The proposed Cowart Street building is a very bad idea
A developer has proposed a seven-story, 140-unit residential building on Cowart Street, behind the row of older buildings anchored by Porker’s. The Planning Commission and the Regional Planning agency recommended against it (zoning limits buildings to four stories there), but the city council is hell-bent on passing it, led by Chris Anderson, who represents the area.
The developer’s local rep, Mike Price, is also a leadership contributor to a fundraising event Anderson recently began promoting. Anderson did not disclose that, and an ethics complaint has been filed.
Looking at this super-sized, godawful building rushing toward approval is like seeing nomadic warriors from the Eurasian plains ride into my city. First, I’m relieved they want to build, not destroy. Then my heart sinks: All they know how to build is the suburban apartments they passed on their way into the city. Even worse: our current elected leaders are saying “Sure, OK, whatevs.”
That’s not as far-fetched as it may sound. Belle Investment Company of Knoxville began with single-family housing developments and traditional suburban multi-family apartment developments, including Legends at White Oak in Ooltewah. Judging from their website, this seems to be their first downtown building. It shows: The building takes the components of suburban apartments—housing and parking—and goes up instead of spreading out.
The building is completely out of place, a gigantic structure in the middle of what decades of planning (done with public participation and approved by previous city councils) envisioned as a human-scale neighborhood. After objections from urban designers, the developer added a token amount of commercial space on the corners. That’s better than nothing, but what makes a building like this integrate into and help build a neighborhood is when the entire first floor is retail or commercial, adding activity to the street life instead of turning a cold shoulder to it. This is called “mixed use,” and it is City Making 101.
By the way, those objecting urban designers include Stroud Watson, an internationally renowned urbanist who guided Chattanooga’s downtown revitalization from 1981 through 2007 as leader of our Urban Design Studio. When he spoke against the building at the city council, not a single council member asked him a question. Apparently, their decision had already been made—and his expert opinion was irrelevant.
The building’s scale is grossly out of proportion to the recent four-story buildings and historic one- and two-story buildings around it. I look at an artist’s rendering and wonder—can you ever get used to a neighbor like that: a block-long mass twice the height of Porker’s and the other small buildings? It would be like looking a stationary tsunami eternally looming over your shoulder.
Belle Investment Company does not understand how our city works, how designers have been collaborating with business people and elected leaders for 30 years to re-create a downtown that works for everyone. And this city council is willing to undo the work of their predecessors and the public, for the latest developer to dangle a shiny thing.
We need more downtown housing, but not this building, as designed. It won’t destroy the Southside, but it will degrade the vibrant street life and economy that attracted the developer to Chattanooga in the first place.
Rich Bailey promoted Chattanooga as director of the Chattanooga News Bureau from 1996–2001 and has covered urban design in Chattanooga as a journalist-advocate for 20 years.