Chattanooga planners approve zoning change for major East Brainerd residential project

Former Cigna office near Hamilton Place could be a new school with hundreds of new surrounding homes

One of North America's biggest privately-owned home building companies gained the support of an advisory planning board Monday for its plans for a $200 million residential development on one of the largest undeveloped sites in East Brainerd.

Empire Communities, which has already built more than 28,000 homes in 90 communities, is proposing to buy and develop more than 72 acres surrounding the former Cigna office complex on Goodwin Road, which the insurance company closed two years ago when it shifted its employees to remote work. Hamilton County is considering the 18-acre Cigna office site for a new school, and Empire is proposing to use the rest of the Cigna property, along with the adjacent former AMC theater complex, for a variety of residential projects.

Under the rezoning plans endorsed Monday by the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission, the developer is proposing to build 230 single-family homes, 351 apartment units and 200 independent senior living units around the proposed new school.

"Empire Communities has tried to take a holistic approach to this development and bring a quality development in this area with green spaces and connections to the school site," said Mike Price, owner of MAP Engineers, which is working on the site plan for Empire Communities. "This is a more restrictive zoning from the current zoning, and it will help provide the housing needed in this area."

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But during a public hearing Monday, a couple of residents in the neighboring Drake Forest subdivision spoke against the project, claiming it will devalue their property and be contrary to the more spacious residential character of the area.

William Lloyd, a homeowner on Galahad Road, said he and other homeowners in Drake Forest are still trying to recover from the tornadoes in April 2020 that ripped through East Brainerd and destroyed or damaged several homes along Galahad Road, Peterson Drive and Camelot Lane.

"Two years after the Easter 2020 tornadoes, our neighborhood is nowhere near rebuilt, and it could take several more years before our neighborhood is fully restored," Lloyd told the planning commission Monday. 'This project proposes further destruction of the neighborhood through the complete deforestation of the property in an area that has been a natural boundary for Drake Forest for decades ... In this application, there is no indication of any concern for the neighbors in Drake Forest."

But Price said the developers will provide a vegetation buffer between the new development and Drake Forest, which is more than what is required under the existing zoning for the site. Currently in its office zoning by the city, multistory commercial offices could be built with paved and lighted parking lots close to the back of the Drake Forest subdivision.

"We would be happy if the residents of Drake Forecast would like to give us a list of trees they want us to plant," Price said.

Price also said under the new proposed development, there would be some community space along a stream that runs through the property.

Chattanooga City Council Chairman Darren Ledford, a member of the planning commission, said the city is working to rebuild streets and make improvements in Drake Forest after the 2020 tornadoes, and he said the zoning changes endorsed by planners should give homeowners more protection than what was allowed for development under the current zoning, even though the Cigna land was never developed.

Barry Payne, a Chattanooga developer and another member of the planning commission, said homebuyers today are looking for smaller residential lots and the proposal by Empire Communities seems better suited for the site than earlier, larger lot subdivisions built in East Brainerd.

"It seems like a very thoughtful plan, and I think it would be good for our community," he said.

The Chattanooga City Council will consider the rezoning request in July.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter at @dflessner1.