Creating Places: A Citizen Observer's Look at Nashville's Built Environment

Writer's Note: William Williams' interest in the manmade environment dates to 1970, at which point the then-young Williams started a collection of postcards of city skylines. The collection now numbers 1,000-plus cards. Among the writer's specific interests are exterior building design, city district planning, demographics, signage, mixed-use development, mass transit and green/sustainable construction and living. Williams began his Creating Places column with The City Paper in February 2005. The column in its original form was discontinued in September 2008 and reinvented via this blog in November 2008. Creating Places can be found on the home page of the website of The City Paper, at which Williams has worked in various capacities since October 2000.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Creating Places: A quick look at Chattanooga

As I returned to Nashville last week following a trip to Chattanooga, I mentally assessed the Scenic City as a small version of Portland, Ore. In many respects, the similarities are striking. Both are located on large rivers (the Tennessee and the Willamette) and within the foothills of major mountain ranges (the Smoky and the Tualatin mountains). Both offer a significant number of citizens who embrace the outdoors, "green construction" and socio-politically progressive lifestyles. Both are home to fairly large public universities that are not particularly well known outside their respective states: the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Portland State University. And both cities are filled with numerous small, older buildings.  

But  perhaps the key similarity is that the urban cores of both Chattanooga and Portland are pockmarked by very few dead spaces similar to those that mar Nashville (i.e., massive surface parking lots, car dealerships and huge swaths of unused green space). In Chattanooga, six urban districts flow nicely into each other. Though the North Shore (one of the six) is "severed" from the Riverfront and Bluff View districts by the Tennessee River, the pedestrian- and cyclist-oriented Walnut Street Bridge, two stellar riverfront parks (Renaissance and Coolidge) and the vibrant Frazier Avenue minimize that separation.

Indeed, many positive things are happening in Chattanooga. For example, there is some very tasteful recent and current construction (primarily in or near Bluff View). The city's bike share program has about 30 stations and the bikes are strikingly attractive. Perhaps the most noteworthy element on the "place making front" is the evolution of Southside. I stayed at The Crash Pad, a platinum LEED certified hostel, and got a strong taste of the district, the key thoroughfares for which are Market and Main streets. The latter offers an Enzo's Market grocery store (with a wine shop positioned next to it, no less). Though there are some parallels with the Turnip Truck in The Gulch, Enzo's sells both natural/organics and mainstream fare.  

Outside Chattanooga's urban core, I checked St. Elmo (a very cool mixed-use district) and Glass Street (located northeast of downtown). The latter has a long way to go but shows some potential to be a neat little commercial pocket.

In a surprise move, I got a personal tour (thanks goes to Janna Jahn, board chair of The Engel Foundation) of historic Engel Stadium — the timeless baseball park that was used to portray Ebbets Field in the Jackie Robinson tribute movie 42. What a treasure.

In summary, Chattanooga has a palpable vibe. In a way, I like that there are no skyscrapers. It's a pedestrian friendly city with its urban fabric flowing from the North Shore on the north to 20th street on the south, an approximately two-mile stretch filled with vintage masonry buildings (including far more historic commercial buildings than Nashville sports). I had visited the city many times previously, but this was my first time to spend the night and explore it thoroughly. At some point soon, I will return and do so again.


  1. The massive parking lots in Chattanooga (Unum) are well disguised and are less damaging to the urban fabric. They do have parking issues now, though. The Chattanooga Bank building (between Market and Broad on 700 block?) was vacated for a hotel before the economy collapsed. Now it's an empty office building with no way to support it with a parking garage or surface lot. Tons of beautiful buildings are currently empty.

  2. CA,

    Yes, I was wondering about the buildings and if they have tenants. I noticed that many do not. That's unfortunate.


  3. I'm not thrilled with the way the huge headquarters building of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee seems to dominate everything from atop Cameron Hill. The building is like a fortress with the huge parking garage. It reminds me of the headquarters of the NSA outside Washington, D.C. Chattanooga is a nice little city, but has some really rough areas outside the central area. The downtown is just way too touristy and filled with chain restaurants catering to the visitors.