Endangered building, city growth and Walmart's rapid response team

Endangered building, city growth and Walmart's rapid response team

June 25th, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

Eyesore or gem?

When one thinks of buildings worth saving around Chattanooga, the former Tennessee State Office Building on McCallie Avenue is not one that comes to mind. Before the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the building on its list of most endangered historic places recently, "eyesore" was the term most often associated with the building.

People felt its utilitarian office-building look was not the right image for the green, hip Scenic City. So when the state transferred its deed to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and UTC said its future plans for the building might include demolition, hardly an eyebrow was raised.

The seven-story limestone building was erected by the Interstate Life Insurance Co. in 1954 and features a mid-20th century modern architectural style. An addition was built in 1976. The front and sides of the building's lower two floors are faced in attractive ruby granite, and a bronze frieze above its McCallie Avenue entrance is original art by a Tennessee sculptor.

However, consultants have estimated it would cost $8.49 million to bring the 172,000-square-foot building up to date, mainly because of outdated heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. That amount does not include the cost for retrofitting the building for dorms and/or classrooms, according to UTC spokesman Chuck Cantrell.

To some, its 1950s mid-century style is popular again, so razing the building is unthinkable. Indeed, officials said only a handful of the 250 sites placed on the National Trust's list in its 27-year history have been razed. But UTC plans to occupy the building this fall and keep its options open as to what it will do with it.

UTC Chancellor Steve Angle told Times Free Press reporters and editors last August it is "quite old and a sick building, and it's not economical to be retained. That would have to come down."

But it won't be the university's next spot for new student living space, as the site of UTC's Racquet Center and adjacent tennis courts already has been approved for that purpose.

So what happens to the property next is anybody's guess. If UTC were to get some preservation funding to renovate the building, it might begin to look more attractive to the university, especially if the price of a new building or dorm on the space is approximately equal to the renovation price. But at this point, UTC is correct to retain its options.

When it was the state office building, it was rarely completely occupied, and the worst thing UTC could do is to spend money on an outdated building that would not be fully utilized.

Good news/bad news

A financial online advisory service Monday listed Chattanooga as the sixth best city in the United States for economic growth from 2009 to 2012. But, despite the good news of income gains and median home values compared to the rest of the country during the period, that was so 2012.

A separate list by IHS Global Insight for the United States Conference of Mayors, listing cities anticipated to be the fastest growing areas from 2013 to 2020, did not include Chattanooga. The study predicted the city would grow slightly less than the projected national rate this year and significantly less than the national rate next year. Indeed, it reported the city's growth would be four and a half times slower than that of Nashville, the state's fastest growing metro area.

Chattanooga doesn't have to be Nashville, but maybe the potential that many employers have seen in the Scenic City since Volkswagen placed its assembly plant here will continue to be a drawing card and engender additional growth.

The red pen

People can say what they want about Walmart, but the way it responded to a recent New York Times column blasting the Arkansas company was pretty clever. Responding with a red pen "edit" of the piece, David Tovar, the vice president of Walmart's corporate communications, thanked writer Timothy Egan for "sharing your first draft" and chose to share a "few thoughts to ensure something inaccurate doesn't get published."

Tovar, for instance, countered Egan's claim the company was a "net drain on taxpayers" by noting it was the "largest taxpayer in America"; said instead of being "a net drain on taxpayers" that it moved associates "off of public assistance"; and noted, among other things, it has hired 42,000 veterans this year, has the largest corporate foundation in America and gives more than $1 billion in cash and in-kind donations annually.

Egan, in the midst of the piece, said Walmart "is a big part of the problem -- and could be a big part of the solution." It's a shame he didn't check with the company before he wrote the article. It might have set him straight before the embarrassment of a red-pen "edit."