By now, you have probably heard that the City Center Plan process is in full swing. Don’t you dare miss the charrette we are having on October 7th at 5:30pm at Bessie Smith Hall. My mind is always on downtown Chattanooga, but this process has me laser-focused. The district is a bit of a strange bird.
I was chatting with a friend about the standard visioning technique of having participants look some period of time into the future and describe what their ideal conditions for a place are. This technique is very effective in places where examples of transformative change have occurred over a similar period of time in the past. For example, if we were to look at the Riverfront, we might ask a group to look ten years into the future with the follow up of “think big- just look at the $120 million worth of projects that have occurred in that past ten-year time frame.” This then begs the question, when was the last transformative project in the City Center? The best answer is 1988.
There is a strong argument that the renaissance of the city started with the reestablishment of a heart. This came several years before the aquarium, before Ross’s Land Park and Plaza, before the return to the Southside, two decades before the Germans, and long before the gig was a twinkle in any geek’s eye. The Miller Plaza project is important for a number of reasons, and involves more detail than I am now willing to delve into (but you can go here and here for more info if you’re curious). It is enough to say that the quality of the design work drew national attention and accolades, the process of building the project was one of the first of many examples of community cooperation, collaboration and partnership, and it served as a real and tangible rallying point for a city that had a substantial civic inferiority complex (if anything, we suffer from the opposite now). As important as the project is, at twenty-eight years ago it is the most recent (only?) truly transformative project in the area, while other parts of downtown have each had two or three such projects since then.
That said, perhaps its not fair to judge the judge the district solely on the basis of big projects. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more projects popped into mind. The $26 million EPB building and accompanying 500-car structure was completed in 2006; the $7 million Market Center building was completed in 2001; the poorly designed $2 million 1st Volunteer Bank building was built in 2002; the $3 million Central Block building was completed in 2003; The Loveman’s renovation was started in 2001; The $5 million+ 300 Building was done in 2012; the $20 million Liberty Tower renovation opened up this spring; and perhaps most importantly Burn’s Tobacconist moved into a newly renovated space earlier this year. This is by no means a comprehensive list of investments in the area, but it is a good indication that while we might be pushing thirty years on transformative projects, there has still been plenty of action and investment in the interim.
The district, however, clearly has issues. When Blue made their move to the cloister on the hill, they left a gaping maw of vacant office space in the district. The last I heard, we are pushing around 28% office vacancy. “Ideal” vacancy rates change with time and market conditions, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re not where we need to be right now. We see a number of potential projects in the area that are hamstrung by a lack of parking. It is generally acknowledged that the area is “dead” after office hours. There is the perception that the area is unsafe- this reinforced by the rise of aggressive panhandling. And as always, transportation issues abound including: the odious wound to be inflicted by US-27, a dearth of alternative transportation facilities, and a number of incongruous facilities (think about why Broad Street, which dead ends, needs three lanes of traffic in each direction. In downtown, nothing outside of I-24 has that many lanes- including US-27).
All of this sets the stage for the process our community has become famous for. I’m beside myself to see what the community planning process will create and even more excited to see us then move from plan to action. So, with apologies to the Bard of Avon, I will say: Get thee to Bessie Smith Hall, woulds’t thou be a breeder of transformative ideas?