published Saturday, October 8th, 2011

Hixson’s greenspace choice

A developer has proposed to rezone, and potentially flatten, a scenic, wooded 190-acre hilltop tract of land on Highway 153 near Highway 27/Corridor J to make way for a large commercial development and a 280-unit apartment complex. The development would be significantly larger, but not much different from, most of the other commercial hubs that dot the dismal commercial strip that Highway 153 has become all the way through Hixson. And that’s the problem. It’s past time for the Hixson community to upgrade its vision for commercial development, and choose a better model.

In the current economic environment, of course, there’s good reason to question the viability of Scenic Land Co.’s proposed development. Available commercial space nearby is plentiful. The plan for a grocery store to chase the closures of the Bi-Lo and Winn-Dixie barely two miles down the road, between Lowe’s and Gadd Road, begs questions. And a raft of foreclosures gives apartment dwellers a lot of options.

But if Scenic Land Co. wants to proceed with the development, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Planning Commission — which will hear the proposal at 1 p.m. Monday at the County Courthouse — and supporters of the Hixson-North River Community Plan should be ready to seek a plan that would be smarter, more aesthetic and more neighborhood-friendly than any development yet along Highway 153.

They could use their leverage for rezoning to achieve that goal. The plan depends on re-zoning most of the acreage, from R-1 residential to C-2, but rezoning is never guaranteed. It may be conditioned on a number of stipulations for improvements.

The Chattanooga Regional Planning Agency has already recommended deferral of the plan for a number of reasons. Among these is the need for the proposal to address the redesign of the Highway 153 intersection at Dayton Boulevard and Boy Scout Road, where the high-density 280-unit apartment complex would be located on 42 acres.

The RPA has also identified concerns related to the alteration of the presently beautiful hilltop tract, which spans the bulk of the acreage. These include stormwater runoff, drainage and detention ponds, bank stabilization, neighborhood buffers, curb cuts and traffic management for the increased congestion it would cause.

Unfortunately, city and county governments have negligently failed to establish cut-and-fill ordinances that preserve the city’s varied topography and the hilltops that give our community scenic interest and aesthetic beauty. Still, efforts should be made to preserve the topography of the hill. Conditions for re-zoning could require an aesthetic terrace plan to preserve the hill; natural buffers for the highway and neighborhood frontage, and tree-based landscaping and pedestrian ways around the interior.

As it is, the entire section of Highway 153 through Hixson needs serious attention to beautification and pedestrian-friendly improvements. The modifications that could be required for the new proposal could introduce such improvements and set the stage for remodeling Highway 153 all the way to the TVA preserve that serves as a gateway to Chickamauga Dam.

There are plenty of models for such highway improvements. Memphis, Charlotte and other cities are known for high-volume, six-lane, tree-lined boulevards that employ a wide, tree-studded berm in the middle, and sidewalks and bicycle paths for pedestrians along the edges to serve their surrounding neighborhoods. By comparison, Highway 153 — slowed by its many curb-cuts and traffic lights — is more akin to a barren industrial raceway that shuns the presence and needs of its neighboring homeowners.

Highway 153 doesn’t have to be to so soulless, cold and barren of beauty and charm. Residents in the subdivisions that touch its commercial backdoors deserve something much better — a landscaped boulevard that is easily accessible to pedestrians and shoppers. Such an improvement would boost neighborhood values and consumer shopping. They would help animate and humanize the entire area with pedestrian energy and life.

If the Scenic Land development is allowed to go forward, it should be conditioned on such improvements. Preservation of the hill, lush landscaping of the site, beautification at the highway level, and a start on convenient neighborhood-and-pedestrian access. The proposed plan for the site, which would leave twice the acreage of Northgate for commercial use, employs the jargon of “mixed-use development.” It’s time Hixson started looking at Highway 153 for a much broader vision of mixed-used development.

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