Chattanooga: Bypassing the boulevard

Chattanooga: Bypassing the boulevard

March 8th, 2009 by Yolanda Putman in News

For all of Chattanooga's success along its downtown riverfront and Southside, one key corridor in the central city has yet to see much, if any, commercial revival.

Martin Luther King Boulevard boasts little of the commercial growth added in the past few years along Main Street, just six blocks to the south, or along Frazier Avenue, just north of the river downtown.

"The feeling is that people, the developers, skipped over M.L. King," said John Edwards, publisher of the Chattanooga News Chronicle on M.L. King Boulevard and a former chairman of the M.L. King Community Development Corp.

A partnership between the Lyndhurst Foundation and Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise - MLK Tomorrow - spurred more than $20 million to build about 130 homes and condos in the neighborhoods surrounding M.L. King Boulevard. The $80 million UTC Place Apartments, just north of the boulevard, houses up to 1,615 college students.

But along the boulevard itself, few of the original storefronts remain from a half-century ago, when the thoroughfare boasted hundreds of black-owned businesses, from movie theaters and a recording studio to barber shops and medical offices.

Some of the storefronts that have been added along the boulevard in the past five years, including a UTC outreach center, a pizza shop and a $2.7 million residential and commercial condominium complex, are now empty.

Amid promises that the neighborhood is becoming more prosperous, the M.L. King Community Development Corp. lost its funding and its executive director. Although technically still in existence, the CDC hasn't had funding in two years.

Mr. Edwards said he and former director Elijah Cameron volunteer to meet with board members to keep them aware of any action toward the liquidation.

King-sized plans

The Regional Planning Agency has outlined a path to revival of the boulevard in a 116-page plan adopted last month by the Chattanooga City Council.

The plan, developed over the past year, calls for reinvigorating the commercial district by promoting its history and proximity to both downtown and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and adding a new mixed-use development to complement the Bessie Smith Hall and African-American Museum in the 200 block of M.L. King Boulevard.

The plan is the 25th such plan done in the past three decades, according to its authors. But Karen Hundt, director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency's Design and Planning Studio, who put it together, said the latest blueprint is the most comprehensive yet of the entire area and the first to be adopted by the City Council.

"Obviously, with the economy as it is right now, it's probably going to take a little longer than we would all like, but we think there is a lot of potential on that corridor," she said.

"This area has a rich history and, with its proximity to downtown, the university and a growing residential population in this area really puts M.L. King Boulevard in a prime location," she said.

Chattanooga City Councilman Leamon Pierce, who has operated a bail bonding company just off the boulevard for 32 years, said he hopes the overall appeal of downtown and the growth of UTC will spread to M.L. King Boulevard once the economy improves and more properties become available.

"You have some property owners who are sitting on their property, and they seem to be waiting for their fortune," he said. "Now we have a plan, and we hope there will be some revitalization if we can find some partners who are interested in coming in and revitalizing this area."

BLACK FLIGHT

Mr. Pierce said the boulevard suffered from the movement of many black businesses and consumers to the suburbs.

"There was white flight from some areas of downtown, but here on the boulevard there was black flight," he said. "People started migrating away from this area."

At Maggie G's, at M.L. King and Foster Street, Edward Blanton Jr. manages a small bar in a former gas station. The 6-year-old business draws a steady crowd of regulars, most of whom are retired or nearing retirement.

But Mr. Blanton said the traffic and business along M.L. King Boulevard are only a fraction of what they were on the former Ninth Street - or "Big 9" as it was known a half-century ago.

"On both sides of the street in those days there was an abundance of people from practically sunup to sundown," the 65-year-old Chattanooga native recalled. "

Since the 1980s, M.L. King Boulevard has gained the $4.1 million Bessie Smith Hall and the Chattanooga African American Museum, UTC Place Apartments and the $6.6 million client services building for the Tennessee Departments of Human Services and Employment Security. Such investments brought more students, residents and visitors to the area, but few new stores, restaurants or commercial enterprises.

"There's been some development, but not nearly enough to say this is an area that is truly making a comeback," said Irvin Overton, chairman of the Bessie Smith Hall who long has championed the development of M.L. King Boulevard.

Two years ago, the 28th Legislative District Community Development Corp. built Renaissance Square, a 21,000-square-foot mixed-use building at the corner of M.L. King Boulevard and Houston Street. The complex remains empty.

Lauren Hollingsworth, who purchased the building at 328 M.L. King Blvd. to open Salon Thirty-A, said Renaissance Square and other structures often are overpriced for startup businesses.

"I relocated here from Main Street, and I think there is a lot of potential for this area," she said. "But building owners have to be realistic with their prices."

The price of one building at M.L. King Boulevard and Lindsay Street was attractive to Joe Sliger of Eastman Construction Co. He plans on gutting the interior of what had been Big Ben's Barbecue over the next six months and then try to market the building for another tenant, similar to what he did with the building that now houses the Terminal brewpub.

"There's a lot of potential for that site once we fix it up," Mr. Sliger said.

Ken Jordan, a Chattanooga Realtor who previously owned a pizza shop on the boulevard and once led the M.L. King Merchants Association, said he wanted to revitalize a block or more of the street to gain a critical cluster of development. But he was unable to acquire enough buildings within his budget and sold his business a couple of years ago.

"I wasn't able to do that, but I'm still convinced M.L. King will be commercially developed," he said. "It's not a matter of if, only when."