New hope for the 700 block

New hope for the 700 block

November 13th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga's worst eyesore downtown, and the biggest gap in the city's renaissance, has long been the eastern side of the 700 block of Market Street. The razed, ugly, gap-toothed hole that was punched in the center of the city's face when the block's vacant buildings were demolished in 2008 stands as an inescapable affront to the city's revitalization and civic pride. So the announcement last week that the 700 block has been pried out of bleak limbo through a legal settlement with owner Trey Stanley is heartening.

The reversal guarantees neither quick relief nor long-sought development. But it does, at last, energize the prospect of new proposals and productive change.

The agonizing over the direction of redevelopment for the 700 block of Market was muted with the demolition. There are no buildings left to fuel hope of rehabilitation and the salvaging of a central part of downtown's architectural legacy.

In any case, saviors of the city's earlier brick architecture foundered for years on the difficulty of combining the different floor heights of the quaint but narrow three-story structures that had long inhabited the central portion of the block. A dearth of parking spaces and critical mass for sustainable retail, commercial and residential development had also thwarted various stabs at redevelopment centered on rehabbing the block's former buildings.

Those barriers, ironically, led to the deal that cemented the demise of the block. Though city leaders cared about the 700 block and the buildings that had become known as pigeon lofts, they devoted their efforts during the 1980s and 1990s where they found more traction, on the Riverfront.

Even after RiverCity finally agreed in 2000 to buy about half the buildings on the east side of the block, viable ideas for redevelopment failed to materialize.

That inertia appeared to change when Stanley, the developer, struck a deal in 2001 with RiverCity to take over the vacant properties on a promise to begin construction on a new residential and retail development in 16 months. Stanley finally razed the buildings in 2008, long after announcing a proposal for new residential complex to be known as Mayfair on Market. He claims his proposal soured after his agreement with the Chattanooga Housing Authority, which used HUD funds to purchase 18 of the 54 planned Mayfair condo units for affordable subsidized public housing, fell through in 2008, a victim of the recession.

The settlement last week of lawsuits by both RiverCity Co. (which has just changed its name to River City Co.) effectively ends what had become a bitter dispute. Stanley has received $2.2 million, mostly in CHA funds, but has failed for years to begin construction on any redevelopment project. River City's attorney has claimed that most of Stanley's revenue from the project was used elsewhere; Stanley counters that demolition and abatement of environmental issues consumed that money, and that River City's lawsuits have stymied his development plans.

The legal settlement doesn't resolve the equity issues. It does, however, end a decade of futile civic frustration and lack of progress on redevelopment of this vital section of the city's heart. River City's current bimonthly design competition for a half dozen city sites in need of renewal cited the 700 block as the city's poster-child for both neglect and potential. There is hardly a fairer description. River City's top priority now must be, again, to reverse that sad distinction.