River City Co. buys historic Ross Hotel with plans to build affordable housing for downtown workers

ABOUT THE ROSS HOTEL• 28,800 square feet, four stories.• Listed on the National Register of Historic Places.• Built in 1888 as the The Delmonico Hotel, later the Ross Hotel.• Located next to the site of the first Coca-Cola bottling plant.• William Jennings Bryan of Scopes Monkey Trial fame spent his last night here.Source: River City Co.

photo Artist's rendering of a revitalized Patten Parkway. Ross Hotel is on Georgia Avenue to the left.
photo River City's city center plan includes a 500-car parking garage, an overhaul of Miller Park and Miller Plaza, above, and adding flagstones and landscaping along M.L. King Boulevard.

In the first strike of a campaign to uplift Chattanooga's center city district, River City Co. has purchased the historic Ross Hotel with plans to convert the abandoned building into as many as 20 middle-class apartments.

The move is the first phase of a bigger plan to transform Patten Parkway -- Chattanooga's first outdoor market in the 1800s -- into a pedestrian-friendly gathering place, eventually connecting the soon-to-be reimagined boulevard to both Miller Plaza and Miller Park in cooperation with nonprofit foundations and the city.

"We think we can jump-start the city center with the Ross Hotel," said Kim White, president and CEO of River City Co. "You have to have a catalyst to justify further development, and we've identified this as an important building."

River City, with help from the Benwood Foundation, paid $1.2 million for the abandoned structure, which has variously played host to night clubs, restaurants and a hotel. The nonprofit downtown developer has requested proposals from contractors who want to help gut and rebuild the 28,800-square-foot interior to create modern, affordable apartments. If all goes well, workers could begin to transform the building by 2015.

The short-term goal is to provide workforce housing for developers, designers and other professionals working downtown, for whom finding convenient housing is currently a struggle. The bottom floor could become a bar, restaurant or some other type of retail space.

"We're not talking $2,000 per month, we're talking smaller workforce [housing] units that will attract these entrepreneurs," White said.

River City is betting that the new apartments will help satisfy demand downtown for an estimated 900 housing units annually, and has highlighted 22 other buildings within the city center district alone that could accommodate 1,260 new dwellings.

More downtown residents would certainly bolster the various restaurants and retailers that depend on foot traffic, and local entrepreneurs have said they will have an easier time hiring potential recruits if workers can live closer to their employer.

"Housing is a huge thing that ties into talent," said Tiffanie Robinson, chief operating officer at Lamp Post Group. "Right now, they're not finding the housing that they want in an urban area, they're not finding a single apartment at a decent price."

The founders of Chattanooga-based Access America, who recently sold the company for millions of dollars to Chicago-based Coyote Transport, have said they also favor what they call "soft" return on investments, and plan to spend capital on the city's infrastructure to support their businesses.

The group is subsidizing housing for new recruits, and is looking at buildings of its own to open up for downtown workers.

"There are not enough bars and restaurants, there's not enough entertainment and not enough housing," said Allen Davis, co-founder of Access America and director at Lamp Post Group. "We want to be able to go fast. When you have to get consensus with all the different groups in Chattanooga, it comes to a grinding halt, so we're going to go ahead and do it."

White agrees that more housing in the vicinity of the company's Loveman's mixed-use building could boost jobs and high-speed business growth.

"We want the guy at Lamp Post to be able to go across the street and live," White said. "We have a great building at Loveman's, but you don't have workforce housing."

Housing is only one part of the recipe to elevate Chattanooga's downtown renaissance to the next level, however.

In planners' vision of a more pedestrian-friendly downtown core, blacktop in some areas is replaced with flagstones, curbs are removed and walking is encouraged. Such urban designs encourage people to gather, create space for festivals and feed local storefronts, White said.

photo The Ross Hotel was built in 1888.

While such niceties may sound more like luxuries than necessities, they're an integral part of the nonprofit's $250,000 plan for the city center, which White unveiled in February. The study also calls for a 500-car parking garage and a total overhaul of Miller Park and Miller Plaza, connecting the two sides of M.L. King Boulevard using flagstones and vegetation.

"We've proven you can go out and try to attract all the retail you want, but unless you get people around here all times of day, it's not going to happen," White said.

White is referring to the revolving of restaurants and retailers who have come and gone in the blocks around Miller Plaza in recent years, replaced by others who themselves have faded away. Some have blamed parking woes for their closure, while others have noted the lack of business after 5 p.m., which office workers return to their homes outside the city center.

That trend could be reversed, White said, if building owners begin to consider adding residential units to floors of their high-rises rather than new office tenants. White also renewed her call for the city's involvement in downtown improvement projects, such as modifying curbs and streets along Patten Parkway.

"We would probably have to bring some money to the table to get it to where we want it to be, but the city has the money in the budget already for maintenance for that plaza, so we asked them to wait until we have a finalized design," White said.

To be sure, there are obstacles in River City's path. In spite of the availability of empty buildings and lots, developers have been loathe to build apartments in the city center, preferring to build from scratch on the city's North Shore. And convincing building owners to spend millions renovating office buildings into apartment housing could be a tough sell.

"The reason we're involved in this is that this is difficult to do," White said. "If it was easy, someone else would have already done it."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com with tips and documents.

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