John "Thunder" Thornton, a Chattanooga developer who has built major scenic, upscale residential developments in East Tennessee, Wyoming, Utah, North Carolina and Hawaii, is turning his development interest closer to his North Chattanooga home with plans for what could become the largest new residential and commercial project in the city in decades.
Thornton's Thunder Enterprises last week finalized the purchase of more than 200 acres in Lupton City on the Tennessee River, where developers of the Riverton mixed-use community have drawn up plans for some 400 homes around a village of neighborhood restaurants, stores and medical offices. Although the new owners are still studying the site and developing their plans, Thornton estimates the project should bring $300 million of investment to the riverfront site as it is built out over the next five years or so.
"To have 200 acres so close to downtown Chattanooga along the Tennessee River looking across the river at forests and the beautiful Lookout Mountain in the background makes this a spectacular piece of property," Thornton said.
The site has 3,500 feet along the river just upstream from the Champions Tennis Club near the abandoned Lupton mill site where Dixie Yarns and later R.L. Stowe once operated a thread mill. The property, which includes the nine-hole Lupton City golf course, is the biggest privately owned undeveloped site on the river within Chattanooga's city limits.
Dane Bradshaw, president of Thunder Enterprises, said the new owners plan to create home sites with dense, large-acre lots that will offer residents views of the river and Lookout Mountain. Near the entrance to the complex, a commercial village is planned to offer a fitness center and other commercial amenities.
"We envision a community of the highest quality with the amenities to provide an exceptional quality of life for Riverton's future residents," Bradshaw said. "We are still in the initial planning phases, but we imagine this community will surround a village center and include important assets including a wellness center, living and working spaces, green space and walking trails."
Thornton and his investment group is buying the Riverton LLC business, which bought 210 acres for $8.1 million from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee in January 2018.
BlueCross once planned to build its headquarters complex on the site. But at the urging of then-Mayor Bob Corker, the Chattanooga-based health insurer abandoned those plans in favor of ultimately making its home atop Cameron Hill ,with a $300 million headquarters complex in downtown Chattanooga.
Becky Cope English, who was part of the original Riverton LLC development group, said their plans for residential homes around a commercial village drew praise and interest from both neighbors and investors, even before any dirt has been moved or buildings erected.
"It was so well-received, it got a lot of attention and there were several people interested in buying the business and doing the project," English said. "This happens all the time with new developments."
Thornton said he likes much of the original Riverton design, which was approved as a planned unit development last year by city planners and the Chattanooga City Council.
For its own design, Thunder Enterprises has hired an Orlando firm that specializes in urban planning and design, Canin Associates, to help develop a new master community plan which may revise and change some of Riverton's original plans.
"Our design team, made up of skilled urban planners, landscape architects and architects, is eager to get started with this exciting project in Chattanooga," said Brian Canin, president of Canin Associates. "The site is exceptional with rolling topography and outstanding views of the river. The community will be anchored by a beautiful, intimately scaled village center energized by an elegantly landscaped public square."
Thornton said he will seek to work with the city, neighbors and consultants to shape the new design and gain any required regulatory approval before work begins. He envisions homes being priced from $400,000 up to more than $1 million each, depending upon their size and location, and the project is likely to include both townhomes and large single-family homes.
Thornton said he is still undecided about whether the new Riverton will be a gated community or not and what specific types of home lots and commercial businesses he plans for the complex.
Thunder Enterprises, which has spent the past seven years developing Jasper Highlands atop Jasper Mountain in Marion County, began studying and planning for Riverton in March.
After developing a half-dozen master planned communities over the past couple of decades, Thornton said he has gotten a lot of projects pitched at him through the years.
"But this one was truly special and we're eager to get started once we finalize our plans and get whatever permits and zoning is required," he said.
The site is near where both Thornton and Bradshaw live in North Chattanooga and offers Thunder Enterprises the opportunity to undertake a more urban master planned community at a site which is only a 10-minute drive to downtown Chattanooga.
Jasper Highlands, which includes nearly 9,000 acres of rural land, required developers to erect a new road up the mountain, bring high-speed internet to the site and create new water and fire service utilities on the mountaintop.
So far, more than 700 lots have been sold along the 28 miles of roads that Thornton has built at Jasper Highlands, attracting residents to the Marion County development from 44 states and six countries. Another 28 miles of roads are envisioned as that community is built out over time.
"We've brought people to Jasper Highlands and to see Chattanooga from all over the world," Thornton said. "We know the appeal of this community right now, for retirees, for workers and for those who have grown up here."
Adding another master community like Riverton can help build at that appeal, Thornton said.
The Riverton site sits adjacent to the remnants of the largely demolished Lupton Mill on Mercer Avenue, which shut down a decade ago but has never been cleaned up.
Although the mill site remains an unsightly pile of brick rubble which has drawn the ire of its neighbors, Thornton said he was encouraged that the city has awarded a contract to Wright Brothers Construction to clean up and remediate the nearly 12-acre contaminated site.
Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at email@example.com.