When Mayor Ron Littlefield's administration moved to sue River City Co. and its contractors in 2009 over construction problems in the Passage of the 21st Century Riverfront project, it was bleakly seen as a signal rupture in the key public/private partnership that had spurred Chattanooga's urban renaissance. Since its inception, River City Co. had consistently served — and served very well — as city government's nonprofit agent, convener, facilitator and project manager for the visionary redevelopment of downtown. Why, then, would the mayor bring a lawsuit against the city's well-proven right arm?
There is yet no definitive answer for that puzzle. Critics of the mayor have suggested that since his administration had no similarly big ideas for the moving the city forward, it was politically convenient to disparage the $120 million riverfront development, the chief accomplishment of former mayor Bob Corker. Others contend the administration used a critical view of the waterfront work as political cover for allowing freer reign for more favored firms and developers in downtown projects.
Whatever the impetus, the Tennessee Supreme Court's recent refusal to overturn lower courts' decisions dismissing the city's lawsuit against River City Co. and its contractors essentially vindicates River City's defense of the riverfront work. The high court's ruling also confirms the city's unreasonable intransigence against working with River City Co. and Hargreaves Associates, the architectural firm that designed the Passage and the larger 21st Century Riverfront project, before filing the lawsuit in 2009.
The Tennessee Supreme Court essentially sustained rulings by a trial court and an appeals court that the city had been notified of construction issues in the Passage as early as 2005, and that the statute of limitations on the city's right to sue its contractors had thus expired before the city filed the lawsuit.
Hargreaves and River City alerted city officials by 2005 of significant construction issues in the Passage, notably the loosening of wall tiles, and electrical and lighting issues in the pond. They had also convened the project's contractors and city overseers to evaluate the problems and develop a plan to remedy them, and proposed to make repairs.
City officials, however, disengaged from that effort, and subsequently hired TWH Architects to make a costly investigation of the construction problems and oversee repair work by other contractors.
Resolution of the legal case, unfortunately, doesn't explain or remedy the larger problem — the estrangement of the Littlefield administration from the close, lively and productive linkage the city previously nurtured with River City Co. Until Littlefield's administration took over in 2005, the success of that partnership was widely acclaimed.
River City Co., funded by the Lyndhurst Foundation and the city's major financial institutions, helped the city assemble unused and vacant land downtown. The city channeled its own funding for such work through its chartered Chattanooga Downtown Redevelopment Corp., and used River City as its agent. And with the help of the Urban Design Studio and a unique spirit of partnership, they worked together to foster visionary planning and redevelopment by private businesses and public institutions -- building new businesses, amenities and public spaces that have energized, enhanced, animated and promoted Chattanooga's renaissance.
The city needs to recapture and build upon that spirit of public/private partnerships for the good of the larger community. With the needless lawsuit against River City Co. put to rest, that should be the primary goal of the next mayor in April's election.
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