Chattanooga designers dream big for old Civic Forum lot

Chattanooga designers dream big for old Civic Forum lot

November 11th, 2011 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

This drawing from the urban design team for the Civic Forum shows a proposed "search engine" complex for the former Civic Forum block bounded by Market, Broad, 10th and 11th streets.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

A downtown design group wants to capitalize on Chattanooga's advanced Internet speeds and computational engineering to create a five-story "Search Engine" in the heart of downtown.

Sandwiched between the EPB and TVA power headquarters and across the street from Chattanooga's main library, the vacant block could be ideal for a research and business center for tenants ranging from the UTC SimCenter to game and animation designers.

At least that's the view of a team of architects and urban designers who outlined a plan Thursday night to help revitalize the surface parking lot in response to River City Co.'s Urban Design Challenge.

"This site was characterized in the 19th century as a railroad hub; in the 20th century, it was a transportation hub, and with its proximity now to the library and other technology facilities it currently ought to be some kind of communication hub," said Matt Brown, director of design at Franklin Associates Architects Inc. and one of a half dozen architects and designers who spent the past two months dreaming up a better use for the site.

The block bounded by Market, 10th, Broad and 11th streets has been used only for surface parking since the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce relocated and demolished its Civic Forum building in 2003.

Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., pushed the block for a site to house a new federal courthouse, but funding for the $65 million proposal did not come through.

River City Co., a downtown private nonprofit economic development company, wants to bring development back to the block in a way that helps energize the central city without simply competing for the same office or retail tenants.

In response, a team of local architects and designers proposed building a glass-and-steel office and retail complex built around an open-air, two-story courtyard. Dubbed the "Search Engine," the building could utilize EPB's gigabit-per-second Web connections and the SimCenter's high-speed computers to attract technology entrepreneurs.

With underground parking and proximity to nearby hotels, housing, restaurants and offices, the Search Engine could be an attractive site for UTC's SimCenter and the National Computational Engineering Center or alternative energy businesses wanting to be next to TVA.

Brown said the complex also could house start-up incubators such as the Lamp Post eager to be a part of the mix of downtown businesses.

Rob Taylor, president of CityScape Development Services and another member of the design team, said the proposed complex "was meant to be inspirational" and is not designed for a particular developer or builder. Taylor acknowledged the design team didn't know who might erect such a structure, what exactly it would cost or how it could be financed.

But Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, a former city planner, praised the design for "bringing the true meaning of the civic forum" as a place where research and business could come together. Such a research-oriented facility could also help spur new ideas for the city's library, which is just to the west and is being studied for new uses.

"This could be a small research triangle in the heart of the city," Littlefield said, referring to the research facilities developed in Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro, N.C.