Roadtrip: Chattanooga

January 11, 2008 12 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

After being recognized by the federal government as the city with the worst air quality in the country, the Dynamo of Dixie is back with a vengence and a strong focus on downtown redevelopment. Can Jacksonville learn anything from Chattanooga's rebirth?


Chattanooga Population 2006: 168,293 (City); 496,704 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1839)

Jacksonville Pop. 2006: 790,689 (City); 1,277,997 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); Chattanooga (131,041)


Brief History

Chattanooga was founded in 1815, as a trading post on the Tennessee River.  After the Civil War, Chattanooga became a major railroad and manufacturing center and was known as the "Dynamo of Dixie" by the 1930s.  However, the industries that fed the city's early economy would also lead to its downfall. 

In 1969, the federal government declared Chattanooga's air quality as the dirtiest in the nation.  By the 1980's things got worse when local mills shut down due to the shrinking industrial base in the United States.  In 1985, the city began work to repair its tarnished image by concentrating on the revitalization of its downtown with the creation of the Tennessee Riverpark Master Plan.  In 1988, construction started on the Tennessee Aquarium, which was completed in 1992.  Today, Downtown Chattanooga is nationally recognized for the success it has achieved in its efforts to revitalize the core.

"Downtown is the one place that distinguishes Chattanooga from all other cities in the world.  Downtown is our community living room - where we come when we want to be together to celebrate the things we like best about ourselves and about our community."
1993 Downtown Plan


Downtown Riverfront

Downtown's riverfront has become the epicenter of the city's tourism industry.  Here' visitors will find the Tennessee Aquarium, Creative Discovery Museum, a movie cinema, an IMAX 3D Theater, the Hunter Museum of American Art, a minor league ballpark, the nation's second longest pedestrian bridge, and a visitor's center within a four block walk of each other.  A majority of these attractions and nearby hotels, share two large parking garages with retail at street level.



Restaurants, bars, and specialty shops, mixed in with a few older surface parking lots, lie between the riverfront attractions and the financial center of downtown. One thing that really stands out in downtown Chattanooga is the urban layout of new development.  All new infill projects have been designed to front and interact with the sidewalk.




Financial District

The historical commercial heart of downtown is home to an impressive collection of historic mid and high-rises, along with modern office complexes and hotels.





The Chattanooga Convention Center

The Chattanooga Convention Center opened in 2003 and offers over 312,000 square feet of convention space, including 100,000 square feet of continuous exhibition space.  The convention center is connected to a 16 story, 342 room Marriott hotel.  Combined, the convention center, hotel and adjoining parking garage take up a four block section of downtown, between the financial core and the Southside.



Chattanooga Southside

In 1997, the Chattanooga City Council adopted a plan to redevelop the Southside, a blighted former industrial district, into a mixed-used urban neighborhood.  Ten years later, this section of town has seen an equal amount of infill and adaptive reuse development.







Bonus image: This image captures an underground waterfall inside of Lookout Mountain, which is located just south of the city.



For more information on the rebirth of Downtown Chattanooga:


What Can Jacksonville Learn?

There are a lot of things our community and city leaders could learn from the success and failures of Chattanooga, despite the community being one third our size.  It is easy to see that all new infill development is held to a high design standards with a heavy focus on pedestrian movement.  All new buildings front the street and embrace pedestrians with entrances or display windows.  All new garages have been designed with street retail in highly visible spots. 

However, the most important feature downtown Chattanooga has been successful at is urban infill housing.  Over the past decade, a major focus has been bringing desolate urban neighborhoods back to life by restoring older structures with new uses and adding infill loft development, as opposed to creating vacant lots and surface parking. 

The success of the urban residential sector surrounding downtown has led to market rate commercial development in the heart of the core.  Locally, we have the opportunity for similar development in sections of the core like Brooklyn, LaVilla, and the Cathedral District.  If our inner core neighborhoods can be strengthened with market rate infill and the redevelopment of existing building stock, the prospects for the downtown core become much stronger.