areas in the Westside that have not shared in downtown prosperity in the same ways that other downtown neighborhoods have. The issues are complex, and efforts have been made in the past. That does not, however, mean that the issues and responsibilities are any less real now and in the future. Speaking of large residential areas…


What has happened in the Southside since the mid-90’s planning efforts by the likes of Calthorpe, McDonough and Dover Kohl is nothing short of amazing. The big thing that the Southside has going for it is that we have now created a functioning market- the private sector is now actively engaged (although there is still at least one big project that may need some help). On the other hand, there are still public realm issues, such as the fact that…

-The primary Southside gateway into town is crap.

Market from I-24 to Main is potentially one of the grand gateways into downtown. The quality of private development and public realm improvement in this stretch now, however, belies that importance. This is not the only gateway street that needs attention since…

-The 20th Street corridor is also crap.

20th is one of the few places where we have an excellent opportunity to connect the Southside with Westside. The quality of development and public realm in this stretch now, however, also belies that importance. 20th is another remnant of our industrial heritage. That particular former land use creates some quirky situations and means that…

-There are still gaps that need stitching. 

Another potential connection between Southside and Westside is West Main from Broad to Riverfront Parkway. This stretch has been largely unattended to. The great potential there is to use this 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. Whereas that is an active use that’s looking for a district, elsewhere we have districts looking for activities...


In a sense MLK and UTC are like the Westside. In my time here, I have found that there are a few challenges that we always greet with the same tired (if not true) responses. For MLK, we always say that property owners have unreasonable expectations for property values, 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, that the transient student population means it will always be dead, and that changes in administration make it difficult to sustain long-lasting relationships. 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. These places represent a large chunk of the downtown footprint, and there is plenty of work to be done within them, and to connect them to… 

The Rest of Downtown 

Other opportunities and challenges in the core are actually a bit more straightforward. In fact, this brief (and incomplete) bullet list should suffice:

-700 Block

-Corner of 4th and Broad

-Firestone lot (2nd, between Broad and Market)

-Corner of Market and MLKing

-Ross Hotel/patten Parkway

-Civic Forum lot

-The swath of land between 20th Street and I-24

-And lest we forget, there is also the equivalent of five full city blocks of unimproved property in one of the most desirable places in downtown  (The UNUM properties).

We have seen a great deal of focus on regional issues over the past few years. This type of thinking and work is prudent and necessary. One of the key arguments for beginning work in downtown Chattanooga 30 years ago was that the health of downtown has a direct bearing on the health of the region. Downtown also 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 shift our focus away from downtown and leave it to fend for itself? Now, more than ever and certainly into the future, a healthy region is dependent upon healthy urban cores.

Everyone who is involved in the building of the city will have their own personal finish line. Every building and space in the city will eventually have its own individual finish line. For the city, however, the race goes on. So while some may argue that we have reached the finish line, I will argue that we’ve made a good start.

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