Sohn: South Broad blight offers new renaissance opportunity

Sohn: South Broad blight offers new renaissance opportunity

February 25th, 2018 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

What’s next?

The Chattanooga Design Studio will present and discuss the South Broad Street District Plan from 5 to 6:30 p.m, Monday night in meeting room 1A at the Development Resource Center, 1250 Market St. The plan will go to the planning commission in March and be presented again to the Chattanooga City Council for approval in April.

Not too many years ago, Chattanooga's South Broad area teemed with workers wearing hardhats and carrying lunchboxes into the Wheland, Combustion, U.S. Pipe and Eureka foundries.

The streets were dirty, and the air carried the scent of sweat, metal and good wages.

For better and worse, those days are gone, and we're left with the ghostly rusting ruins of yesteryear's industry. Scores of surrounding acres — about 400 — are now largely fallow, dotted with empty, crumbling parking lots and rundown homes.

We've been here before.

Longtime Chattanooga residents will remember when the 21st Century Waterfront was a freight and barge dumping ground at the edge of the Tennessee River. They'll recall the beautiful Coolidge Park and North Shore was once the weedy home for a local Coast Guard station and shabby vintage houses. They may recollect when Southside was one street of derelict and often vacant buildings after another.

Thank goodness, through the years we've had people with vision, ambition and determination to invest imagination, time and money — private and public — into turning those Chattanooga lemons into lemonade.

Now it's time to do it again — this time in our city's South Broad District.

For all the recent growth of our downtown, the South Broad area has captured a mere 1 percent of the more than $1 billion in new investment over the past three years, according to a new study of the area.

But a new 128-page plan, "The South Broad District Study: A Vision for Revitalization," suggests the blocks south of Interstate 24 along and around Broad Street could join in Chattanooga's renaissance with the addition of new sports facilities, parks and zoning rules to allow new types of urban housing and retail development.

The Chattanooga Design Studio, using the ideas voiced by 250 people who attended a series of public meetings last fall, parlayed those suggestions into a plan aimed at enticing more residents, businesses and visitors south of the freeway.

That "vision" borrows a page from the renaissance of the Ross's Landing with the Tennessee Aquarium by suggesting the relocation of the Chattanooga Lookouts AA minor league baseball stadium into the former Wheland Foundry and U.S. Pipe & Foundry area to "serve as a catalyst" and "serve as anchor to new investment."

Similar stadium projects in six other comparable cities did just that, according to the study, and demolishing the current Lookouts stadium atop Hawk Hill downtown along Highway 27 in downtown Chattanooga would open up more riverfront land and development in an already high-dollar area to generate more tax revenue for the city.

The proposal also suggests taking advantage of already-announced improvements to track and sports facilities at The Howard School, returning a middle school to the Howard campus, capitalizing on plans for a new Interstate 24 exit, taking advantage of the already extended Tennessee Riverwalk and introducing multistory homes, condos and apartments — along with parks — south of the freeway.

Yes, you probably do smell gentrification. But a deliberate effort to diversify and reinvigorate a blighted part of town, by its very definition, means change. And along with change and diverse growth comes opportunity.

Our city and county mayors seem to be on board, even quietly supportive of possible tax incentives known as Tax Increment Financing, or TIFs, to spur some of the development and pay for the public improvements.

Even Chattanooga's usual go-to critics of development tax incentives are somewhat supportive.

"This will be a classic TIF district in that it affects a blighted area and there is potential for significant job growth and gains to the city's tax base," said Helen Burns Sharp, founder of Accountability for Taxpayers Money. "This is an area that may need some public funds as a catalyst to realize its potential for redevelopment."

This plan has wonderful potential. If you want to really understand just how much potential, walk or bike the recently completely extension of the Tennessee Riverwalk west from the 21st Century Waterfront and south along the river and Broad Street, through the old foundry sites and under U.S. 27 and Interstate 24 to Saint Elmo.

Along the way, set your imagination free.

The planning — and visioning — for this newest Chattanooga challenge is still young, and you can get involved while there is still time for tweaking.

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