published Sunday, May 25th, 2014

That sinking feeling: Chattanooga must spend $9 million to stem problems at Ross's Landing

Poll
Should taxpayers foot the bill for waterfront repairs?

The foundation of Chattanooga's waterfront revitalization — the bedrock of the city's downtown renaissance — is sinking.

In less than a decade, a 1,000-foot portion of the $120 million 21st Century Waterfront has sunk 6 inches in several places into the Tennessee River.

And Chattanooga taxpayers, who paid to build it during former Mayor Bob Corker's administration, will once again have to open their wallets, this time to pay an estimated $9 million to stop the undershore erosion causing Ross's Landing -- the spot that hosts regional and national events such as the Riverbend Festival and Head of the Hooch -- to crack.

The story of the waterfront and the Passage, a water feature alongside the Tennessee Aquarium, has been debated in court and scrutinized in city audits that attempted to pin responsibility for dangerous electrical and technical failures found in an inspection two years after the project opened with much fanfare in 2005.

Court records revealed that the city ignored early signs of trouble in 2004 and more alerts in 2005 under former Mayor Ron Littlefield as the park was set to open. The city sued project overseer River City Co., designer Hargreaves & Associates and contractor Continental Construction in 2009, after electrical problems were found in the Passage. But a judge threw out the suit because it was filed too late, and the city paid $1.6 million to redo the popular attraction.

Another $1 million has been spent to study how to fix and redesign Ross's Landing after the concrete edge started to crack in 2010. This fix, which will be put out for bids on Thursday, is expected to complete the major repairs, city officials said.

A tentative timeline calls for the City Council to approve the bid winner this summer. Construction is projected to begin in November after the Head of the Hooch rowing regatta. The work is expected to take about six months, with reopening tentatively set for May 1, 2015.

City officials said the expense was approved in the 2013 capital budget, and that the repair must be made to ensure the structure is sound.

The original project was a public-private partnership, with city taxpayers putting up $56 million through a bond issue. The city is using about $4 million a year from the hotel-motel tax to pay down the debt that, with interest, will total more than $71.7 million when it's paid off in 2031.

"Unfortunately, taxpayers will have to pay for it now," said Councilman Larry Grohn, referring to the numerous repairs.

But Mayor Andy Berke's spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, said when Berke took office in April 2013, his administration decided to limit the project to only the costs necessary to keep Ross's Landing afloat. Plans to improve the overall area by adding public bathrooms, ticket booths and better walkways were cut from the plan.

  • photo
    Jazmine Suttles, left, 6, and Janiya Walker, 11, skip along the oversize stairsteps of the 21st Century Waterfront where painted markings denote cracks in the decade-old structure on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

"We found that a wholesale redesign of the waterfront was not necessary and not a responsible use of taxpayer dollars," Stone said.

But that re-evaluation of the project pushed back the work by a year.

City Engineer Bill Payne said a $610,000 yearlong study in 2011 found that the Tennessee River's rise and fall was slowly eroding the soil underneath the foundation, causing the ground to shift and resettle. Divers explored the structure to measure the erosion and discovered that the foundation had cracked in several places. The study also found shoddy mechanical and electrical work.

A copy of the investigation by HDR Engineering showed that the wiring and mechanical job got worse the further down Ross's Landing inspectors looked and the work didn't match the design plans specifications.

"But to what extent it was poor design and to what extent it was improper construction we don't know exactly -- we just know that it is failing," Payne said.

This week City Council will be asked to extend a contract with HDR Engineering for more than $400,000 for the firm to help select a contractor and then oversee the project. The firm, which was paid $400,000 in 2013 to design the project, will also provide weekly progress meetings for the city.

The scope of the project will be extensive and will include removing the first concrete step to drive 1-foot-wide steel sheets into the bedrock across more than 1,000 feet of Ross's Landing from the water cannons to the pier, Payne said. The steel sheets will be driven 10 to 20 feet into the ground and then the concrete repoured.

This will seal off the water and keep the soil from eroding, while also preventing more cracks on the concrete steps and sidewalks. But experts found that the extensive network of surface cracks on the concrete steps are aesthetic and won't be included in the work, Payne said.

After the job is complete, the city's consultants recommend that officials monitor how much the ground settles to make sure the repairs worked. Officials said this fix is expected to last at least 50 years.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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