The rusty remnants of the former Wheland and U.S. Pipe foundries on Chattanooga's southside are "a long-time eyesore" to Mayor Tim Kelly and a troubling introduction to what is billed as "Gig City" to millions of motorists entering Chattanooga on Interstate 24.
But to developer Jim Irwin, the 140-acre former manufacturing site offers one of the best opportunities he has seen for an urban revival on one of the gateways to Chattanooga. Irwin, who has spent his career re-imagining brownfield properties in Midwestern and Southern cities, says the former foundries comprise "one of the most beautiful sites in my career" for redevelopment.
"You have Disney World here," he says in describing the prospects for the land between South Broad Street and Interstate 24.
Irwin, the founder and president of New City LLC in Atlanta, has been chosen by the owners of the abandoned Chattanooga foundries as the master developer for the southside site. Gary Chazen, president of Perimeter Properties, which bought the former Wheland Foundry site in 2002 and the U.S. Pipe & Foundry property in 2006, calls Irwin "a world-class developer."
"We wanted something special for this site and we've turned down many opportunities that just were not the right fit for this property," Chazen says. "We had a lot of 'big box' retailers and warehouse companies come to see us, but that's not personally what I want to see when I drive into the city. These are iconic buildings that should be preserved; and although it has taken a while, I think we've gotten the property preserved and ready to bring in someone, now, of the caliber of Jim Irwin."
It's a role that Irwin has played in redeveloping other urban brownfield sites in Atlanta, Nashville and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Working with other developers and partners before and after forming his own development company, New City LLC, in 2016, Irwin has directed real estate developments and consulting operations totaling more than $2 billion of completed or planned projects of former brownfield sites.
The 43-year-old developer is not a typical real estate investor. Rather than build on undeveloped land, Irwin looks for ways to reimagine existing properties, including those that have fallen out of favor.
As an English major in college, Irwin knows the power of stories and looks for the story of each property.
"I try to approach every building project a little like Indiana Jones, discovering the history of the property," he says. "I love the powerful story of redemption and rejuvenation possible with these structures to preserve what is special and unique while finding new ways to reimagine each property."
On Chattanooga's Southside, where the shells of Wheland Foundry and U.S. Pipe stand as rusted reminders of the city's industrial past, Irwin sees the opportunity to redevelop the remaining steel beams and foundry site as a mixture of entertainment, housing, offices and recreation. With the shell of the former foundries, which were once among Chattanooga's biggest industries, Irwin is eager to frame the outfield walls of a new ballfield to be operated by the Chattanooga Lookouts. Around the stadium, Irwin sees the potential for restaurants, bars, townhomes, apartments, offices and stores.
"Whether it's space for the community to work, shop, eat or live, we believe that each property should include an interesting mix of uses, encourage walkability, and include the latest innovations in technology and sustainability," Irwin says of his approach to development.
Irwin's past projects include Ponce City Market and the Fourth Ward in Atlanta, the Neuhoff site in Nashville, and Parkview Field in Fort Wayne, among others.
At age 27, Irwin led the development of Harrison Square in Fort Wayne, Indiana, while working for the Atlanta-based Barry Real Estate Companies. The 16-acre mixed-use community is anchored by an 8,000-seat minor league ballpark associated with the San Diego Padres. Since it opened to the public, the ballpark has been named "best overall minor league baseball experience" in the country for four separate years.
The Chattanooga project reunites Irwin with Hard Ball Capital (the Atlanta-based owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts), the Fort Wayne Tincaps and the Columbia Fireflies.
* Job: Founder and president of New City LLC in Atlanta who has been picked to be the master planner for redeveloping the former Wheland Foundry and U.S. Pipe & Foundry sites on Chattanooga’s Southside* Age: 43* Career: After college, he served as a legislative aide to two U.S. senators and a U.S. representative* Education: He earned his English degree from Dartmouth College where he played football for four years and an MBA from Emory University, concentrating on real estate finance.* Personal: Jim and his wife, Elisabeth, live in Atlanta with their three children.
The Chattanooga project also resembles some of the appeal of the Ponce City Market area in Atlanta, which has grown up along the city's East Beltline pedestrian walkway. On the Southside, the former Wheland and U.S. Pipe sites border the popular Tennesee Riverwalk, which has been extended from the Chickamauga Dam all the way to St. Elmo and ultimately up Lookout Mountain.
"What attracted New City to this project was the opportunity to combine our adaptive reuse experience with our interest in building compelling places that the surrounding community can embrace," he says. "There is a powerful story that runs through this site - a key pillar of industry in the community for more than a century, and Gary Chazen and his partners have trusted us with the opportunity to help restore it for future generations."
Irwin says the more he examines the opportunity in Chattanooga, "the more excited I get when I think about what it can become."
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger project the Southside site, with a new stadium for the Lookouts, will attract at least $350 million of private investment - and Coppinger thinks the area could ultimately attract over $1 billion of projects.
Prior to founding New City six years ago, Irwin served as a senior vice president at Jamestown Properties, leading the development of Ponce City Market, which attracted such Wall Street companies as J.P. Morgan and Black Rock. Ponce City Market has emerged as one of Atlanta's top draws by converting a 2.1 million-square-foot former Sears, Roebuck & Co. distribution facility, originally built in the 1920s, into a mixed-use development along the city's beltway.
In Nashville in 2019, Irwin's group acquired the 14-acre Neuhoff site on the west bank of the Cumberland River in the eastern section of Nashville's Germantown neighborhood. The property had been constructed in the early 1920s as a meat-packing facility and was later converted into a mixed-use development, housing the Nashville Jazz Workshop and the Nashville Cultural Arts Project, among others.
"We've been successful reimagining these iconic urban sites in other cities, and I see a tremendous potential to do that in Chattanooga," Irwin says.