Chattanooga planners split on North Shore Publix

Chattanooga planners split on North Shore Publix

November 7th, 2012 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

A North Shore resident addresses the planning commission on a proposed Publix grocery store in his neighborhood.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

Taxable value

Downtown

• Acres: 152.75 acres

• Total value: $700 million

• Per-acre value: $4.58 million, excluding tax-exempt sites

Hamilton Place mall

• Acres: 162.9 acres

• Total value: $109.2 million

• Per-acre value: $670,260 per acre

Source: Public Interest Projects

Chattanooga's new Publix is either the greatest development on the Tennessee River's North Shore or the most egregious betrayal of zoning rules since the nearby Walgreens was approved in 2005, depending on the speaker.

"It's clearly not fully urban or fully suburban," said John Bridger, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency.

Though the planned Publix is a major departure from the urban design that has defined the area during its renaissance, supporters say having an affordable grocery store downtown is worth the compromise.

The current proposal includes faux windows, small retail spaces and a heightened facade to mimic downtown design cues, but the parking lot that runs along North Market Street and its inward orientation are more suburban in nature, planners say.

"That's why you have a review process, because it's never clear-cut," Bridger said.

The North Shore Design Review Committee will decide tonight whether the plan meets the guidelines established by the public for the area. The store's developers have previously said that they're unwilling to compromise on some points.

But for some people, the emphasis on vehicular access isn't compatible with a downtown atmosphere.

"We're missing a huge opportunity," said urban designer Blythe Bailey.

Coming on the heels of the River City Co.-sponsored Urban Design Challenge, in which fully half of the proposals incorporated ideas for how to integrate big box stores into a downtown setting, it's counterintuitive to build a suburban store in the city's hottest district, he said.

"Here we are building an urban grocery store in Chattanooga, and we're not doing anything close to these urban design challenges," Bailey said. "Let's call their bluff."

Joe Minicozzi, an urbanist who worked successfully to revitalize Asheville, N.C., argued that money is another important reason to demand a more urban design. Tax revenue and jobs per acre is far higher in a mixed-use development than it is in a single-story, single-use building like the Publix proposal, said Minicozzi, principal of Urban3, a consulting company of the real estate developer Public Interest Projects.

"You've built all this infrastructure, all this investment, and somebody comes in and does as little as possible to get the wealth out of your community," he said. "With all the excitement that's coming into Chattanooga lately, why would you allow something like this to come in at the edge of that and not add to the pie?"

Minicozzi calculated Chattanooga's total taxable value at $13.7 billion, which becomes more concentrated downtown when people and jobs are packed closer together.

For instance, the multistory James Building yields $18 million in county taxes per acre, and the multistory Pickle Barrel building yields $8 million per acre. But single-story, single-use buildings downtown like the Buffalo Wild Wings, Applebee's and Chili's yield less than $3 million per acre, he found in his study.

"We've been building cities for hundreds of thousands of years because they make economic sense," Minicozzi said. "You start by thinking with your feet first and putting as much stuff in walking distance as possible."

That's a fine dream but it's not practical, said Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, himself a former planner.

"I don't think it will ever be possible to satisfy all the planners on every detail," Littlefield said. "There are those who would like it to be three stories with parking underneath and loft-type residential units on the third floor, but that is not going to happen. That might be someone's dream, but I don't think that it's practical to expect that kind of development."

The proposed grocery store represents a step up from the current abandoned houses and vacant land on the site, Littlefield said, and gives an affordable alternative to the nearby Greenlife Grocery-turned Whole Foods.

"This cures the food desert we've had in downtown Chattanooga," he said.

Though attracting a grocery store is a noble goal, the proposed Publix throws out everything that makes the North Shore a hot area, said urbanist Christian Rushing, who has worked with the Urban Design Studio on projects like the 21st Century Waterfront.

"What makes [Chattanooga's North Shore] feel like a fun street is that it's got generous sidewalks, the buildings are up to the sidewalks, the buildings are about two stories, and its about people, not about cars," Rushing said. "When you create a situation where you've got a parking lot on the street, that is a place that's about cars, not about people."

But even if the store is approved as proposed, it's not the end of the world, Rushing said. Cities always change, and no building is forever, he said.

"Today's parking lot is tomorrow's developable site," he said. "While the concept is kind of lame for us today, maybe that's an opportunity for somebody else in a future generation."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.