Believe it or not, Chattanooga is part of ULI Atlanta’s geography which includes 1400 members across the entire state of Georgia, Alabama, and Eastern Tennessee. When a group of dedicated ULI members begin discussing the possibility of hosting an event showcasing Chattanooga – ULI Atlanta jumped at the chance to profile the parks and public real investments made in there, as the city reinvents itself through major projects such as the 21st Century Waterfront Plan and recently its renewed City Center at Miller Park. With Chattanooga committed to focusing on improving their infrastructure by adding bike lanes, sidewalks, public spaces, and trails in support of the 10-Minute Walk Campaign, the opportunity for ULI members to see the commitment in action couldn’t have come at a better time.
On April 14 and 15, Forty-five ULI members across the U.S. convened on the growing mid-sized city to learn about Chattanooga’s story first-hand.
By: McDaniel Wyatt, Regional Business Development, Humphreys & Partners Architects, and ULI Louisiana Member
Tucked halfway between the gleaming high rises of Nashville and ever-sprawling Atlanta suburbs, Chattanooga has become an intriguing market for real estate developers. Economic growth has been driven at both a large scale (think Volkswagen and Amazon) and also a more local scale – through municipal-sponsored strategic investments and partnerships that has curated a viable tech and start-up scene. Land isn’t impossible to acquire here – helping to keep construction costs in check. This has quietly led to a swell of outside investments and opportunity to develop interesting places to both live and work for The River City’s growing population and talented workforce.
When the Urban Land Institute’s Atlanta District Council offered its members to tour these new developments and hear Chattanooga’s story first hand from community leaders and stakeholders, I jumped at the opportunity. I had attended a similar market tour last year in Birmingham, and the prospect of joining our ULI colleagues from across the country – including a surprisingly strong contingent from Canada – was a great preview of the ULI Spring Meeting. Specifically, how smaller markets like Chattanooga still have to address big city issues – trying to solve the challenges of affordability, sustainability, and transit; to create a better city for all, not just its newer residents.
The day-and-a-half event, officially billed as Chattanooga Crossroads, kicked off with a welcome reception at the renovated and expanded Hunter Museum. This $22 million project was a key part of the overall $120 million 21st Century Waterfront Plan, helping to weave together the Tennessee Aquarium and Creative Discovery Museum, and create an active destination along the riverfront.
The next morning, former U.S. Senator Bob Corker and Chattanooga Mayor kicked off a breakfast discussion expanding on the implementation and fundraising for the project; highlighted by strategic highway swap with the State. This gave the city the flexibility it needed to begin the riverfront expansion, adding entertainment options, amenities, and development to both sides of the Tennessee River. Senator Corker also discussed his role in working with state leaders to lure the Volkswagen assembly plant to Chattanooga, which has brought over 2,000 high paying jobs to the region, edging out competitive bid packages from Alabama, Mississippi, and Michigan.
From there, current Mayor Andy Berke discussed how the city became the first in the US to roll out a citywide gigabet internet network. It’s now been expanded to offer 10x gigabit speeds, which had helped launch the moniker ‘Gig City’ and become a growing destination for tech companies and startups looking for an alternative to Silicon Valley. Mayor Berke also shared his vision for the city’s future – how its opportunity and entrepreneur spirit blends well with vast outdoor amenities to create what he envisions to be “The Boulder [Colorado] of the South”.
Eric Myers, head of the non-profit community resource Chattanooga Design Studio, then led a walking tour that began at the revitalized Miller Park. Formerly a passive space hidden with shrubbery and water features; it’s now been transformed into a flexible, active greenspace with weekly programming that serves as the ‘heartbeat’ of the downtown district. We then continued the tour, passing iconic turn of the century buildings that have been brought back to life, and learning of opportunities to help better connect the district to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and its 11,000 students, just a few blocks uphill to the East.
Unassuming alleyways were activated by bold public art – hinting to the popular 4 Bridges Art Festival which had wrapped up the day before – and we continued down 8th Street to the gold-plated Downtown Westin Hotel. Broker-turned-developer-turned-restaurateur-turned-event planner Ken DeFoor shared the trials and tribulations (and literal heavy lifting) of how he and his brother Byron transformed the former Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee headquarters into one of the most successful Westin concepts in the country. Bullet riddled windows were replaced, and now the Westin is a centerpiece of the West Village – a new $100 million neighborhood that has become Chattanooga’s premier place to eat, shop, and stay.
We then headed up to the rooftop of the Edney Innovation Center – one of the tallest buildings downtown and front door to the Innovation District. The 360 degree views really helped put into perspective what we had toured at ground level. Just off to the distance near Lookout Mountain, we saw BCBSTN’s gleaming new campus atop Cameron Hill, which made room for the DeFoor Brother’s West Village neighborhood. Across the street, the historic Patten Tower is in the process of being preserved to house low-income and senior tenants. There was Miller Park, and just a few blocks away, and The Southside Historic District – home to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, and organic growth that has sparked 1,000 newly constructed market rate apartment units and entertainment options.
After a lunch session hosted by the innovators at The Enterprise Center, we made our way up Broad Street toward the river. In one of the more creative placemaking efforts I’ve seen, we passed a boulder gym had been built out from the side of a structured parking garage. The massive garages were needed for Chattanooga’s most popular attraction – The Tennessee Aquarium. That’s just one of the many exciting changes in the 25 years since my last visit here, and it was a fitting place to begin the Riverfront portion of our tour. We walked along the banks of the Tennessee River, and saw how the 21st Century Waterfront Plan led to development of high end condos and apartment buildings along the riverfront, complete with boat-slips and public art.
Our day ended at Tennessee Whiskey event hall – a former car dealership showroom with views of a now dormant Alstom Power industrial site. Jill Allen with homegrown Urban Story Ventures shared their vision to repurpose the 90 acre site into an exciting mix of industrial, entertainment, and residential tenant with the goal to create Chattanooga’s ‘Next Great Neighborhood’.
As we finished our Moscow Mules, it was time to say goodbye to our ULI colleagues and shift our focus 140 miles northwest to the ULI Spring Meeting. While Chattanooga can’t quite boast Nashville’s claim of 100 new residents per day, it has bottled an exciting product that has the attention of real estate professionals from across the Southeast region.
McDaniel Wyatt handles Business Development for Humphreys & Partners Architect’s Southeast Studio in New Orleans and sits on the Management Committee for ULI Louisiana. As a guest of ULI Atlanta, he was asked to recount the Chattanooga Crossings event that took place ahead of the ULI’s Spring Meeting in Nashville on April 14 – 16.