published Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

A Walnut Street hotel in Chattanooga?

Mitch Patel's proposal to build a boutique hotel on Walnut Street above the riverfront has raised legitimate concerns by neighbors there. City officials should take heed lest they compromise the city's investment around the riverfront area and the Bluff View Art District.

Patel's preliminary plan calls for a six-story, 90-room facility. A sales agent for the property has also suggested consideration of an option to close Walnut Street -- presumably just to vehicular traffic -- from the Walnut Street Bridge to the old 2nd Street, now dubbed East Aquarium Way.

That's asking a bit too much. At 60 feet, the building likely would be too high given its location by the Holmberg Bridge to the Hunter Museum Plaza, and given the public prominence of the Walnut Street Bridge. The area's residents reasonably argue that a hotel shouldn't be higher than four stories. Our view is that the hotel's size and height shouldn't be allowed to obstruct the view to the arts district, and that the development should not be allowed to restrict public access along Walnut Street to the restored bridge.

There's a possibility, to be sure, that traffic restrictions for an extended, well-designed plaza approach on Walnut Street from the 2nd Street junction to the pedestrian bridge could well serve the public interest.

If surrounding neighbors don't mind; if fire department and emergency access is not hindered; and if pedestrians, bicyclists and public use is protected, then the idea to shut regular auto traffic at the site might be permissible. There should be an allowance, however, for residents of condominiums on the west side of the street to have vehicular access for pick-up and drop-off.

Noise levels for service trucks and increased traffic should be considered as well.

Helen Burns Sharp, a neighborhood advocate and one of some 60 nearby residents who attended a meeting to discuss the impact of the project, reasonably recommended that the proposed project should fall under the city's General Commercial District zoning, rather than the broader commercial zoning category. That would limit hotel use to a height of 40 feet, but leave room for negotiation for greater height if made compatible to neighborhood considerations.

The site at issue currently contains a vacated three-story building and considerable parking space. Other adjacent sites await development, as well. Thoughtful mixed-use development and appropriate urban density is reasonably planned for the remaining undeveloped sites on Walnut Street, and a boutique hotel could certainly win approval. There's no reason to oppose compatible development, but there's every reason to get it right.

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