The Making of a District

Looking Back Over 20 Years of Development on Chattanooga’s Southside

How do you turn a vacated and run-down city corridor into a thriving cultural district? If you were to ask today’s urban developers and civic leaders, the answers would most likely boil down to one thing: “A sense of place.’’

By Laura Childers



In the past 30 years, a new wave of economic development called “placemaking’’ has emerged across the nation. Defined by the Project for Public Spaces as “both an overarching idea and a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood,’’ it puts the community itself – and its unique values and strengths – at the very center of all of its development efforts. At its heart is a value for creating authentic, locally-driven live-work-play communities.


Darlene Brown

In Austin, Texas, for example, a city that has long been touted for its vibrant downtown, placemaking efforts began in the late ‘90s. Leaders from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, City of Austin, and the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects collaborated to bring an urban design team to the city to assist in planning the revitalization of downtown. Using a grassroots-style approach to development, the team began by asking city residents, “What can be done to revitalize our downtown?” Now Austin is a prime destination for young professionals who love its iconic places, spaces, and festivals, and it’s the fastest growing city by a wide margin among our country’s 25 largest cities.

Chattanooga’s Southside district has its own placemaking story to tell, and while it may follow a common urban revitalization narrative, its flavor is all its own. The past 20 years have seen the Chattanooga community coming together to identify – and capitalize on – the distinct traits that make the Southside a one-of-a-kind place to be. Now what began as a community visioning process in the mid-’90s is a thriving cultural corridor with its own set of distinct values.


Community Visioning and Urban Design

Stroud Watson

Stroud Watson

One of the earliest blueprints for the Southside district came out of a study commissioned by Chattanooga’s River City Company in the mid-to-late ’90s.

“There were a couple of things happening in 96 and 97 before I was mayor, the first being River City Company getting more than 100 people together in a community visioning process,” recalls developer and former Mayor Jon Kinsey, who is widely recognized as one of the key players in the Southside’s revitalization. “I was one of several people who came together to envision what we thought the Southside should or could look like.”

A series of public meetings were held, as well as a design workshop led by legendary Chattanooga urban planner Stroud Watson. The outcome was the “South Central Business District Plan,” which called for a new football stadium, an expansion of the convention center, improved housing, greening of the neighborhood, and commercial development.

Jon Kinsey

Jon Kinsey

Jon Kinsey says the thriving business corridor we see now harkens back to this initial urban planning. “From the very beginning, we envisioned Main Street and Market Street as a business hub,” he says.

This visioning coincided with that of a grassroots organization called Community Impact, spearheaded by a public-private partnership composed of a number of area foundations. “We began working with the long-term residents to talk about what kind of neighborhood they wanted it to become,” says Sarah Morgan, president of the Benwood Foundation and a long-term champion of Chattanooga’s Southside. “We worked with existing property owners and brought in local developers to see how they could make it happen. This was a neighborhood-led effort from the very beginning.”


“Attention to design was threaded through the residential work,” Morgan continues. “It was exciting to see first-time residential developers involved and how proud they were of their work. What was also important was the vision for a mix of incomes and uses and different types of housing.”

Architects Heidi Hefferlin and Craig Kronenberg opened their firm on Chattanooga’s Southside in 1999. Neighborhood cheerleaders from the beginning, they have designed several Southside buildings and were responsible for founding the Southside Cowart Place Neighborhood Association which has since planted more than 240 trees in the area and built a park at Battle Academy.

Kim White

Kim White

“Urban design played a big part!” recalls Heidi Hefferlin of those early years. “Stroud Watson had a tremendous impact on our city, and there was a lot of attention paid to the design and the actual street experience. Design pays off economically by creating beautiful places and buildings that people want to occupy and be around.”



Community and Municipal Support

Vision in hand, the community needed a way to bring it to fruition. Enter: public-private partnerships.

In 1996, construction began on the $28.5 million Finley Stadium – financed by private donations ($10.2 million), the city and county ($13 million), the State of Tennessee ($3.5 million), and the University of Tennessee ($2.9 million).

Meanwhile, city officials won the support of the state for a Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) – a form of financing in which bonds are issued to complete a project and any increase in state sales tax generated by that project is designated to pay off the bonds.

City voters also approved a referendum imposing a local option sales tax. “Gene Roberts
was mayor and there was a ballot initiative for a 1% sales tax increase,” says Jon Kinsey. “Half of the revenue from the new tax was designated to support economic development.”

Bob Doak

Bob Doak

The TDZ funds and new sales tax revenues supported a $117 million bond issue to fund the expansion of the convention center, construction of an environmentally friendly building to house city and county offices, and the construction of The Chattanoogan Hotel.

The South Central Business District (or Southside) plan moved forward. By 2002, Finley Stadium was hosting games, the Chattanoogan Hotel was luring in tourists, and the Convention Center had tripled in size.

“At that time you had these big projects with public dollars to help grow the city in a balanced way,” says Hefferlin. “These were key moves.”



Building an Infrastructure

The late ‘90s and early 2000s also saw an intense focus on making the Southside a place where people not only wanted to visit, but to live. A worn-down industrial area, it had inflated levels of crime and had earned the nickname “Rustville.”

“It hadn’t been a healthy neighborhood for years,” says Morgan. “We knew that if we wanted to renew a commercial corridor on Main, we needed the residential rooftops to fuel it.”

Adam Kinsey

Adam Kinsey

“I would say Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE) was probably the biggest force for change in our neighborhood,” says Hefferlin, who, as a longtime Southside resident, has lived to see the change. “They had a plan by nationally acclaimed urban design firm Dover Kohl. Out of that came a vision for Cowart Place townhomes in 2001, and later the Fort Negley and Jefferson Heights neighborhoods.”

The Lyndhurst Foundation began partnering with CNE and the city in an intense residential development focus, and hired Bob McNutt and Donna Williams as residential consultants to complement CNE. 

“There is an adage in urban development that goes ‘retail and restaurants follow rooftops,’” says Williams. “We knew that to get businesses there, we would need to focus on attracting renters or homeowners with some level of disposable income.”

With the support of the city, which made the necessary improvements to the infrastructure, Dover Kohl’s Southside Neighborhood Development plan moved forward.


Meanwhile, the city, under the leadership of then-mayor Jon Kinsey, reorganized the fire system in order to put a new fire hall on Main. “That was extremely important because the area was hindered by the fear of crime,” says Jon Kinsey. “Putting the fire hall right in the heart of the neighborhood really helped establish a sense of security.”

Funded by a public-private partnership, Battle Academy opened on the corner of Main and Market streets a year later.  “The school was a catalyst for recruiting families to the Southside,” says Morgan. “It was a very courageous move.”

By the end of 2001, Jon Kinsey’s last year in office, the Southside’s key anchors were in place.



Economic Restructuring

With an established infrastructure and newly developed residential areas in place, private investors began showing interest in the Southside. One of these was local architect and preservationist Thomas Johnson, who transformed a commercial strip along Market Street into a mixed use development that would become the home of St. John’s Restaurant.

At the same time, the Lyndhurst Foundation began working alongside River City Company to recruit new businesses owners. “We began partnering to offer retail incentives and facade grants,” says Kim White, president and CEO of River City Company.

To preserve the street’s existing character, attention was placed on curb appeal and design features that would make the street alluring. “Early on, we had a few courageous property owners willing to get financing to restore their buildings,” Morgan recalls. “As those buildings began to come back, block by block, there were conversations about ‘What types of businesses would want to put their office in a building on Main Street?’ Most of them were creative enterprises – people who could see that they were making an impact and thought that it mattered.”

“Having Niedlov’s come in 2002 and Alleia in 2009 was really strategic,” White says. “Because those were local people investing in the community – people who actually lived around there – it made other people feel invested in it.”

“We were really fortunate that we had early commitments from restaurants like Bluegrass Grill, Blue Orleans, the Terminal Brewhouse, and Alleia,” says Morgan. “It took courage to invite people from across the city to eat on a street that was in the process of renewal, but it showed it could be a safe place and one that could have a night life. Those early players were extremely important in helping fuel the movement.”



Promoting a Sense of Place

With the growth of small business came a growing sense of place – but not just any place. The Southside slowly became a poster child for uniquely local values: from the great outdoors, to sustainable design, to regional art, to manufacturing history, and a hub for startups.

“There were two nonprofits that brought different audiences and helped develop these values,” says Morgan. “One was green|spaces, who emphasized green building practices. They were the front door for environmentally responsible construction, and they brought architects, developers and interior designers to the space to educate them on good development strategies.”

“The other was CreateHere, who had a focus on artists, creative enterprises, and the younger civic activists,” Morgan continues. “They invited younger people to think about the community and what they were willing to work on. That brought a younger vitality to the neighborhood.”

In 2006, CreateHere partnered with ArtsBuild for ArtsMove, a relocation program for artists. “In a short amount of time there were 27 artists who had moved here, and they brought their creative energy with them,” says Morgan.

“The artists came first and occupied these cool buildings,” says Hefferlin. “Then when clients came to visit, people began to see potential in the neighborhood.”

That same year, Public Art of Chattanooga brought installments all along Main Street in an outdoor juried exhibition called “Art on Main.”

“It was the first time sculpture was put into the public realm outside of the downtown waterfront area,” says Morgan. “Bringing
back the street really started with art on the sidewalk. It slowed traffic down and caused people to pay more attention to the promise of the street. We began to see joggers coming through and moms pushing strollers. People would look at the art, and for the first time they would see the buildings behind it.”

In 2008, CreateHere introduced SpringBoard – a business development program for aspiring entrepreneurs. That program would become Chattanooga’s very successful Company Lab in 2010 and further propel the Southside’s appeal among young professionals, artisans, and those who embraced the community’s emerging values.



A Destination is Created

Today, there is no question the Southside is a sought-after live-work-play community.

“Talk to any Southside resident about what they enjoy most about living there and ‘sense of community’ is almost always number one,” says Darlene Brown, founding partner and managing broker of Real Estate Partners Chattanooga LLC. “Residents walk their dogs, stroll to restaurants and galleries, and become ‘regulars’ at the coffee shops. That’s what fosters friendships and a sense of community.”

She adds that the real estate market has taken note. “We have homes selling at all price points, which speaks to and validates the Southside’s desirability among a wide range of demographics and income levels for a refreshing, unique quality of life.”

Morgan agrees. “For a good neighborhood, you want balance: a diversity of incomes, races, and ages,” she says. “I see that happening.”




The Road Ahead

Looking ahead, city leaders expect the housing trend to continue. “Right now, we’re looking at $73 million of private investment from three different groups and 524 apartments on the Southside,” says Kim White. 

The largest is a $20 million transformation of the Choo Choo, spearheaded by local developer Adam Kinsey, who is president of the Choo Choo’s parent company, Choo Choo Partners LP. Announced in July of last year, it will turn the iconic Chattanooga hotel into a multifaceted entertainment complex. The project includes relocating the Track 29 music venue, a focus on local restaurants to keep the sense of community, relocating the Comedy Catch on-site, building a second 500-person music venue (“The Revelry Room”), turning 97 existing hotel rooms into micro-apartments, and updating hotel rooms. The hope, city leaders say, is that the complex acts as the bedrock of a growing music and entertainment district.

Bob Doak, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, was one of several local leaders appointed to Mayor Andy Berke’s entertainment task force in 2013. He feels the Choo Choo will help fill a missing link in Chattanooga’s appeal as
a destination.

“If you think about the area stretching from 4th street to the North Shore, that’s an area that has branded itself as a family-friendly entertainment zone,” he says. “Now with the Southside, you have more of an after-five district where people can stay out a little later, enjoy great food, and listen to great music.”

Leaders also feel the Southside’s growing entertainment scene will play an important part in workforce development.

“Entertainment is becoming a bigger and bigger part of attracting young professionals, because it makes the city an attractive place for them to live,” says Jon Kinsey. “Austin, Texas, for example, is one of the most attractive places for younger employees and entrepreneurs, and one of the main reasons for that is its many entertainment options.” 

The key to new developments being successful, however, lies in staying true to the Southside’s local character.

“While you want to plan some things, much of the development should happen naturally, because it’s important to create something unique for Chattanooga,” Doak says. “But that’s what we do here in our community. We create for ourselves what we want. Authenticity is a key word here.”

“I think it’s important to understand that this area of town has been locally driven, and should continue that way,” says Adam Kinsey. “The Southside is a place where locals want to live, work, and play, and now it has somewhat organically become an after-five entertainment area. If you think about our city as a puzzle, it’s a very crucial last piece.”

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