“You could be seen as the vanguard for a new kind of growth model”
The aggressive, downtown growth agenda long pushed by Chattanooga leaders is becoming less palatable to a burgeoning number of residents, but Mayor Andy Berke and a national expert on urbanization say the current surge in speculation and development in and around the city core is just a beginning.
Bruce Katz, a Brookings Institute scholar who came to Chattanooga last week to discuss his most recent book, "The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism," said city leaders must not slow growth because some might fear its effects.
Chattanooga has just had a little taste of how the future will look, he told Times Free Press reporters and editors, sitting beside Berke.
"Don't be complacent," warned Katz, who studied Chattanooga for his new book. "You may be at 15 percent of what is possible."
There are still parking lots here, he said, a sign that the true downtown buildup is yet to come.
"You are in the early stages," he added. "You will not have a fiscal or job base unless you build this out."
The mayor, who called Katz "a thought leader," chimed in. It is no secret, he said, that he spends a lot of time with developers.
Katz and Berke argue that the country is springing back from the suburban sprawl that was ignited by the white flight from city centers that followed desegregation. Millennials and retirees alike are looking for "the magic mile," argues Katz, places where they can live, work and play and trade their cars for bikes. And these robust, densely populated city centers are America's future, he said.
Chattanooga is on its way to becoming one, he said, if its leaders can continue to emphasize proximity and density.
"You could be seen as the vanguard for a new kind of growth model," Katz added. "It all depends on the choices you make."
Small business owners being squeezed out of the market, as well as neighborhood groups frustrated by the furious pace of development and the power wielded by developers at city hall and the planning commission, agree with Katz's latter statement.
The choices made now are critical, say the heads of several neighborhood associations who have begun working together in recent months to challenge certain development efforts and provide a unifying voice for residents.
"I'm afraid if Chattanooga continues on this path of irresponsible development, we will lose what we love about the city," said Beth Van Deusen, an interior designer who has lived in North Chattanooga since 1989 and recently helped form the Baker Hilltop Neighborhood Association after she became concerned about a planned development in her neighborhood.
"There comes a time when growth no longer benefits ... I've been told many times that I should welcome this unfettered development because it improves my property value. However, I place a higher value on the quality of life we enjoy that may soon be destroyed if high density is favored over retaining the character of an already established neighborhood."
Growth opportunities can be mismanaged and have enormous effects on diversity, affordable housing stock, economic mobility, education and crime, say neighborhood leaders. Booming cities all across the country, including Atlanta and Nashville, stand as a testament to that.
Even planning experts such as Richard Florida are retracting their ideas about what good urban development entails. Florida's thinking led to the emergence of Create Here, a nonprofit that worked to draw the creative class to Chattanooga a decade ago. Florida now admits, however, that focusing on young, creative professionals in high-density downtown areas just perpetuates a divide between the haves and havenots.
"It seems like aggressive development plans are pushed forward while the existing narratives of how it has played out in other cities are being ignored," said Farron Kilburn, a project manager in the school of nursing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who began regularly attending planning commission meetings with friends when she became worried about development in her North Chattanooga neighborhood. "Taking our time and doing development in an inclusive way here in Chattanooga now matters. We are at a crossroads. And, we have an opportunity to learn from other cities' mistakes."
People have moved to Chattanooga to escape the trappings of quick and intense development, she said.
"They have told me that when their neighborhood in Atlanta filled up with high-cost condos, it ceased to be neighborly — families moved out, and wealthier people with less investment in community mindset moved in," said Kilburn. "The character and community was gone."
Right now, city leaders are failing both newcomers and longtime residents by putting no throttle on development and refusing to recognize the long-term impact of unchecked growth, said Emerson Burch, an organizational consultant who moved from New Zealand to Chattanooga 12 years ago and now leads the Highland Park Neighborhood Association.
"We can never treat real estate as if it is purely a financial activity," said Burch, who owns nine downtown rental properties. "It has to be respected for the powerful tool that it is ... I am not saying city government needs to grow a heart. I am saying they need to grow a brain."
Burch and Kilburn said it seems like leaders are marching forward with their own vision for the city, which is informed by consultants like Katz rather than Chattanoogans. Public input is viewed as a hurdle to jump over, said Burch, and neighborhood voices are pigeonholed as only being opposed to growth and change.
"Community members would like to participate in the vision-casting and agenda-setting for the areas of town they live in," said Kilburn. "Oftentimes, people are asked to contribute input only after an agenda has been set or outlined. These agendas are frequently informed by out-of-town consultants who don't really understand the current and historical context of specific neighborhoods."
When residents are excluded from the process, "there is often anger and resentment, and often displacement follows," Kilburn said.
More and more newcomers who came to Chattanooga because it offered affordable housing options, manageable traffic, accessible downtown businesses with parking, plus outdoor activities and a metropolitan feel, are finding themselves deeply disappointed, said Burch. And the city's selling points won't be selling points for much longer, he believes, as Chattanooga continues to morph into the city envisioned by Katz and Berke.
"Chattanooga wants new people and has created this sparkling idea of what Chattanooga is ... The question begged is this: Are we seeing those people stay?" Burch said. "A lot of those people are leaving because what they are coming to Chattanooga for is not what Chattanooga is becoming."
More than anything, Burch said he is concerned about the growing share of residents who can't afford to take advantage of the Chattanooga taking shape. Many long-term residents feel completely left behind and trapped, he said. They can't afford to leave and they can't afford to stay. Leaders tout our innovation district — a designated 140-acre area in the heart of downtown anchored by the Edney Innovation Center — and entrepreneurial bent, he said. Still, aside from work at Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises, there doesn't seem to be interest in innovating around one of Chattanooga and the country's greatest needs: affordable housing.
"Our city processes facilitate not having affordable housing," Burch argues. "If our city is going to operate for residents, then their processes and policies need to prove they are working to support the needs of residents."
Berke said downtowns are attractive to investors because their density makes them economically vibrant, and government can service the areas efficiently. "We also want people to live near their jobs in order to lower transportation costs and increase opportunities for employment," the mayor said.
Still, cities have an obligation to look out for the most vulnerable residents, Berke said.
"Too many families are being excluded from the economic mainstream of our region," the mayor said, and city governments should consider intra-local partnerships.
He cited examples already underway in Chattanooga:
' Bingo's Market in Patten Towers downtown, which provides healthy, affordable groceries to poor residents. The market is a collaboration among organizations such as Causeway, the Enterprise Center and some foundations.
' The MetroLab partnership with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which will evaluate the quality of the city's sewer system.
' A plan by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency that will use data to determine where housing is least secure and will "devise new regulatory tools — such as the expedited approvals of accessory dwelling units — which can create new revenue streams for homeowners while adding residential density and purchasing power to disinvested neighborhoods of Chattanooga."
Burch said 50 percent of development downtown should be accessible to the average Chattanoogan.
Instead, census data shows the number of families who are housing burdened — defined as paying more than 30 percent of their income toward rent — has increased in recent years. In 2000, 35.9 percent of renter were considered burdened. By 2015, the share of burdened renters rose to 47.8 percent. Meanwhile, census data shows wages are down, after being adjusted for inflation. Average household earnings fell from $65,308 in 1999 to $58,386. But average gross rent rose from $669 to $752 in the same time period.
But Berke points to a positive statistic: As of the end of 2017, Chattanooga saw the lowest poverty rates in more than a decade, and the city's population is steadily growing.
John Bridger, head of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, said he has noted growing concern about development and growth downtown. Attendance at recent planning commission meetings has made that evident.
"We are in the middle of a housing boom that is spurred by the economic growth," he said. "People want to move here because of the name recognition, and development activity is trying to keep up with that demand. It is a natural byproduct of our economic success story."
Bridger said he understands many feel unheard, but he wants residents to know their input is important as his office works to manage and plan for growth.
"Our chief responsibility is to work with stakeholders to frame a vision for future growth so we grow in a responsible way," he said.
And a big push for feedback is coming, Bridger said. His office is just wrapping up the first of 12 area planning processes throughout Hamilton County. The first was for the Apison area. The next, set to launch in March, will be for Area 3, which lies between Missionary Ridge and Central Avenue and encompasses neighborhoods such as Highland Park, Ridgedale, East Chattanooga and Glass Street.
"We want to get ahead of the growth," he said.
Still, Bridger said residents need to accept that the nature of traditional neighborhoods is changing nationwide. Detached single-family homes were once the norm, but that is no longer the case. People are more mobile. So rental housing is more in demand.
Also, the cost of housing per unit continues to go up because of increasing labor, material and land costs. If Chattanooga is serious about solving the affordable housing problem, residents have to allow for smaller unit sizes and bigger buildings with more units.
"We want to teach people about how the housing market has changed," he said. "A good process is where everyone comes away learning something they didn't know before."
Contact Joan McClane at email@example.com or 423-757-6601.