7-mile linear park could link downtown, East Main, Highland Park, East Lake neighborhoods

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Matt Lyle gestures at the site of an old railroad line in Highland Park that could be part of a 7-mile pedestrian link running from downtown to East Lake called the East Line.

A seven-mile-long urban trail, slicing from downtown Chattanooga to East Lake that roughly follows old rail lines through the city's rich manufacturing past, is under study as a way to offer a new walking and bike pathway.

Dubbed the East Line, the linear park would run through and link 10 neighborhoods and is envisioned as one day rivaling the city's Riverwalk, said Matt Lyle, a leader in the effort who works at Franklin Architects.

"It's like it's this hidden gem that has potential to bring so many positive things to so many different communities," he said.

The East Line could start in downtown's Innovation District and meander east toward the National Cemetery and through a number of redeveloping areas in the East Main Street corridor and Highland Park, a map shows. Then, it would turn south and track Missionary Ridge as it moves into East Lake.

Lyle said the linear park for pedestrians and bikers could tell the stories of each neighborhood it passes through and provide a way for people to safety travel to schools, work sites and homes without a car.

J.P. Evans of Southern Spear Properties, which is redeveloping an old manufacturing site off South Holtzclaw Avenue, said there's not an exact route yet. But the idea is to connect existing neighborhoods and the array of new and emerging residential and commercial developments, he said.

"It's the connectivity factor," said Evans, noting the thinking is somewhat like what Atlanta's Beltline has done in that city.

In the East Main corridor alone, there's an estimated $200 million in development underway or planned, he said.

Evans said organizers see users walking and riding bikes on a popular trail similar to the Riverwalk. Ultimately, the East Line could potentially connect with the Riverwalk, organizers said.

"We'd love to make it come to life," Evans said.

photo Staff graphic by Matt McClane / This map shows the general area and direction of the proposed East Line trail. An exact route hasn't been pinpointed yet, according to J.P. Evans of Southern Spear Properties.

Southern Spear is redeveloping the former Lucey Boiler property across from the National Cemetery and adjacent to Highland Park. That proposed new mixed-use project could see $20 million in new development.

Bryant Black, development director for Collier Construction, said there are old railroad lines running through that company's Mill Town project, a planned $120 million neighborhood off East Main Street on the former Standard-Coosa-Thatcher textile site.

Black said that Collier is planning on remaking the rail lines there into green space and would like for those to be part of the East Line.

"It would be a great pedestrian connection," he said. "I've dreamed of these kind of greenway connectors on this side of the city."

One of the biggest challenges to setting up the East Line is that it could run on railroad, public and other private lands. In terms of the railroads, most of those lines went out of commission between the 1940s and 1960s, Lyle said.

Organizers said an aim is to spur community support, build a grass-roots coalition and potentially craft a public-private partnership involving the city.

Lyle said a design team could create a master plan with input from each community and put that into a document.

Evans said a fundraising effort could be undertaken and establish a nonprofit group.

"We could go to the city and say 'We've raised X amount of dollars,'" he said.

Black said that they ideally want it to be something good for that side of the city.

While there's a lot of new investment coming into that part of the city, organizers don't want it to become something that speaks gentrification, he said.

"It really needs to serve the whole community," Black said.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.