“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anaïs Nin
Organizations That Shape the Future of the City
By Chelsea Risley
Featured Image: Rendering of the Bend by Dover, Kohl & Partners
A growing, evolving city exhibits developments large and small that not only improve quality of life for current residents, but also attract visitors and new residents. These impressive plans require creative collaboration between organizations and shape the city in a myriad of ways from changing the skyline to increasing the connection between community members. Here, we talked with the leaders of several local organizations that have a hand in shaping our city about their mission, ongoing projects, and community involvement.
An aerial view of the Porch Project by Andrew Wang, WMWA Landscape Architects
Chattanooga has had many success stories of large-scale redevelopment projects, like the 21st Century Waterfront Plan, drafted in 2000 by local non-profit and economic development engine River City Company. This project transformed the Riverfront and Ross’s Landing from highways and parking lots to what it is today – a place for both residents and visitors to enjoy Chattanooga’s natural beauty and character.
As president and CEO Emily Mack describes it, River City Company aims to create an inclusive, world-class downtown for everyone “by fostering a vibrant and thriving downtown that is the economic, social, and cultural center of Chattanooga.” This mission is demonstrated by several more recently completed projects, including the redevelopment of Walnut Plaza, Patten Parkway, and Miller Park. All have been successful thanks to the “devoted, visionary, and collaborative teams that made them happen,” Mack says.
Walnut Plaza, in particular, was a joint effort between River City Company, The Ed Johnson Memorial Project, and the City of Chattanooga to optimize pedestrian safety and comfort in one of the most-used public spaces in the city. During that process, Mack explains, “the independently formed group of residents, historians, artists, and community leaders came together to lead the Ed Johnson Memorial Project and create a memorial to acknowledge the lynching, honor courageous work, and promote racial healing and reconciliation in Chattanooga.”
With support from many community partners and sponsors, the Ed Johnson Memorial Project Committee led the project by raising the funds and selecting the artist to tell the narrative history of this event and expand the public’s knowledge of its significance. This idea of redevelopment being about more than just profit, convenience, or beauty is something Eric Myers, the executive director of Chattanooga Design Studio, a people-centered urban design nonprofit, emphasized as well. “There are spaces in the city that hold a lot of deep pain, but also a lot of really beautiful spaces for redemption,” he says.
Both projects combined the expertise of artists, engineers, landscape architects, and urban designers in partnership with funding organizations and the City of Chattanooga to create a beautiful and meaningful addition to the city’s downtown and demonstrate that the longevity of these significant projects can outlast trends or political administrations. The City of Chattanooga is a key player in these city-defining projects, and every administration is invested in creating something that lasts far beyond their term. Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly acknowledged the years of work done on the Ed Johnson Memorial Project before his term and emphasized his pride in participating in the memorial’s unveiling. “I ran for office to tackle Chattanooga’s biggest challenges and projects, and I feel we are really starting to make some exciting progress,” he said.
Another, smaller-scale example of a project designed for connection is the Porch Project, completed in 2020. In collaboration with many local partners and the residents of Patten Towers, Chattanooga Design Studio identified a high-use social place and redesigned it to both better suit the community’s needs and provide a place for increased connection and new traffic. Among other elements, they added more flexible seating options that offered space for games and parties as well as art and landscaping. This demonstrates what Myers believes to be their purpose, explaining their role as “community weavers” that “unite the community by creating plans for accessible, timeless spaces that both honor the past and change the way the community sees a vision for decades.”
Projects in the Works
A look at a few of the existing current and upcoming large-scale developments in the Chattanooga area.
This rendering by Dover, Kohl & Partners re-imagines Broad Street to feel like a street within a park.
Reimagining Broad Street
Chattanooga Design Studio, City of Chattanooga, River City Company
This project stemmed from community feedback and ideas to improve Broad Street and the connection between Downtown and the Riverfront. The resulting designs were pedestrian-oriented public spaces that are safer, greener, and livelier that will support both current and future Downtown businesses. Once the designs were complete, residents were able to voice their opinions on which design options the City of Chattanooga should consider. Learn more at broadstreetcha.com
Chattanooga Design Studio, Chattanooga Football Club Foundation, Chattanooga Parks & Outdoors, Sculpture Fields at Montague Park
With input from community stakeholders and the overall goal of unifying the distinct parts of the park, this project intends to bring together Sculpture Fields, Chattanooga Football Club Foundation, and Main Street Farmers Market in a redesign that supports a safer, more comfortable and welcoming park to serve the community. Learn more at montaguepark.com
The One Westside plan encompasses over 300 acres west of Downtown to the riverfront that will be transformed by the The Bend and Westside Evolves. Learn more about how these projects are connected at onewestside.info
Urban Story Ventures
Inspired by community input in 2018, The Bend will redevelop 120 acres of former iron and steel mills to connect residents to the riverfront with a mixed-use extension of Downtown. Walkable and vehicle-optional, the space will offer workspaces, retail, diverse residential options, green spaces, Riverwalk access, a marina, and entertainment and recreation spaces.Learn more at thebendchattanooga.com
Chattanooga Design Studio, Chattanooga Housing Authority, City of Chattanooga
The planning process for Westside Evolves began with a community advisory group of Westside residents and stakeholders to create a 10-year roadmap for equitable, sustainable, and holistic revitalization of the community. This will include diverse and inclusive housing, green spaces, improved and enhanced transit routes, and new community hubs. Learn more at westsideevolves.com
The Chattanooga Music Census identified ways to support the local music scene. Photo Courtesy of Chattanooga Tourism Co.
Everyone Should Have a Seat at the Table
Aside from designing and funding entities, there are several other key players that need to come together for new visions of Chattanooga to come to fruition including the art, hospitality, and outdoor sectors.
Public art is one of Chattanooga’s priorities and makes up some of the most recognizable elements of the city – think the Sculpture Fields, The Passage, and the Biennial Sculpture Exhibition – but investment in the arts goes beyond what we can see Downtown. “Socially, economically, and culturally, the arts sector is an incredible engine for making Chattanooga what it is today. The arts and culture workforce is critical to Chattanooga being, and remaining, a great place to live, work, and play,” emphasizes James McKissic, President of ArtsBuild, a local arts nonprofit.
Art in our community is essential – according to a recent Americans for the Arts report, the arts and culture sector generates $172 million in economic impact for Hamilton County. To that end, ArtsBuild is working to increase opportunities for artists in the area with projects including equity grants for individual artists. As McKissic explains, “The arts should be foundational partners on any project, not an afterthought. By excluding the arts, we miss out on so much innovation, creativity, and problem-solving.”
Barry White, president and CEO of Chattanooga Tourism Co., expresses a similar sentiment about the tourism industry’s involvement in large-scale city projects: “Everybody should have a seat at the table and an opportunity to participate. We obviously want to make sure that the voices of both the visitor and the local hospitality industry are heard in part of the planning.” One of those recent projects, launched in partnership with the City of Chattanooga and ArtsBuild, is the 2022 Chattanooga Music Census. It identifies areas for improvement and growth in the city’s music industry and aims to provide more support and create new opportunities for the local music scene.
Chattanooga Tourism Co.’s work also includes sharing what makes Chattanooga great with visitors worldwide. To aid in that endeavor, the new Information Center was recently unveiled. Located in the Aquarium Plaza, the building itself “communicates Chattanooga’s brand in the architectural design and materials used. It’s small but it’s mighty, and we hope that residents and visitors use the wealth of information there,” Barry White explains.
In addition to making sure information about the city is available, the City of Chattanooga is committed to making sure the best parts of the city are accessible to everyone. For example, the City partners with the Trust for Public Land to expand residents’ access to clean, safe parks and green spaces. Myers reiterates the importance of this, explaining that “connectivity and preservation of green space and how it transmutes to our health and well-being has never been clearer in the United States. And that’s very true in this city; it’s essential.” Creating new green spaces and creatively adapting existing public spaces is a priority for many upcoming projects in the area to help further this responsibility to equity and connection.
The new Chattanooga Information Center in Aquarium Plaza. Photo Courtesy of Chattanooga Tourism Co.
Community Engagement Changes the City
Without the community at the core of their work, these visionaries could not make changes in the landscape of Chattanooga. Jimmy White, president and general partner of Urban Story Ventures, affirms this, saying “community input is mission critical in the success of a project. Through community input and well-thought-out plans and execution, these large-scale projects will leave a lasting positive impact.”
McKissic sums up a similar community-centered philosophy like this: “Listen and be led by the community. Authentic community engagement takes time, but it is worth it!” Ventures like these don’t happen overnight, and as Mack says, “We recognize that our work is never finished and that there is always room for improvement to make Downtown more inclusive and welcoming to all.”
(Image #1 and #2) Photos Courtesy of River City Co., (Image #3) Photo by Kelly Lacy/Make Beautiful
“Volunteer or join a board! City Hall can only do so much – the real power in Chattanooga is in the fabric of community, and we rely on good board governance in our local nonprofits and civic boards to make Chattanooga work.”
– Mayor Tim Kelly, City of Chattanooga
“Many residents connect with us by following our River City Company and Chattanooga Downtown social media accounts. We also regularly seek volunteers to help us at our events. For example, Gratefull, Chattanooga’s downtown Thanksgiving celebration, seeks hundreds of community members to support the event through setup, serving of food, and engaging with attendees.”
– Emily Mack, River City Company
“At ArtsBuild community members can get involved by volunteering to help us review grants and make funding decisions. They can also participate in one of our arts leadership programs, like the Holmberg Arts Leadership Institute or Opportunity Fellows.”
– James McKissic, ArtsBuild
“People are experts on their cities through their lived experience, so it’s essential that we engage people in processes about the future. We’re doing that through targeted engagement with the public for a specific improvement to a park or open space, and discussing the ethos of the city through educational programs with Design Your Neighborhood program for youth, and CIVIQ, which is a quarterly speaker series.”
– Eric Myers, Chattanooga Design Studio
“Great cities, great communities don’t just happen. It takes the community itself to create that vision and pursue it. Attend planning meetings, fill out surveys, join social media groups – just be engaged and involved.”
– Barry White, Chattanooga Tourism Co.
“Chattanooga has a lot of opportunities for volunteers through different organizations, and everyone in the community has their own interests. Giving your time is the easiest way to get involved.”