7-story housing complex planned for Chattanooga's M.L. King Boulevard area

WHAT'S NEXTThe building will be up for initial approval from the Regional Planning Commission at 1 p.m. Jan. 13 in the Hamilton County Courthouse. The meeting is open to the public. After the planning commission, the plan will go to the City Council for final approval.THE BOULEVARD THROUGH THE YEARS• Bessie Smith Cultural Center, 200 E. M.L. King Blvd.: Built as a Chattanooga Times warehouse, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center renovated and moved into the space in 1996.• Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, 730 E. M.L. King Blvd.: Formerly the Boys' Club, the Urban League moved in during the 1970s or 1980s.• UTC South Campus Housing, North of 400-600 E.M.L. King Blvd: This string of UTC student housing was built in stages between 2001 and 2004, and housed more than 1,700 students last fall.• AT&T building, 300 E. M.L. King Blvd.: Built as a South Central Bell equipment building in the 1970s, the facility still serves AT&T and now includes offices.• Champy's, 526 E. M.L. King Blvd.: Seth Champion has been serving chicken and catfish at Champy's for five years.

photo Planned seven-story student apartment building just off M.L. King Boulevard.

A Chattanooga private developer plans to build a seven-story student apartment building just off M.L. King Boulevard aimed at helping to alleviate UTC's campus housing shortage.

It's a move that could bring hundreds of students into a neighborhood where empty storefronts now dominate -- and neighborhood leaders hope that influx will be a catalyst for M.L. King's rebirth.

Local firm Riverside Development proposed the project, which will include two stories of parking and five stories of student housing at 930 Douglas St. The building should be open by August 2015, said Chris Curtis, president of Riverside Development.

"The main thing right now is that we're in the very early stages," he said.

He declined to say how many units the building will include, the apartment layout or the cost for the project, and added that the company is still finalizing many of the building's details.

But while the specifics of the building are still up in the air, one thing is for sure: The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga needs more student housing. The university is already sending 150 to 200 students to hotel rooms at the Chattanooga Choo Choo every year because campus housing is full, said Chuck Cantrell, UTC associate vice chancellor.

And that's only expected to get worse.

The university needs about 600 new beds immediately and has a long-term need for as many as 1,500 new beds in the future, he said. And while UTC doesn't have a role in the Riverside project, Cantrell said he's happy to see private developers responding to the need.

"We've always felt that part of the mix needed to be private development in our community and around campus," he said. "Anyone who can come in and provide high-quality, affordable housing that would appeal to our students and create a neighborhood around the campus, we're very supportive."

Before construction can start, the planned apartment building will need to get clearance from the Chattanooga City Council, because the seven-story plan exceeds the six stories usually allowed in the zone.

But the staff for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency is recommending that the project be allowed to go ahead anyway.

The staff's report noted that the area is mostly vacant, industrial or office space, and the neighborhood would benefit from new housing, which could set the tone for future development.

"Due to the lack of existing neighborhood context, the proposal could set a positive precedent for the scale of building and type of architecture that is appropriate in this transitional area," the report reads.

The closest existing UTC housing to the proposed apartments is north of M.L. King Boulevard -- a section of dorms collectively called South Campus Housing that together can hold about 1,700 students. The tallest of those buildings is five stories, Cantrell said.

Whether the Riverside apartment building could actually spark a new age for the blighted M.L. King district is still up for debate. But Troy Potter, who owns Park Town @301, a retail space a few blocks from the planned apartments, said he thinks the project could only help.

"UTC right now is about the only thing I can see bringing growth to the downtown area," he said. "As long as they create jobs and cause more people to hang out in the area, anyone down there will benefit."

photo A development targeted at UTC students is planned for this site at 10th and Douglas streets.

He recently rented part of his space to a dollar store, and added he's working to put a convenience store into the building as well, which will leave about a third of the building open for new tenants. He expects the apartments will help him fill it.

And Seth Champion, owner of Champy's restaurant and a five-year M.L. King Boulevard veteran, said he's thrilled to see a private developer eying the neighborhood.

"I think it will be a great addition to the neighborhood for sure," he said. "We've been hoping for this for the last couple of years. Finally someone with a great plan and a great idea came in and put it all together."

But Cantrell warned that the apartment complex alone may not be enough to revitalize M.L. King Boulevard.

"We want to see a neighborhood develop," he said. "We'd like to see a drug store, grocery store -- the services people want in their neighborhood. That's not going to happen just through campus housing."

Warren Logan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, said the Riverside project is only the beginning for M.L. King Boulevard.

"That's just one of a series of planned projects," he said. "Within a five-year period, you'll see a series of developments to address the gap that's developed there."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.

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