The New West End

Last year Jimmy White and Hiren Desai bought the 112 acre Alston manufacturing site from GE for $30,000,000. Which at first sounds like quite a chunk of change until you get into the numbers and realize that they paid only $6.15 per square foot of dirt for the property. An exceptional price for what is a cleaned manufacturing site.

Deal details aside it’s excellent that these guys bought the property and are doing the development. Having their local experience and being rooted in the city will prove invaluable not only in getting the project done but in developing a project that is reflective of the city and it’s values.

Patience may be their most valuable asset since the project is projected to take 20-25 years to reach full completion. Not a fly by night undertaking. At completion it will roughly double the current geographic size of downtown, adding ~150,000sf of office; ~440 residential units; and ~92,000sf or retail and dining in the initial ten years alone.

Retaining Dover, Kohl and Partners (https://www.doverkohl.com/) to draw up the plans the preliminary concepts look well thought out and very much in keeping with the city’s aesthetic.

The site plan provides for the overlay of a traditional street grid and what they’re calling a “car-optional” focus. Meaning you can have a car but it is not required to get around the neighborhood as it’s designed in a compact style.

Some of the noteworthy design ideas already laid out in the plan include a stormwater management solution that utilizes a canal through the heart of the project. Providing a very unique and aesthetically pleasing way to deal with the natural runoff from the site. The plan for the Food Hall and music venue are particularly interesting as well as they look to reuse a good portion of the old steel structure of the warehouses on the site while adding that cool factor with a huge neon city sign and open gathering area.

The concept of the food hall is one I think the city is long overdue for and likely will embrace as if it had grown right out of the fabric of the area. These are fantastic social areas that draw large numbers of people and provide excellent activation for an area.

A few ideas I had while reviewing the current iteration of the plan would be to add more pedestrian only areas (streets and alleyways). The city has already proven these to be very attractive to residents through the alley art program spearheaded by River City Company. In addition these provide intimate spaces that are human sized and have a safe feeling. Away from the threat and noise of cars and trucks.

Good examples are Pearl St in Boulder, and just about any downtown in Western Europe, see the pics:

Downtown Boulder’s Pearl St Mall
Stavanger Norway
Dublin Ireland

You can see that in each of these cases you could get a car – or firetruck – down these streets if required but that the streets would be primarily for people and bicycles.

Another idea was regarding the design in general – and one I have wondered about in all the new buildings since moving to this city – is that the architecture does not embrace the basic environmental facts of the city. Most notably this is the South, it is hot in the summer and it rains more than Portland Oregon.

I would suggest a design for the retail, the buildings first floors, to protect people from the inevitable conditions and provide a refuge. This will encourage people to be out and about regardless of the conditions.

While all of the following pics are all from Bologna, Italy, there are similar walkways in Florida, Louisiana and throughout the South.

Bologna Covered Walkway
Bologna Covered Walkway

Building the streets like this from the get go would provide not only a very unique experience it will keep the streets activated regardless of the environmental conditions. As a potential development benefit, depending on the agreement with the city regarding the sidewalk the area above any such covered walkway can be utilized for additional office or residential spaces.

A couple other thoughts I had while digging into the site design are to create a riverfront that allows the average person to interact with the river. Because of the steep banks along the river it is not easy or inviting for people to interact with it. Which is a shame as it is one of the defining features of the city. By example the area that integrates this best is in front of the aquarium. The grandstand style concrete steps and pathway that fronts the river allows people to get close and even touch it. This can can be invaluable in stitching the river into the everyday for people.

Additionally I would suggest that the road parallelling the river be designated a pedestrian focused right of way; boardwalk or even something like what the Dutch have called ‘woonerf’ streets. Places where all modes of transport are given equal priority. Meaning all traffic is at a walking pace or below. This helps weave the neighborhood into the greenspace fronting the river and makes it a natural extension for everyone to access without difficulty.

Lastly as the blocks and streets are laid out I would encourage the design of the majority of retail spaces to be on the smaller side – under 2,000sf. This has a tremendous benefit in enlivening the area by creating a varied and intricate fabric of diversified retail. In the last decade retail has had to admit that the only way it competes with online is via experience. Creating entire districts with tens and even hundreds of different shops provides a tremendously engaging area that people will want to visit even if they’re not planning to shop.

I had thought it could be cool to expand the canal idea into something like a Venice of the South but the corresponding development issues this raises may not be worth the cost.

Overall I have a great deal of enthusiasm for the future of this project. It’s easy to see this project evolving into one of the most interesting developments anywhere in the South and it will certainly increase Chattanooga’s visibility and desirability as a place to live, work and play.