Riverwalk expansion to focus on Chattanooga's industrial history

Riverwalk expansion to focus on Chattanooga's industrial history

September 18th, 2012 by Kate Harrison Belz in News

Engineers planning the 3.5 mile extension of the Riverwalk will open up not only new scenic vista to walkers, but industrial ones as well, such as this view of the Alstom plant.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

Tennessee Riverwalk expansion

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

As the Tennessee Riverwalk twists along through swamps and into the city, a bike ride down the trail can feel like a visual history lesson in Chattanooga's evolution.

A planned extension of the Riverwalk will add a crucial chapter to that story: The factory.

The new 3 1/2-mile Tennessee Riverwalk extension plans to take bikers and joggers past the woods and streams into Chattanooga's industrial heritage, tracing a route along active and abandoned manufacturing sites lining the Tennessee River as it bends around Lookout Mountain.

The new trail will allow its users to venture behind large scrapyards, old foundry sites and still-working businesses that have monopolized the area for decades. At one point, the trail will pass under a part of the mammoth crane that Alstom uses to load its power-plant turbines onto barges, giving passers-by a rare peak at the manufacturing process.

"It's not like the trail goes through a green, open field," said Rick Wood, director of the Chattanooga branch of the Trust for Public Land.

The trust has been helping acquire the property and easements needed to extend the Riverwalk.

"It's not beautiful and lush, but people who use the trail can see this is a real part of our city. These are jobs, and this is an important part of our economy," Wood said.

It will be about two years before the Riverwalk, which now runs about 10 miles from the dam to Ross's Landing, will reach its planned stopping point in St. Elmo. Engineers say the walk eventually will tie into Lookout Mountain trails.

With sprawling vistas of the mountain and river, scenery will be a big part of the new trail, but planners also are interested in unpacking the stories of the scenery. John Brown, project manager for Barge, Waggoner, Sumner & Cannon Inc., which engineered the extension, envisions a path dotted with interpretive sign sculptures formed out of machinery and products welded in riverside factories.

"We're trying to tie the city's cultural history and industrial history with the natural features -- the river and the mountain that actually formed that whole quarter to be what it is today," he said.

But the area's history goes beyond the industrial. Near the crossing at the top of M.L. King Boulevard, planners hope to feature exhibits about a black community called Blue Goose Hollow. Bessie Smith, the famous singer known as the Empress of the Blues, was born there.

And at the top of a hill that rises 40 feet on old U.S. Pipe property next to Interstate 24, Brown hopes the National Park Service can use the panorama of Lookout Mountain facing Moccasin Bend to outline the landscape for Civil War activity for visitors.

Over the last two weeks, the Chattanooga City Council and the Hamilton County Commission have approved a $2.8 million grant agreement with the Tennessee Department of Transportation to help the Riverwalk extension project reach its funding goal of about $13.1 million, said county engineer Todd Leamon.

While planners hope to start work by the end of this year, they are now busy working with commercial landowners and railroad companies, trying to piece together a patchwork of easements and property crossings for the trail's alignment.

"Once we cast the vision for the Riverwalk, most landowners are very cooperative," said Wood. "We want it to have meaningful connection to the city, not just exist for recreational activity you do on a Saturday morning. We want it to be close to where you work, close to where you live."

Alstom has paved the way for the Riverwalk to cross its property, even offering to cut off part of an existing building to make room for the 12-foot-wide path.

Perimeter Properties, which owns the old U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry sites, has offered "whatever is necessary to make the project successful," said Perimeter partner Michael Mallen.

Mallen said he and other owners of the property, which covers more than 140 acres, hopes to see a mixed-use retail and commercial development there one day.

"We've told the city and the county from the beginning that we would make sure the Riverwalk traverses our site," Mallen said. "The Riverwalk has proven itself to be the crown jewel of the city and our greatest public asset. It makes sense that it move southward."

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@times freepress.com or 423-757-6673.