Planners urge mayor's involvement in Chattanooga's center city renaissance

Planners urge mayor's involvement in Chattanooga's center city renaissance

February 8th, 2014 by Ellis Smith in Businesstopstory

City Center plan image of Patten Parkway

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City Center plan image of Miller Park

City planners are working on a public-private partnership to inject new life into Chattanooga's center city with an ambitious multi-million dollar road map to boost parking, build apartments and bolster pedestrian access.

The plan, which includes a laundry list of proposals big and small, comes amid the shuttering of a half-dozen downtown restaurants in recent months and stalled efforts to recruit more retailers.

"While we have 55,000 workers downtown, after 5 p.m. it shuts down," said Kim White, CEO of nonprofit downtown development group River City Co. "We've been really actively trying to push retail, but there have been challenges in that because there's just not enough foot traffic."

A new city center study, which cost $250,000 to produce, calls for a new 500-space parking structure in downtown's central core, 1,400 units of new workforce housing over the next 10 years, and a total overhaul of both Miller Park and Patten Parkway.

"This study looks at what would it take to get the vibrancy and density that's needed," White said. "I think in the next three years alone, we could get another 400 units."

The First Tennessee building has six available floors that could net 30 new residential units, the study says. SunTrust has six floors that could support 54 new residential units. The CitiPark building was built to support six upper floors that were never constructed, which could support 40 new units. Clusters of 20 to 30 units in buildings throughout the city wouldn't constrain the supply of office space, which is slated not to run out until 2020 at the earliest, according to the analysis.

But following through on the plan could cost millions of dollars -- money that private developers have shown themselves reluctant to spend.

Developers are up against a vicious cycle: restaurants and retailers have trouble staying open without residents nearby. But residents are reluctant to live and shop downtown if there's not enough parking. Parking, however, costs so much money to include in a building plan that an integrated garage would price out the very people it's trying to attract.

"First Tennessee Bank, James building, SunTrust, Tivoli center, these buildings that are largely vacant," said Christian Rushing, a lead planner on the city center study. "Some of those buildings would be already filled if there was a significant parking resource close to them."

Chattanooga officials can play a role in breaking the stalemate, Rushing said. Through tax incentives for developers, city-funded parking garages and renovated public spaces, the city can speed along the process of urban renewal in the city's central business district.

A 500-space parking garage could cost more than $7.5 million, for instance, but such a structure near the 700 block of Market Street could stimulate 400 units of new dwellings in the area, as well as support new restaurants and retailers, he said.

"When you have a place that typically just functions well as an office from 9 to 5 and it's a ghost town after that, it's not healthy for a downtown," Rushing said. "The goal of the plan was to find ways to make it active and animated. Part of that is restaurants and part of that is retail, but the way to do that is to have people living there."

Another way to attract people downtown is by transforming public spaces, which River City wants to enhance by connecting Miller Plaza to Miller Park, and by modernizing Patten Parkway.

A $2.5 million plan to elevate the road between Miller Park and Miller Plaza to the level of the sidewalk would allow pedestrians to cross freely between the two spaces, while a residential parcel on the south side of a newly-flattened Miller Park would bookend the development and create a usable space.

The city could recover part of the capital outlay through reduced maintenance and by selling the residential parcel to a developer, White said.

"What we learned with Miller Plaza is it takes a building and the things that come out of it to animate the space," White said.

Same plan for Patten Parkway. Raise the road, create a plaza, and attract pedestrians.

It's straight out of the playbook from the city's Urban Design Challenge, in which architect Blythe Bailey -- now the city's director of transportation -- participated. Bailey has already taken a page out of River City Co.'s book by pushing a plan to narrow Broad Street from three lanes to two.

But though some progress on the city's housing problem hinges on the city's involvement, Bailey wasn't available to comment on the City Center plan, and the City Hall isn't ready to commit to any one revitalization plan, said Lacie Stone, director of communication.

"Our administrators are carefully reviewing the plans with their employees and will provide recommendations and feedback in their area of expertise," Stone wrote in an email. "We will take those recommendations on the City Centre Plan and ensure they align with the work being done in our Chattanooga Forward Downtown Task Force so that we have the best strategy moving forward."

Chattanooga Forward is Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's plan to assemble committees around the city to discuss improvements to six key areas: sports, entertainment, housing, downtown, technology and the arts.

White hopes that however Berke comes to a decision, his eventual budget will include a focus on creating healthy downtown spaces alongside partners like River City.

"It's expensive to develop downtown," White said. "We want more housing so that people who work at law firms, banks and restaurants can have a place to live. But without incentives, it won't happen."

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