Publix's undeserved deal

Publix's undeserved deal

October 19th, 2012 in Opinion Times
Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

Many people on the North Shore think they want a new supermarket in the neighborhood so much that they aren't watching what Publix has in mind for the heart of their neighborhood. They had best open their eyes before it's too late.

Chattanooga's North Shore has led downtown's revival by preserving and restoring the character, architecture and zoning standards that protect and enhance the ambiance of an appealing, pedestrian-oriented, old-fashioned neighborhood.

Developers have embraced that vision. Working within the North Shore's unique C-7 zoning laws, they have propelled North Chattanooga's renaissance by building an appealing mix of sidewalk-oriented retail stores and restaurants with plenty of inviting street-level windows, and apartments above. The surrounding neighborhood rounds out the mix with restored Craftsman bungalows and new homes that largely blend in with them.

What Publix demands and would impose -- if Mayor Littlefield continues to allow it to run over sensible C-7 zoning laws -- is mind-boggling: A 40,000 square-foot, inward-looking, suburban-style big-box supermarket that opens onto an asphalt parking plain for 260 cars. It's all squeezed into an inappropriately sized section of the North Chattanooga neighborhood under the brow of Stringer's Ridge on one side, and the green, densely built, hilly neighborhood on the other.

The entire project over two urban blocks will set a bad precedent of allowing a rich national grocery chain to trample the C-7 zoning laws that far smaller developers have respected -- the sort of laws that, ironically, Publix has respected in a few other cities. Yet here, its new store will be totally out of character for the North Shore, and as well, out of compliance with the zoning standards that homeowners across the North Shore rely on to secure their quality of life and property values.

Worse, the North Market plan would introduce a traffic nightmare in the city's most revitalized neighborhood. 18-wheeler supply trucks for the store would daily intrude outsize behemoths not just on North Market Street, but also into the more narrow, congested heart of Frazier Avenue, and then onto the tiny, bungalow-bedecked Woodland Avenue. This little street -- a mini-block away from the congested Market Street bridge intersection -- runs north from Frazier on the east side of Walgreens pharmacy into the residential section behind it.

These outsize trucks would threaten pedestrians and take both lanes -- if not the sidewalk -- of the tight, two-lane corner onto Woodland from Frazier. Then they would trudge down Woodland beyond the back of the Post Office on North Market, and take anther tight left onto Kent Street going towards Market Street. They would pull down Kent, and back into the high backside of the store to unload.

Residents in the restored bungalows the next two blocks along Woodland and Hamilton avenues would stare at the tall bare side of the big-box store, or beyond Manning, onto the huge asphalt parking plain, which runs the length of more than two football fields from the closed portion of Manning Street to Bush Street.

Trucks leaving Kent would have to turn left on North Market without a traffic light: That would be installed at the entrance of the parking lot where Manning Street (to be closed for Publix) now crosses.

This traffic plan has yet to be formally approved by the city, and it's amazing that it could be. Yet approval appears to be on a greased track, given Mayor Littlefield's push to protrude Publix into an ill-suited site.

Beyond this onrushing trainwreck is the more immense cost of lost opportunities. With mixed-use development of these blocks, Chattanooga could reap a large multiple of the tax revenue income that a Publix supermarket, and its outsized parking lot, would generate. It could get far more jobs per acre, more residents per acre, and more tax revenue per acre.

Instead of searching for more dense, more productive and more appropriate development, however, it is trammeling the design laws that call for sidewalk windows and frontage, and enhanced pedestrian entrances that create activity along the street; behind-store parking; screening of service structures, and landscaping. The laws also encourage pervious parking surfaces, and limit parking spaces to four per thousand square feet of store space.

Publix's plans clearly work against the North Shore's guidelines, to such a degree that the chain should be seeking a more appropriate site. Given political pressure, however, violations of the C-7 design laws have been tentatively approved, on a 4-1 vote, by the North Shore Design Committee's appointed board. The board will meet again next Thursday at 5:30 p.m, at the city's Development Resource Center in the 1200 block of South Market Street, to consider the pending issues. North Shore residents should use this opportunity to voice their concerns over traffic and design problems before the Publix deal slides through.