River City Co.'s popular urban design forums -- a series of bimonthly presentations that envision ways to redevelop six major downtown sites that have not yet been rehabbed -- have spun off a number of inspiring ways to look at the city and its yet untapped potential. One of the most striking benefits of these exercises is insight into the city's history, growth and evolution from pre-Civil War times to the modern era -- and the treasures of architecture and leafy downtown neighborhoods that have been lost in the name of progress.
Thursday night's presentation offered ways to animate, calm and beautify the first three blocks off the bleak Fourth Street ramps that convey heavy traffic in and out of the heart of downtown from the Highway 27 expressway. It drew rapt attention, as well, to the way the problematic ramps got built there in the first place.
In retrospect, neither the highway that girdles and chokes the once grand Cameron Hill, nor the abrupt ramps that feed and drain that highway, should have been placed where they are. They are the offspring of a misbegotten "urban renewal" plan just over a half-century ago to cut down the majestic Cameron Hill and use its earth as fill for the misplaced highway and a new, nearby Interstate. Highway 27's downtown intersections alone cut off the west side of town and consumed more than 400 acres and several thousand homes that once stood along tree-lined streets.
If city planners in Mayor Rudy Olgiati's era had possessed more vision, Olgiati Bridge would have been placed further upriver. A boulevard from that location into town could have paralleled the much older Cincinnati Southern Railway, through the then more rural area of Amnicola Highway. Similarly, a grand boulevard linkage from downtown to Interstate 24 could have paralleled the existing rail lines from downtown's railroad depot toward Lookout Mountain.
The city's downtown could have remained intact and retained its urban neighborhoods, which used to spread south from First Street to South Chattanooga. Citizens then might have sought to re-use old architectural treasures across the city's urban center, from Patten Parkway to Union Station, which was regrettably demolished in 1973.
Now, of course, the city has to deal with Olgiati Bridge where it is, and the Highway 27 corridor that harshly binds the linear form that the city has had to assume. Still, the fresh design for the Fourth Street entrance ramps and the blocks beyond show that the ramps could be pushed back, and the streets landscaped and made safer and more pedestrian friendly. The chief features would be a pedestrian walkway, and partial bridge, from new development along the side of Cameron Hill, and new public spaces below Highway 27.
The planning team members who presented their vision for redeveloping Fourth Street include architects, developers and consultants. They have met recently with officials of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, which has just unveiled its proposal for straightening Highway 27's curves and redesigning its interchanges.
Their conceptual vision for changing the focus from traffic to human interest along the intersection's three-block-long de-acceleration function merits more study, but it is doable. It could be the key to transforming the grim divide that Fourth Street has become between the revitalized riverfront district and the midtown blocks that run from Fourth Street to the Southside.
As it is now, many visitors and residents -- and especially parents pushing baby buggies, and family groups hanging on to each other in hopes of a safe crossing -- find Fourth Street a raw vehicular barrier. It wasn't that before the Highway 27 was installed, and it doesn't have to remain that way.