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Ragan+Smith Associates rendering /This rendering by Ragan+Smith Associates shows the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy's "Gateway to Chattanooga" project from a southerly view of the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard interchange with U.S. Highway 27.

Just when we thought orange barrels were the official Chattanooga flower, there is wonderful, miraculous, mind-soothing news: Those orange barrels will sprout a real garden along a major gateway to our city.

We're talking acres and acres of trees, irises, day lilies — more than 4 acres of wildflowers alone. Think of it as Interstate 124 gone botanical.

"Imagine taking a downtown off-ramp out of hectic U.S. Highway 27 traffic and gliding through a peaceful garden of blooming ornamental and native plants and trees. You might even feel your blood pressure ease."

That sentence was the first line of a story by Times Free Press reporter Ben Benton on Sunday, describing the future beautification project that was the brainchild of the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy, a nonprofit group spearheaded by former Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Neil Thomas III.

The group persuaded the city, the county and — most importantly — the Tennessee Department of Transportation to play and pay along. The plants and landscaping will be done with donations to the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy.

And while there's no final price tag on annual maintenance, the costs would be shared 50% by the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy, 25% by the city and 25% by the county with "the idea to create a fund that will sustain itself for 10 to 20 years," Thomas said. And volunteers, of course.

At the same time, there are plans afoot for a similar landscaping plan to reinvent Chattanooga's riverfront, focusing on the from Fourth Street to the river through the Cameron Hill, First Street and Bluff View areas — 122 acres in all.

The riverfront plan, driven by the nonprofit downtown redevelopment group River City, is not just landscaping, but also an art "promenade" based loosely on Las Ramblas, the popular boulevard in Barcelona, Spain. River City plans a first community meeting for this planning process on Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Tennessee Aquarium.

The idea for the landscaping along I-124 — better known to those of us who drive it every day as U.S. Highway 27 through Chattanooga — came to Thomas a couple of years ago as he drove from Chattanooga to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

"I was going to the University of North Carolina for a reunion and to get there it's easier to drive than fly," Thomas said. "I marveled at their interstate highways and how beautiful they were. So I thought, well, let's talk to North Carolina DOT and see how they did it."

Thomas did just that, and after doing some homework, he contacted TDOT. He said he first was met with a bit of eye-rolling.

"I think they must have people who come up and see them all the time about planting flowers along the interstates so I walked into that room with no credibility whatsoever," Thomas laughed. "Shawn Bible was there at that first meeting — she's the chief guru-person on beautification of the highway system in Tennessee, among other things — and so she said, 'Well, OK. We'll see.'"

But Thomas is no pushover. He stayed on TDOT, and brought muscle — Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and public works officials who knew the timing was right because TDOT already was knee deep in dirt with its $143.2 million Highway 27 reconstruction project through the downtown area.

Then TDOT put the conservancy in touch with Ragan + Smith Associates, the state agency's on-call landscape contractor.

"With their great help we have progress forward to the point now that the beautification effort is going to involve planting over 1,000 trees on the M.L. King and Fourth Street exits," Thomas said. "That's over 21 acres for 1,000 trees plus four to five acres of wildflowers, 1,300 daylilies, 1,200 blue iris and assorted other trees and other species."

This is grand planning on a grand scale. We could not be more enthusiastic about it — with just one caveat: Lean more toward native and away from non-native plants.

And, while we're at it, when do we start on the Great Walls of Chattanooga just north of downtown?

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