Chattanooga, Tennessee

For many years, the lush banks of the majestic Tennessee River were all but inaccessible to most Chattanooga residents. In 1986, however, a seven-mile landscaped path called Riverwalk was built, and it quickly became a catalyst for the development of some of Chattanooga’s most popular recreational facilities, as well as a great social equalizer.

Once, only a wealthy few with homes on the banks of the Tennessee could enjoy its beauty; today, now that the Riverwalk has reconnected the city’s diverse neighborhoods to the river, every citizen can.

Fishing piers, parks, plazas, homes, offices, shops, restaurants, and the Tennessee Aquarium have all been built on or around the Walk, which will extend for twenty miles on both sides of the river when completed. As of 2010, 13 miles of the Riverwalk from Chickamauga Dam to Ross’ Landing have been constructed. These new facilities have none of the race or class distinctions attached to many of the older places in the community, and they attract citizens and tourists of every stripe.

The River is Everybody’s Business

The degree of community participation in the Chattanooga Riverwalk’s conception and implementation has made it unique among the many riverfront projects of the past three decades. The bold idea of creating one continuous path along twenty miles of the Tennessee river was first formulated in 1983 by a city- and county-appointed citizen task force. Vision 2000, a series of community-wide brainstorm sessions aimed at improving Chattanooga’s quality of life, adopted the idea a year later and supplied the impetus for its implementation. Two nonprofit organizations, The RiverCity Company and Chattanooga Venture, established as a result of Vision 2000, contributed in major ways to the creation of the Riverwalk and its associated developments.

ReVision 2000, a second series of public meetings conducted nine years later, in 1993, reconfirmed Chattanooga’s commitment to the river and emphasized the environment as a central theme in the city’s continued revitalization.

Since nearly everyone in Chattanooga seems to have gotten involved in some aspect of the Riverwalk project, it has the stamp of community ownership. Thanks to ad-hoc coalitions of citizens, government and private-sector leaders, and local foundations, which have supplied financial, political, and technical support, the Riverwalk and the many public facilities it has spawned have become symbolic of the city’s civic and physical renaissance.

Karen Hundt, director of the Planning & Design Studio in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, credits transportation consultant Walter Kulash of Glatting Jackson with a crucial recommendation: the addition of four new at-grade intersections. Those intersections give motorists a larger variety of routes into and out of the downtown, averting potential congestion. The result, according to Hundt, is that traffic flows well and Chattanoogans finally have easy access to the riverfront.

The city created a needed pedestrian route from the northern part of downtown to the Bluff View Art District, home of the Hunter Museum of American Art. Until 2005, a visitor standing in downtown could see the Hunter Museum occupying a promontory above the river, but could not easily walk to it. The city solved the access problem by building steps — and a 100-foot “incline elevator” for those unable to climb them — and by constructing what may be America’s most avant-garde footbridge. Designed by Los Angeles-based Randall Stout Architects, the footbridge has a walking surface composed of 45,000 pounds of laminated, translucent nonslip glass. The green-tinted glass is internally lighted. At night it glows. Some find it disconcerting to walk on the glass, seeing the pavement of Riverfront Parkway well below, directly beneath their feet. (The 10-foot-wide bridge’s center strip is surfaced in sandblasted stainless steel, providing a more secure feeling.)

A public art display plaza has been created at a spot near both the footbridge and the 114-year-old Walnut Street Bridge, which ceased being a vehicular route years ago and was reopened as a pedestrian span in 1993. “People raised $2 million privately to save the bridge,” said Paul Brock, chief executive officer of the RiverCity Company, a nonprofit organization that shepherds development in the downtown and along the river.

With its bright blue metal trusses, the 2,370-foot Walnut Street Bridge has become enormously popular among joggers, walkers, and people who want a good view of the river as it sweeps past downtown. The bridge touches down on the north side of the river at Coolidge Park, a large recreation area completed in 1999. The bridge and the park, which has a century-old carousel, are both so appealing that they have helped spur the revival of Frazier Avenue, a formerly scruffy commercial district on the north shore. “There’s things to do on both sides of the river now,” Brock noted.

The city converted several miles of one-way streets to two-way traffic despite opposition from people who claimed there would be traffic tie-ups, head-on collisions, and general mayhem. In December 2003 the city reintroduced two-way traffic on McCallie Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard, two broad streets used by suburban commuters. None of the predicted catastrophes came to pass, and the city reaped several benefits, according to Jeff Pfitzer, the city’s director of capital planning. “There was a decrease in out-of-direction travel” as motorists gained more direct access to their destinations, he said. Traffic slowed by about 15 mph (to 25 mph from 40 mph) on the affected routes, but the flow became more regular. Thus, according to Pfitzer, the average commute did not become any more time-consuming than it had been.

The city has since converted several other streets. Two-way movement has made it much easier for motorists to reach the Hunter Museum and Bluff View, a neighborhood that has blossomed with restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts. Pfitzer noted that one-way street systems tend to confuse drivers, especially those from out of town, whereas two-way streets are easy to figure out. “A city,” he said, “needs to be intuitive, easily understood.”

“All of our two-way conversions have been successful in supporting redevelopment,” Pfitzer said. “I honestly don’t see a downside to this.”