By the end of 2017, Chattanooga will have completed almost all of a horseshoe-shaped loop of interconnected urban trails stretching some 25 miles — what urban development experts say is one of the most impressive such greenways of any city its size.
The project, backed by city and county government and several nonprofit groups, will stretch along the Tennessee Riverwalk from near the Georgia state line in St. Elmo all the way downtown, and then along the Tennessee River almost to Highway 153. From there, it will curve east and south along South Chickamauga Creek to the Camp Jordan recreation area in East Ridge, just south of the intersection of interstates 75 and 24.
Supporters say they hope the trails will give many more Chattanoogans access to the string of parks along the Riverwalk, but they have an even bigger goal — to connect people with communities they might not otherwise get to know.
"Chattanooga is ahead of the curve in terms of developing its waterfront and developing a very extensive network of trails," said Adrian Benepy, director of city park development for the Trust for Public Land and former head of New York City's parks department.
"It is an incredible greenway, pretty unique for the country," said Mike Harrell, president of the South Broad Redevelopment Group. Harrell has spent 10 years working on plans for the area on South Broad that was once the center of the city's heavy industrial district.
"The greenway extensions make for healthier residents that have access to daily exercise and better, safer communities by providing more 'eyes on the street,'" said Michael Walton, executive director of green|spaces Chattanooga, a nonprofit group that pushes for sustainable development.
It's also good for economic development, some say. The developers of two ambitious projects in the reclaimed industrial area off South Broad Street said the expanded Riverwalk is a major draw for their projects.
"This completely connects our community to the aquarium, to downtown, to everywhere without a car, which we feel is important," said Gabe Thomas, development manager for Collier Field, which is breaking ground this month on the first of what will eventually be 61 townhouses and single-family homes behind the old Southern Saddlery Tannery building on South Broad.
"This definitely enhances the way developers and users and citizens are going to perceive our property now," said Mike Mallen, a partner in Perimeter Properties, which is redeveloping the huge 141-acre U.S. Pipe site along I-24. Perimeter donated 15 acres so the walkway can cross its property.
"You just can't make paths like this on your own," Mallen said, noting that the final southward extension will connect the Riverwalk to 40 miles of trails on Lookout Mountain.
But the additions on the eastern end of the horseshoe along South Chickamauga Creek will be important in other ways, supporters of the pathways said. They will bring in neighborhoods in Brainerd and East Ridge now disconnected from the loop.
"There are 25,000 people who live within a mile of the South Chickamauga Creek corridor," noted Noel Durant, Chattanooga program director of the Trust for Public Land, a group that for two decades has played a key role in obtaining funds and managing construction of the pathways along the creek.
Visit tpl.org/our-work/parks-people/parks-people–chattanooga for a map.