Glass House Collective draws on experts, neighbors to move forward

Building owner Towson Engsberg removes plywood covering from the former Alabama Furniture store at the corner of Dodson and Glass streets on Wednesday, April 22, 2015.

The Glass House Collective has landed a $65,000 Lyndhurst Foundation grant to bring architects, artists and planners from around the country to focus on revitalizing Glass Street.

It's the second time in three years that Glass House Collective, a nonprofit revitalization organization, has called in professionals and residents to improve the Glass Street neighborhood and thus Chattanooga.

The Next Big Thing Urbanism Conference started Wednesday with guest speaker Mike Lydon, an internationally recognized planner, writer and advocate for livable cities. Lydon, who has been featured on NPR and "CNN Headline News," is a principal of The Street Plans Collaborative. The conference ends Friday with teams of residents and professionals showcasing ideas for community improvement.

"This isn't just an ideas workshop. GHC has received modest funding to see a few projects come to life immediately," Glass House Director Teal Thibaud wrote in an email.

Instead of focusing only on the two block stretch of North Chamberlain and Glass streets as it did in the past, Glass House is expanding its efforts to about a quarter-mile radius from that intersection.

Getting ideas is just the start, Thibaud said. The community will give feedback and prioritize the ideas so Glass House may have a plan of action.

Workshops start today at the old Alabama Furniture building.

On Wednesday, volunteers removed boards covering glass windows around the long-vacant furniture building. It will be the main conference site for community planning. Nine teams, each including an architect, planner, community leader, graphic designer, resident and artist, will brainstorm ideas about improving the area.

The Next Big Thing conference will suggest smaller projects that residents can accomplish in the next month. It will also suggest projects to be completed within the next year and the next three years.

Alabama Furniture building owners Towson and DeDe Engsberg said they hope participants consider a use for their building.

"We're waiting to see what it wants to be when it grows up," Towson Engesberg said while removing boards from the windows for the conference.

The Engesbergs bought the property in October 2013. It has been boarded up for most of the time since then.

Mary McSears, owner of Mary's Lounge on McCallie Avenue, purchased two buildings on the street and wants to get ideas for using them.

The three buildings are among five in the Glass Street area purchased since Glass House started community revitalization in 2012. Hardly any investment was made in the community before Glass Street.

Thibaud said she is just as proud of the process for revitalization as she is of the community's progress.

"We've had neighbors who never met one another out together taking care of greenspaces that they created," she said. "Neighborhoods are taking ownership."

Since Glass House's first conference, residents have planted 16 trees, gotten four blocks of sidewalks built near the intersection of North Chamberlain and Glass streets, and had 25 new street lights installed.

The community also got a permanent park with game tables and swings at the corner of Glass and Awtry streets. It got three bus shelters and five public art sculptures that are also benches.

Glass Street flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, said Etta Kanipes, president of the Glass Farms Neighborhood Association. Grocery stores, doctors, dentists, banks, four or five clothing stores and movie theaters, even a drive-in theater, thrived on Glass Street.

The decline started in the late 1960s when larger shopping areas such as` Eastgate Mall blossomed, she said.

Vacant buildings outnumbered businesses on Glass Street when Glass House Collective moved to the street in 2012.

Area volunteers are not discouraged, said former Harriet Tubman resident LeVar Wilson.

"If everybody pitches in, we can make this side of town beautiful," he said.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.comor 757-6431.