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Riverfront Renaissance

What do you do with an abandoned waterfront? Do you simply walk away and leave it to the birds? Do you cringe and look the other way when you drive past and hope that the unsightly, unsafe scene simply disappears? The leaders and citizens of Chattanooga, Tennessee had to deal with their abandoned waterfront along the Tennessee River for quite a long time before they mustered the strength and ability for a complete restoration project; once they realized their home town potential, Chattanooga and Hamilton County officials banded together with the residents to breathe new life back into the riverfront and rebuild their dreams along the banks of their river.

In Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama reminds us that throughout time, "lines of imperial power have always flowed along rivers...(and) watercourses carry the freight of history." (See LASN Book Review, September 1995, page 30.) So it's not surprising that Chattanooga would base the plan to increase its residential and investment appeal, the 1985 Tennessee Riverpark Master Plan, along the shores of their river. Although the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare once described Chattanooga as one of the country's most polluted cities, citizens loved their home town enough to assist city planners, landscape architects and architects in reversing their city's urban decline and revitalizing, both economically and physically, its entire riverfront district. The resulting public-private partnership, coordinated by Jim Bowen of River Valley Partners, created a plan for an entirely new downtown region that "shines brighter lights" and provides a safer, more appealing place in which to work, play and live. As a result of efforts by the determined Volunteer State citizens, the once hazardous and abandoned riverfront now represents an irresistible magnet for throngs of visitors and millions of investment dollars.

The Tennessee River, Chattanooga's most prized natural resource, is now easily accessible from the beautifully landscaped grounds of the Riverpark. Riverbank segments, described as "various jewels" on a "necklace" all strung together with an outdoor "museum without walls," showcase exhibits illustrating Chattanooga's rich history, natural environment and thriving businesses. Two of those jewels, the Riverwalk and the Walnut Street Bridge, each play significant roles in the story of Southeast Tennessee's urban renaissance. The Riverwalk, one of the most popular and often-used aspects of the twenty-year Master Plan consists of a continuous course of parks, trails and landmarks that daily attracts pedestrians and lunchtime executives. The story of the restoration and rehabilitation of the Walnut Street Bridge parallels the longer tale of the entire waterfront revival: When the citizens of Chattanooga decided to save their condemned 1891 bridge from demolition and turn it into a multi-functional linear park over the Tennessee River, the whole hazardous, abandoned riverfront was brought back to life.

Chattanooga Architect/Landscape Architect Garnet Chapin created the structural success of the Walnut Street Bridge; handling all aspects from the graphics to the hardscape to the landscape, he restored the bridge by utilizing over 300 tons of historic limestone. He modestly accredits the success of the project to the dedicated struggle of the citizens of Chattanooga who began their efforts to restore their abandoned bridge in 1977. (Ironically, the very funds that were slated for the bridge's destruction were rechanneled to begin funding its restoration!)

Chapin's design concept focused on the safety and accessibility of the pedestrian users, meriting a 1995 Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects. Fueled by his philosophy that "design limitations really generate creativity," Chapin overcame challenging hurdles of narrow right-of-way spaces in order to create small walkways that provide safe access into the historical bridge site. His conception of a series of switchback ramps that met Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines led to a series of linked elliptical curved pathways, and he utilized more of the historic pavers to build small walkways into the site. Plantings in perennial flowerbeds and juniper evergreens uniformly link the switchbacks, while edgings of monkey grass beneath the bridge span helped to transform a hideout for hoboes into a setting for a 500-seat amphitheater.

Landscape Architect Mike Fowler of Ross-Fowler in Chattanooga designed the landscape plan for the Riverwalk segment of the project. He proudly describes the new seventy-acre park, five fish piers and pavilion, and large recreation meadow that constitute the Riverwalk as "Chattanooga's first chance to reconnect...and reorient (itself) with the River." The new pedestrian bridges "are designed as portals into the city...[and] the number of barrier plantings [keeps[ the right of way very linear," maintains Fowler. His riparian plantings successfully maintain a strong historical current between the pedestrian bridges and the rest of the historic "battery" neighborhood. The natural vegetation of the entire area, indigenous to the area, provides for a low-maintenance project; with the exception of the erosion control management dictated by the high fluctuations and strong currents of the river, there is little in the way of maintenance to be done. Extensive site planning, grading and drainage design, planting design, environmental graphics design, regulatory coordination and permitting services all earned Ross-Fowler the Tennessee Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects Honor Award for Design Excellence. Perhaps even more rewarding is the fact that the citizens of Chattanooga now use this beautifully landscaped park setting as the foundation for their newly revitalized historic neighborhood.

Safety requirements for the Tennessee Riverpark Master Plan mandate continuously patrolling rangers and a number of emergency phone stations all around the Riverwalk trails. Fowler enthusiastically describes his victorious crime prevention measures; as a result of his antigraffiti sealants that cover the retaining walls, "there is absolutely no graffiti!"

Miranda Clements of Design Studio, an office of the Chattanooga--Hamilton County Regional Planning Office, admires the bright lighting and accessible switchback pathways that attract "throngs of people" to the Riverpark; "in this recreation area, the numbers keep it safe." Remembering its previously deteriorated hazardous state, Karen Hunt, Director of Planning on the Hamilton County Planning Commission, also praises the safety and accessibility of the new Riverwalk: "If it is well-lit, well-used, and especially well-designed, there tends to be less vandalism [than usual]. When a place is obviously high-quality...people can see that it's taken care of, and if any problems or graffiti are fixed right away, there is little crime problem."

Runners, walkers, cyclists, roller-bladers, and pedestrian commuters have now reclaimed this once declining area. More people come downtown and stay longer, and the entire Riverpark Master Plan has become a model for other communities across the nation who wish to explore ways in which they can preserve and revitalize their own abandoned waterfronts. This project has proved to be an economic boon to Chattanooga: where once the city was faced with the uncertainty of an unsafe, abandoned bridge and a deteriorating riverfront district, the community now looks forward to $6 million worth of new street and infrastructure improvements. Specific economic benefits to Chattanooga include the opening of several new restaurants, shops, and galleries, and the North Shore of the Tennessee River has been designated an urban renewal zone, qualifying for a range of human and economic development programs.

Most importantly, the clear vision and dedicated efforts of a community willing to restructure their future on the "watercourses" (reference, Schama) of their historic past, Chattanooga now enjoys a remarkable riverfront revival through its Riverpark Master Plan. City planners and Landscape Architects have successfully joined forces to create an ongoing surge of growth and revitalization that will continue into the next century and proves the state motto once and for all: "Tennessee [is[ America at its best."

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June 17, 2019, 8:37 am PDT

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