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Staff photo by Mike Pare / The former McMahan Law Firm office site at Fourth and High street would hold new townhouses under a proposal.

A proposal for more downtown Chattanooga townhomes near an array of new residential building projects has been denied by a city panel worried how the units would sit on a well-known block on a major artery.

Chattanooga builder Calvin Ball had sought a variance to construct the six-townhouse project at Fourth and High streets, which for many years held the McMahan Law Firm, one of the city's biggest personal injury groups.

"It's simply a topographical situation we have here," the project's general contractor told the city's Form-Based Code Committee on Thursday as he wanted the variance due to the slope of the lot.

Plans are to demolish the existing structure and construct the half-dozen townhouses. That part of downtown between disability insurer Unum and the riverfront is seeing a flurry of new townhomes and apartments.

The city code calls for a maximum height from the street curb along the front of the building to the first floor to be up to five feet. But the townhouse drawings showed a height of about 18 feet on two or three of the most western units.

"We feel we are intending to develop this property within the FBC regulations in general but this one item is difficult to remedy," the variance application said.

Lee Helena Jr. of Chattanooga, who opposed the variance, said in an email to the panel that the proposal would create "a man-made cliff." He said the project should go on the existing grade of the lot.

Panel member Denise Shaw said the builder's proposal "doesn't seem friendly from a pedestrian approach."

"We're trying to create a walkable city," she said. Shaw said the plan "doesn't seem like it addresses conditions of the site. It's not appropriate for downtown."

Ball said that without the variance, driveways to garages in the rear of some of the townhouses would be "really steep."

"It could make the garage unusable," he said.

After discussion by panel members, committee Chairman Jim Williamson said it's not their job to redesign the development.

"We could sit here all day long and redesign his project but that's not what we're here for," he said.

The panel voted down the variance. Ball was told he could tweak the design and come back next month.

He said after the meeting that he "didn't know if we can make it work."

A couple of blocks away on Fourth Street, a developer is building apartments, townhomes and a 163-space parking garage in a project called River Rock. Also, work is finishing up on high-end townhomes between Cherry and Walnut streets near the Tennessee River.

In 2019, the McMahan law firm remodeled and added nearly 2,000 square-foot to an 11,834-square-foot building at 701 Cherokee Blvd. in North Chattanooga and shifted its offices.

This past April, High Street Property Partners LLC bought the old law office site for $1.25 million.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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