Southside, Alstom site planner brings design thinking to Chattanooga

Jimmy White, president of Urban Story Ventures, LLC, stands in a area that used to have hundreds of Alstom employees.

Victor Dover laid out the plans for the reimagined Southside over 20 years ago with the idea that great streets will help breathe life back into the downtown community.

Dover - an urban designer, planner, author and principal at the south Florida-based Dover, Kohl & Partners - called it the "Rustville, Fort Negley and Jefferson Heights Neighborhood Plan" before it was collectively referred to as the "Southside." At the Chattanooga Design Studio's quarterly CIVIQ Series at the Camp House last week, over 100 people packed into the coffee shop and event space to learn more about Dover's approach across the world, country and right here in Chattanooga.

He described himself as having "a bit of an unhealthy obsession" with streets. Streets can unite us or divide us. They can promote cars or they can promote people. They can invoke happy emotions or feelings of frustration.


Initial site plans for the former 112-acre GE/Alstom site along the riverfront will be presented to the public Thursday, March 21 from 5:30-6:45 p.m. in the Blue High Bay buildings at 1201 Riverfront Parkway. Register for the free event at

photo Victor Dover, an urban designer, planner, author and principal at the south Florida-based Dover, Kohl & Partners, shows initial concept designs for the 112-acre Alstom site on the riverfront. He showed the designs over 100 people at the Camp House for the Chattanooga Design Studio's quarterly series, "CIVIQ: A Speaker Series Honoring Robert Taylor." Dover helped form plans for the Southside neighborhood in downtown Chattanooga over 20 years ago and is currently helping formulate the plans for the former GE/Alstom manufacturing site.

"The Southside story is a story about streets," he told the crowd. "It's proof that the street design is the one thing you need the most and could make the most difference of the quality of life of the people living and working in the neighborhood it's also the easiest thing to get wrong."

Chattanooga real estate developer Jimmy White and local hotelier Hiren Desai bought the Alston manufacturing parcel from GE for $30 million and hired Dover's firm to draw up plans for what they say will be the city's "new West End."

The 112-acre tract on the Tennessee River will be a mixed-use development with retail, hotel, industrial and residential spaces, White said.

"Victor is probably the authority on streetscapes and design and one of the best," he said. "I think Chattanoogans are enjoying the benefits of the Southside today that he designed 20 years ago, and what he is doing with the Alstom site is incredible. He's trying to network a site that has previously been separated from the city to the city."

Dover's visions for the Alstom location seem to be similar to the ones he had for the Southside.

"It's Chattanooga's next great neighborhood and maybe its first, true 21st century car-optional neighborhood," he said at the event Thursday night.

According to Dover, narrow, comfortable streets with wider sidewalks are best in neighborhoods, stating narrow streets cause cars to drive slower and tree-lined streets can add shade and coverage even on the hottest days. Wider sidewalks were more common before the rise of the automobile and before people were encouraged to rely on their cars more and more.

Dover shared figures that stated suburban residents make 14 car trips a day per household with trips averaging 10 miles. Of those car trips, only about four or five can be attributed to work commutes while discretionary trips such as trips to the grocery store are usually within biking or walking distance. Ensuring communities are walkable helps decrease reliance on cars, he said.

Graham Alexander, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate student, attended the talk with some classmates. The 24-year-old said Dover's ideas on walkable, connected streets and communities sounded appealing, but he was mainly concerned about the affordability of those communities for locals. Many of the walkable neighborhoods in Chattanooga today are also the most expensive to live in, including the Southside and North Shore.

"It makes the cityscape pleasant, appealing and attractive (it) increases the number of businesses and raises tax rates, but how do you account for equitable housing and how do you account for equitable, affordable products?" Alexander asked. "Essentially, it's creating an ungated, gated community to where the only people who are going to go over there are the people that actually live there or work there."

White said he thinks the Alstom site is large enough to where they can afford to create a walkable community with several green spaces and still put more affordable housing options, too. The development group has worked with Chamber of Commerce officials, the downtown redevelopment group River City Company, the Chattanooga Housing Authority, the Lyndhurst Foundation and others to get varying opinions on what the lot should include.

"This space is so sprawling and vast that we have the luxury to afford to do green spaces and different product types of housing," he said. "When you look at the demographics of Chattanooga, they are very diverse and different, and the people we want to attract there is for all Chattanoogans. It has to appeal to everyone."

According to White, initial concept plans for the site will be presented to the public on Thursday, March 21 at 5:30 p.m.

The presentation will be at the "Blue High Bay" buildings on the Alstom site at 1201 Riverfront Parkway, which were renovated in 2009 and will remain industrial, White said.

Finalized plans for the site won't be available until later this year. Dover showed some of the initial designs to the CIVIQ series crowd, which showed what appeared to be several residential and office buildings with one man commenting that it looked "high density."

Dover said the aerial view of the plans was a little misleading, and White echoed that sentiment, saying they are trying to incorporate as much green and public space as they can but they also need high-density projects, like restaurants, bars and apartments, to attract people to the area.

"At the end of the day, this is not some New York group that came in and tried to maximize profits We want everyone to understand that we are trying to be good stewards, and we want to do something great for the city," White said.

Contact staff writer Allison Shirk Collins at, @AllisonSCollins or 423-757-6651.