Sometimes when real estate attorney John Anderson is driving his three grandchildren through Chattanooga, a competition will break out between the young ones to see who can be the first to spot Papa’s buildings.
At 6, 8 and 10, Lark, Lake and Lee might not understand just what Papa did to help usher a Costco or Cabela’s into existence, but they know he did something, and that’s all the fodder they need for their game.
Being a lawyer is anything but fun and games to Anderson, though. It’s been a nearly 40-year career that bolstered him above his modest roots and helped him to sustain his family for decades, as well as a door to serving his community.
It’s also a profession that – as his grandkids no doubt sense in some small way – allows him to have a hand in shaping Chattanooga.
“Most of my practice is centered on real estate development,” says Anderson, who’s spent the last 30 years practicing at Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison in Chattanooga. “My family asks, ‘Does that mean you look at contracts all day?’ Some days, yes. But transactional work also allows me to say, ‘I helped make that happen.’”
Anderson has had a hand in developing shopping centers, apartment buildings and more throughout Tennessee, Georgia and the rest of the South.
At times, he’s represented property owners as they sold their holdings to a developer; other times, he’s worked with developers to bring amenities to a community.
Anderson’s work can involve a variety of tasks, such as handling a boundary dispute, seeking to rezone a plot of land, or helping a developer secure lending – all of which would likely cause his grandchildren to lose interest in their game if he insisted on describing it.
“As the saying goes, my practice is everything from closing to foreclosing,” he quips.
One might think Anderson is doing less of the former and more of the latter these days, but that’s not the case, he says. Even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rattle the country, building continues.
“The economy, as it relates to real estate, has been very strong since 2016,” he says. “We’re building a lot of new stores.”
Having debunked one misperception, Anderson tackles another one: The notion that delivery services will soon replace brick and mortar stores.
“That might be true when it comes to a large company like Amazon, which delivers hard goods based on regional warehousing, but for the delivery of groceries, you need a nexus of brick and mortar stores,” he adds.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for shopping online but there’s also still a lot of enthusiasm for looking, touching, feeling and saying, ‘I don’t want to buy this orange, I want to buy that one.’”
Besides, Anderson continues, the pandemic has taught society there aren’t enough brick and mortar grocery stores to deliver food to everyone.
“We’re going to need more physical stores to provide quick deliveries. Walmart at the foot of Signal Mountain had a three- to five-day delay to get into their queue to order groceries. Food City had a three- to five-day delay from the time you ordered food to the time they could bring it to you.”
Although Anderson remains a believer in tactile shopping, his long history of working in real estate has allowed him to see that consumer preferences do shift – and developers follow in kind.
“Real estate is always changing,” he says. “For example, the regional mall isn’t as popular as it once was and the community strip center has regained in popularity. These kinds of amenities hold communities together and help them to grow.”
Anderson also says suburbia is replacing downtown as the preferred place to live.
“We’re seeing a reversal of the trend of the last 15 years to get people downtown to create higher density, and suburbia is now popular again,” he contends. “We’re seeing it across the country. People are saying, ‘If I’m going to be stuck in my house for four months, I want some grass and some separation from my neighbors.’”
Anderson admits he’s speaking in generalities and says one of the challenges of his work is being mindful of the differences from one community to the next.
“Hamilton County has 10 different municipalities – and 10 different development schemes,” he clarifies. “Chattanooga might be more restrictive than East Ridge, which might be less restrictive and more welcoming to development because it’s landlocked.”
Recalling the particulars of development in Red Bank versus Soddy Daisy might not always be easy, but Anderson likes the work and welcomes the challenge.
“We try to remain flexible and find the solutions our clients need,” he says, speaking of Grant Konvalinka at large. “Lawyers aren’t roadblocks. If someone says, ‘I want to purchase this land and use it this way,’ but there are issues, it’s our job to help them navigate those.”
Anderson can trace his practice back to when he searched titles for a Nashville attorney during his summer breaks from college.
“That sparked my interest in real estate and gave me firsthand experience in issues related to property,” he remembers.
Anderson grew up outside of Nashville, in Goodlettsville. While there, he says he benefited from the town’s good public schools and developed an early interest in biographies.
While reading the life story of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a former associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Anderson began to think about becoming an attorney. This notion grew as he mowed grass, worked at McDonald’s and earned good grades so he could attend college.
“I was interested in going to college but I didn’t have an example,” he recalls. “So, I worked my way to get there. I made decisions based on what I could afford to do.”
Anderson earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and then accepted the Chapin-Thomas Scholarship, which enabled him to attend the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
Upon earning his juris doctor and passing the Ohio Bar, Anderson practiced with Eastman & Smith in Toledo, Ohio, before moving to Chattanooga to work for Strang Fletcher. In 1990, he moved to Grant Konvalinka and hung his license on a sturdy nail.
While at the firm, Anderson has served as counsel of a number of other entities. In addition to functioning as special counsel for Hamilton County in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he functioned as the City of East Ridge attorney for four years and as counsel to the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority for 10 years.
Now 64, Anderson is giving his clients at Grant Konvalinka his full attention – and intends to do so for many years to come. “I’m not thinking about retirement yet,” he insists. “After 40 years, I have a lot of experience I can bring to bear for my clients.”
Anderson says practicing at Grant Konvalinka has been “an outstanding experience.” He’s also appreciated the opportunities others have given him over the years, dating back to the scholarship that allowed him to attend law school, he says.
Anderson has expressed his appreciation for these opportunities by serving the Chattanooga community through a number of volunteer roles.
He and his wife, Lynn, have been active with the local chapter of the American Heart Association for many years. Having previously chaired the executive leadership board for the AMA’s annual fundraiser, the Heart Ball, he’s now serving on the board of the organization.
“My wife became involved over 10 years ago because heart disease was a rising issue among women in the U.S. It’s now the leading cause of death among women in the country.
“It’s part lifestyle, part genetic, but the more information you have, the more people will be aware of it and the more you can address it.
“So, get checked. If you have any irregularities, even with your breathing, don’t sluff them off. Be proactive.”
Anderson is also a trustee for the University of Chattanooga Foundation and has served on the board of governors for the University of Tennessee National Alumni Association, as president of the Brainerd/Southeast Hamilton Area Chamber of Commerce and as president of the UTC Alumni Council.
“Early in practice, a lawyer told me I need to keep a balance in my life. People think lawyers are consumed with the practice of law, and they should be, because it takes time and effort, but it’s also important to strike a balance between family, church, civic duty and your profession.”
As the first person in his family to attend college, Anderson says the opportunity to practice law is a rare privilege, and he doesn’t want to take it for granted.
“I have an obligation to make meaningful contributions to my community.”
Anderson still heeds the advice he received as a young attorney and aims to strike a balance between work and family. He and his wife live in Signal Mountain, where he tends to his property, stays active in their church (Mountain Creek Church of Christ, where he taught the adult Sunday School class for 24 years) and serves as “Papa” to his grandchildren.
He can thank his and Lynn’s daughter, Dr. Lacy Windham, an obstetrician practicing in Cleveland, Tennessee, for that rare privilege. Even though he’s wearing a face mask, the crinkles that appear at the edges of his eyes as he talks about Lark, Lake and Lee suggest he’s smiling.
“We spend as much time as we can with them,” he says. “They’re spending this weekend with us.”
Chances are, he’ll take them for a drive, and a competition will break out to see who can be the first to spot his buildings.