Opinion: Long-awaited downtown park announced 50 years ago didn’t stop city’s vision for parks

Staff File Photo By Olivia Ross / From left, Jayda Mitchell, Luke McMahon, Julia Germann and Sam Young paint a mural during a workshop hosted the Splash Summer Arts Festival at Miller Park on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023.
Staff File Photo By Olivia Ross / From left, Jayda Mitchell, Luke McMahon, Julia Germann and Sam Young paint a mural during a workshop hosted the Splash Summer Arts Festival at Miller Park on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023.

Fifty years ago this week, plans were announced for a downtown park sought by many Chattanoogans for perhaps another 50 years.

"The park assures that Chattanoogans will have a downtown area worthy of the pride we all feel in our city," Mayor Robert Kirk Walker said at the time.

What is today known as Miller Park is included in a list of what the city of Chattanooga website calls its signature parks. With the exception of Warner Park, it is now the oldest park on the list, though it underwent a $10 million redesign in 2018.

The fact it is the second oldest on the list speaks to the work that has been done since in a downtown that then-City Commissioner Steve Conrad characterized as moving too slowly in a 1972 speech to the Civitan Club.

The city website describes the park — "Chattanooga's answer to the modern public square" — as blending "with the city context while also paying homage to the landscape" of the area with a limestone and sandstone outcropping art space that reflects "the geology and mountainous topography of the Chattanooga area." It also houses the EPB Community Stage, which serves as a venue for a variety of community gatherings.

A roomy downtown park had been sought for many years before the 1973 announcement. Indeed, in the last 100 years, newspaper archives show suggestions for a downtown park as early as 1929.

In 1944, architect Harrison Gill proposed a European-like plaza on the very block where Miller Park sits today. Within the plaza, on the corner of Georgia Avenue and 10th Street where the community stage is today, he envisioned a memorial to the area World War II dead. The plaza didn't get traction, but a WWII memorial of sorts was erected on Patten Parkway (and removed during the renovation of the parkway during the Berke mayoral administration).

The call picked up steam in the late 1950s around what was then termed "urban renewal," railroad relocation and the construction of the interstate highways

Then-Mayor P.R. Olgiati included it in his 10-point plan for re-election in 1963, a race he lost to attorney Ralph Kelley.

But when fire destroyed several buildings fronting Market Street on the block in question in early 1964, Kelley floated the idea for a park, leaving only the relatively new First Federal Savings & Loan Building in place. Gill shared his 1944 drawing with the mayor, and the city garden clubs organization backed the idea. But the private property in question could not be acquired.

Kelley raised the idea with the commission again four years later and even hinted federal funds might be available. But less than a year later, in January 1969, the mayor resigned to become a referee in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

Businessmen, including Walker, contemplating a run for mayor in 1971, still savored the idea.

Meanwhile, Conrad, in his aforementioned 1972 address to the Civitans, painted a picture of a downtown park as "a place for cool feet on a hot day ... a good place for a sack lunch, a good book ... a place to go, to sit, to watch and to be ... a place where you can feel magic ..."

Walker, in his televised state of the city address in February 1973, put a park fifth on his list of seven goals for the year. And by the time he announced plans for the park in September, he already had $1 million from private donors to buy the property on the block and expected the commission would pony up $500,000, which it did.

In comments about the project, the mayor noted that in Europe "virtually every town, no matter how small, has a centrally located area set aside for beauty's sake alone rather than for any utilitarian purpose."

Finished in 1975 and named for the family of Chattanooga philanthropist and park proponent Burkett Miller, it was described by one writer as an "urban oasis of trees and flowers."

Around noon one day last week, the park hosted around a dozen people, one eating her lunch at the metal table on the plaza bordering the park, another thumbing through her cellphone, several men shortcutting through the expanse and the rest homeless community members chilling on benches or the grass.

Brian Smith, a spokesperson for the city's parks and outdoors department, said officials are happy with usage of the park for planned events such as festivals, concerts, movies and performances (100-plus reservations over the last two years) and gratified "the grounds and structures" — including a focal point for native plants along Market Street — "have performed well."

But since standing still is often falling behind, he said the department recently was awarded $100,000 from the Benwood Foundation to enhance the audio and visual components of the stage, which will allow planners to bring in more performances and concerts. Additional plans include adding dressing rooms behind the stage and updating the electrical access in the park.

Talked about for nearly 50 years, a downtown Chattanooga park is now 50 years from the announcement of its creation. And thanks to city leaders since then, it is only one jewel in a bold, long-term parks plan announced this summer that should permanently separate the city from the place Conrad in 1972 said moved too slowly.

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