Opinion: Re-imagining Chattanooga’s Broad Street has promise

Rendering by Dover Kohl / This vision of Broad Street shows two-way traffic on one side with the other side lined by a supersized sidewalk with park-like features for pedestrians, dining and bicyclists.

Here we are again in Chattanooga "re-imagining" something. This time, we're re-imagining Broad Street as "a park with a street" running through it.

"Three visions of Broad Street in downtown Chattanooga have emerged from months of study and public feedback around making it safer, greener and livelier, and each see the road narrowed from four to two lanes of traffic," reads our front page story Tuesday. It continues:

"Wider sidewalks and more outdoor dining along with better bike lanes are common threads through the three draft versions that will undergo more scrutiny in coming weeks ..."

Haven't we been here before? A lot?

Answer: Yes. And sometimes with more success than other times.

We don't mean -- completely -- to sound so skeptical and sarcastic about "re-imagining" this street or that. After all, we re-imagined a once old cluttered warehouse section by the river into the Tennessee Aquarium that sparked life back into Chattanooga's downtown.

It was so successful that it later doubled in space and then morphed into the 21st Century Waterfront. Along the way, we also re-imagined the empty spaces between the Tennessee River and its nearest streets to gift ourselves the Tennessee Riverwalk and Coolidge Park.

And make no mistake: The Riverwalk, the Waterfront, the Aquarium and Coolidge Park were assuredly gifts -- not just to ourselves but to every newcomer and visitor arriving in Chattanooga.

No matter the naysayers at the time dubbing the aquarium plan "a fish tank." Specifically, they named it after its seed funder, Coca-Cola magnate Jack Lupton, derisively calling it "Jack's fish tank." Well, Jack was right.

On the other hand, some of our re-imaginings have not quite been so successful. Like the 2015 plan to revamp Third Street along the Erlanger Medical Campus.

Although the renderings were inviting -- as renderings often are -- nothing has happened. If that possible project is still on the books somewhere, no one's talking about it to us. Which says plenty.

But back to Broad Street.

We think this has some promise. Especially with the part of the plan that does away with curbs and merges bike lanes with the sidewalk -- rather than our last disastrous combined car/bike plan that narrowed streets and put bike lanes meandering everywhere in walled off or painted areas that created even more hazards to pedestrians, cyclists and drivers trying to park or make turns.

And let's be honest, this plan needs to carry some promise. According to the proposal's reveal, 60% of Broad Street between Aquarium Way and Fourth Street can be characterized by "nonactive frontage." That's a far-too-nice way of saying vacant or largely ghosted storefronts.

The proposal notes the road there "is not only overly wide, but it also features nearly full city blocks of blank facades and surface parking lots."

Yes, the pandemic (and recent years of downtown vitality complacency) seems to have lulled at least a portion of Broad Street back to its pre-Aquarium days and to what one of our former county mayors, the late Dalton Roberts, described as colorfully as only he could: "You could fire a cannon down Broad Street and not hit a soul."

Well, folks, we can't afford to go back there. Not even in just a few blocks.

So log on to broadstreetcha.com and look at the designs, funded by the Lyndhurst Foundation, Benwood Foundation, the city of Chattanooga and River City.

The designers and River City say they are seeking your input to go along with the more than 1,000 Chattanooga-area residents who have already completed an online survey as part of the planning effort that began in late 2022.

Let's put the old "Jack's fish tank" type of cynicism aside and be part of tomorrow's Chattanooga.