Fissures on the waterfront

Fissures on the waterfront

July 12th, 2009 by Mike Pare in News

Staff Photo by Dan Henry Allison and David Gafford, visiting from Nashville, get their bearings while standing near The Passage which is closed for repairs along the Chattanooga river front.

Staff Photo by Dan Henry Allison and David Gafford,...

First of two parts

Four years after city leaders heralded the completion of downtown Chattanooga's 21st Century Waterfront, the $120 million project is showing both physical and political cracks.

The Passage tribute to the Cherokee Indians, a popular water feature, showed signs of wear after its first year and is undergoing a $1.2 million fix.

Now, the concrete river wall at the waterfront is cracking so much that one city engineer estimates it may cost another $1 million to repair the problem.

The structural defects -- and who is to blame for the growing delays and costs for their repairs -- has split City Hall and the downtown agency employed to oversee the work.

Chattanooga Mayor Littlefield vows to fix the problems and reopen the shuttered Passage later this summer even while a court battle is going on over who is liable.

But the costs of those repairs continue to grow with the recent discovery of underwater concrete defects along the riverfront wall erected in 2005 on Chattanooga's downtown waterfront.

Underwater divers hired to investigate recently discovered more problems. Their report found five instances of voids, exposed rebar or cracking concrete beneath the surface.

Political and legal fights

Earlier problems with cracks and falling tiles in the Passage spurred the city to sue the designer, builder and developer of the 21st Century Waterfront in March.

Last month, The RiverCity Co., the downtown development agency created in 1986 to help guide Chattanooga's downtown and riverfront revival, countersued the city for destroying evidence needed to assess liability and for trying to destroy RiverCity's reputation.

The legal battle highlights the rift between the mayor and RiverCity.

Mr. Littlefield said RiverCity become too political when the riverfront project was being completed and one of its executives, Ann Coulter, ran against him for mayor in 2005. During their 2005 mayoral campaigns, Mr. Littlefield and his chief of staff Dan Johnson, who also ran for mayor, criticized RiverCity and Ms. Coulter.

PDF: Riverfront inspection report

PDF: Chattanooga vs. Hargreaves

Remaking the riverfront

1981 -- Riverbend Festival, then known as Five Nights in Chattanooga, offers first riverfront music concerts

1986 -- RiverCity Co. is created as a nonprofit development company to help revitalize downtown and its waterfront

1992 -- Tennessee Aquarium opens as the world's largest freshwater aquarium

1995 -- Children's Discovery Museum opens

1999 -- Coolidge Park opens on the North Shore

2002 -- Mayor Bob Corker unveils plans for 21st Century Waterfront to expand Aquarium, Hunter Museum or Art and Children's Discovery Museum and build new parks on either side of the river.

2005 -- New downtown waterfront and downtown parks open; Ron Littlefield elected to succeed Mr. Corker as mayor

2007 -- The Passage is closed because of falling cladding and safety concerns

2009 -- City sues RiverCity Co. and contractors over building problems


The Chattanooga Downtown Redevelopment Corp. board will meet at 3 p.m. Monday in the Chattanooga City Council meeting room. The panel oversees the $120 million 21st Century Waterfront Project.

series box for jump:

Today: Trouble on waterfront

Monday: Fixing the Passage

"They should have stayed in a neutral, project-management mode, instead of becoming a political player," Mr. Littlefield said of RiverCity leaders who campaigned for Ms. Coulter. "But you can put all that aside because politics has nothing to do with the fact that you've got some physical problems at the riverfront and politics has nothing to do with the solution."

Ms. Coulter said she left RiverCity before entering the mayoral race. RiverCity as an agency has never been involved in any political campaign, she noted.

"And all of that was five years ago, and I'm not sure why that should have any effect on what is being done now," she said.

As mayor, Mr. Littlefield has served on the board of RiverCity Co. but has not asked the downtown agency to tackle major projects, RiverCity officials said.

Previous mayors, including Mr. Corker, Jon Kinsey and Gene Roberts, directed RiverCity to help assemble land for the Tennessee Aquarium; bring two new elementary schools downtown; build or expand the Tennessee Riverwalk, Coolidge Park and Ross's Landing; and help find a site for the new BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate campus on Cameron Hill.

Paul Brock, who headed RiverCity for the past four years, said he was shocked to find out the city was suing RiverCity by reading it in the paper, without an attempt to get RiverCity to repair the waterfront problems or work with the contractors itself.

"To have not consulted the RiverCity Co. before taking this action was wrong," he told the Chattanooga City Council after the case was filed. "I believe that if you search the annals of history, you will find that The RiverCity Co. has been a vital and trusted partner of the city of Chattanooga for 23 years."

award-winning design

Such fission is far different from the near universal acclaim that greeted the 21st Century Waterfront when it opened in spring 2005 as then-mayor, now U.S. Sen. Bob Corker finished up his term in City Hall.

Mr. Corker, who launched the ambitious redevelopment of the downtown waterfront just three years before its completion, heralded the private and publicly funded project as one of the crowning jewels along a necklace of riverfront achievements for Chattanooga over the past two decades.

Hargreaves Associates, the San Francisco-based architectural firm that designed the 129 acres of riverfront redevelopment on both sides of the Tennessee River, won a half dozen national awards for the Chattanooga waterfront project.

Among other honors, the 21st Century Waterfront Park in 2005 was recognized as the Project of the Year by the Urban Land Institute and received the Grand Engineering Excellence Award by the American Council of Engineering Cos. and the Excellence on the Waterfront Award by the Waterfront Center.

"Overall, this was a $120 million project that was finished on time and on budget and has been a fantastic addition to our city, even if there are some problems after four years that need to be corrected," Ms. Coulter said.

But Chattanooga City Council Vice Chairman Manny Rico, who recently was appointed to the Chattanooga Downtown Redevelopment Corp., which oversees the waterfront, said too many problems have occurred along the waterfront.

"You put in a $120 million project and you have to expect there is going to have to be some maintenance work, but not this quick," he said. "It's kind of disappointing that we have to make all these repairs so soon."

Ariel Soriano, a city engineering manager, said the newest underwater cracks discovered this spring could cost another $1 million and require the building of a coffer, or temporary, dam.

"I don't think it can be repaired using conventional underwater techniques," Mr. Soriano said, citing the murky water.

Gary Hilbert, who directs the city's land development office, said there is cracking on some of the concrete slabs on the surface and in areas where it meets grass.

"There are some parts we noticed where it's settling and the dirt is being washed out from underneath," he said.

Mr. Hilbert particularly mentioned one corner where the Tennessee River is flowing into it and there's a lot of swirling and current. Plywood covers one area as a stop-gap measure while a permanent fix is eyed.

The mayor said the city may seek federal help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees navigation on the river.

"We're probably going to have to go in and put a coffer dam in to dry the area out," Mr. Littlefield said.

Mr. Hilbert said several solutions are under study.

"It may come down to the budget as usual. ... What's the most economical and timely," he said.

Part of the waterfront is being redesigned to include handrails and other safety measures around the water cannons, city officials said.

Mr. Littlefield said there has been more damage at the 21st Century Waterfront than officials anticipated at this point.

"We've got to decide how to deal with the area that is under the water if it is eroding away that bank under the concrete," he said. "We know how to jack up the concrete and get it back into line. But the real question is how do we stop the erosion."

He said it appears from the descriptions he has read that things were not put "in a really tight fashion."

Finding a fix

The RiverCity Co. and the contractors that designed and built the 21st century waterfront -- Hargreaves Associates and Continental Construction Co. -- offered a plan two years ago to repair cladding and concrete problems in the Passage.

But in March, the city sued RiverCity, Hargreaves and Continental, claiming the construction was defective and even some electrical codes were violated. The city is seeking $1.5 million in damages to pay for the repairs of the Passage.

Mr. Littlefield said what was first proposed to fix the problem by the contractors "was not acceptable."

"Even our engineers said that if you pour grout behind those bricks, the walls are going to collapse and you are going to have a bigger mess than you started out with," he said. "They also wanted us to sign off on that and say we would have no further claims against them. Well, we couldn't do that."

Mr. Littlefield said he hopes the city doesn't have to file another lawsuit regarding the newest problems in the riverfront wall, and he insists the legal action against the builders of the waterfront "is a business decision, nothing personal.

"We all hope that we will be able to settle these matters before we actually get into court," he said.

But RiverCity officials questioned why City Hall, which had worked closely with RiverCity on downtown projects in the past, decided to sue rather than negotiate a settlement.

In a countersuit against the city, RiverCity and the contractors claim that there was a lack of proper city oversight, if in fact problems developed because of the original work.

"Had such inspections and approvals been done properly, any problems with construction would have been discovered, if in fact they exist," RiverCity Co. attorney Alaric Henry said in response to the city's lawsuit.

Mr. Littlefield said he wished the city would have been more involved in overseeing the work.

"Hargreaves is a landscape architectural firm, and some of the construction they got involved with is probably beyond landscape architecture -- the Passage being a good example," he said.

But Mr. Littlefield said the city will now do what it must to fix and maintain the downtown waterfront.

"I don't know who all is going to be involved in paying for that, but somehow we'll do it," he said.