Chattanooga planners to converge on St. Elmo for Riverwalk reimagining

Chattanooga planners to converge on St. Elmo for Riverwalk reimagining

January 10th, 2014 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Runners head south on Riverfront Parkway just beyond the south end of the Tennessee Riverwalk near Ross's Landing. Expansion plans include an extension from this area to St. Elmo.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

How to participate

Where: South Chattanooga Rec Center, 1151 W. 40th Street.

When:

* Thursday, Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m. -- Opening Presentation and Discussion

* Saturday, Jan. 25 at 2:00 p.m. -- Midway Presentation and Discussion/Feedback

* Monday, Jan. 27 at 6:30 p.m. -- Closing Presentation and Discussion

Source: Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise

A nationally-acclaimed town planner is poised to help St. Elmo create a link between the historic hamlet's downtown district and Chattanooga's Riverwalk.

Urbanist Mike Watkins, who has led the creation or redesign of more than 70 neighborhoods across the U.S., will work with neighbors to design the link between the Riverwalk, St. Elmo and Lookout Mountain while also boosting bike use and bolstering downtown businesses.

The village of St. Elmo brings geographic challenges to the Riverwalk extension project. To the north lies the Tennessee River. To the south is Lookout Mountain. To get from one side to the other, the Riverwalk must pass over, under or across Broad Street or Tennessee Avenue, both of which snake through the center of St. Elmo.

To date, city officials have secured a path along the river from the Chickamauga Dam through the U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry site, with a planned Broad Street crossing near Mt. Vernon restaurant.

The $280,000 planning effort -- paid for by the Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations and spearheaded by Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise -- is structured as a series of community meetings in which residents can play a part in St. Elmo's destiny.

Such meetings, known as charrettes, have been the basis for many of Chattanooga's biggest projects, from Main Street's revitalization to the Southside's ongoing renaissance. Given the St. Elmo neighborhood's reputation as a home to active, involved and sometimes opinionated homeowners, officials expect the Scenic City's latest planning parlay will yield a workable roadmap.

"They seem to be one of the more prolific neighborhood groups," said Martina Guilfoil, president and CEO of Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise. "I think there is going to be a lot of participation."

Guilfoil declined to speculate on what any plan would look like, saying that CNE isn't bringing any preconceived notions to the debate. It's up to neighbors to determine how the Riverwalk will cross their town's main artery, and it's up to neighbors to decide what they want St. Elmo's commercial center to look like.

"We wouldn't want to create mixed-use spaces only to find out that the commercial space sits empty because there's no demand," Guilfoil said.

Depending on the plan, the Riverwalk could affect the entire layout of St. Elmo's business district, said Rebekah Marr, who serves on the Riverwalk Committee. That realization spurred leaders to consider asking for professional help in how to retain the neighborhood's small town charm while improving the flow of people and cars.

"Before long it became apparent that a community visioning process was in order," Marr said.

Some ideas that are already on the table, such as the Tennessee Department of Transportation's plan for more bike lanes, will be folded into the process, said Jeffrey Cross, who founded St. Elmo's community website and its extremely active email list.

"They're not starting from zero, they're going to take the existing plan, the inputs people have already put in and try to come together as a community to put together our own plan," Cross said.

Some neighbors are skeptical about the process, he acknowledged, which will involve local foundations, nonprofit developers, city and state officials in addition to the neighborhood and local business leaders.

The community's historic homes, quiet streets and friendly neighbors were, to a large extent, preserved by neighbors themselves, rather than any one mayor or state official, Cross said. But the government's involvement at this stage shouldn't scare neighbors, many of whom have sweated and bled to get St. Elmo into the shape it's in today, he added.

Rather than representing some type of municipal intrusion, these types of planning sessions are one of the few ways that communities can directly dictate to the city and state what they want their community to look like in five, 10 or 15 years, he said.

"The government's not involved at all until the plan is drawn up," he said. "We come up with the plan, then we say to the city of Chattanooga, or the Regional Planning Agency that we've got some stuff going here so if you want to consider a zoning change, or to use a piece of property, here's the plan."

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