Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 28, 2015

Downtown developments putting urban living on the map

Kim White is the CEO of River City Company, a private nonprofit focused on developing the downtown footprint. - David Laprad

Kim White, CEO of River City Company, lives, works, and plays downtown. She walks to work, to the bank, and to get her hair cut. When she’s not walking somewhere specific, she’s simply walking her dog – or rather, her dog is walking her. White loves living downtown, but says one thing is missing.

She’d like more neighbors. A lot more.

That’s going to take work. Decades after the revival of downtown Chattanooga began with the construction of the Tennessee Aquarium, one important component is still in its nascent stages, White says: the formation of a downtown populace.

“We’ve been building this city for over 30 years, but the piece that’s been missing is the living piece,” she says. “Less than three percent of our workers live downtown. Cities like Charleston and Asheville have a much higher percentage of workers living downtown.”

White says residents are a key component of a vibrant downtown. “When I picture a great city, I see people walking out their front door and finding not just a coffee shop but also restaurants and a market and a drug store. I see a lot of hustle and bustle and activity.”

White says the development of a downtown population is about more than lifestyle; it’s also about economics. Encourage enough people to live downtown, and the amenities, as well as the jobs, will follow.

“The greater density we have, the more retail we’ll have,” she says. “Other than Publix and Whole Foods on North Shore, we don’t have a downtown grocery store. It’s going to take more housing to get that. A lot more.”

If more downtown living is what White wants, then she has more than a few reasons to get excited. Four hundred million reasons to be exact – give or take a few million. That’s the number of dollars currently being invested in downtown projects, which include a mix of housing, office and retail space.

White wants to talk housing, though. “We’re going to build 1,500 new apartments between now and early 2017. Some are under construction now, and some are getting ready to start construction,” she says. “That will add to the 1,271 apartments we already have.”

Among those 1,500 apartments are 68 going up at Main and Market Streets. In addition, a Memphis-based group has started demo work in The Maclellan Building to clear the way for the construction of 90 apartments. And a group out of Atlanta is planning to break ground in October on a development on the 700 block of City Center that will include 125 apartments.

Some of these and other projects will also include retail and office space, creating hybrid structures where people can truly live, work, and play, as White envisions.

It’s a good start, White says, but it’s more of a momentum builder than a final solution. “People have asked me if downtown is becoming saturated with apartments, and I tell them we’re actually behind the curve,” she says.

Part of the $400 million investors are pouring into downtown Chattanooga will begin to address what White says is the area’s biggest housing need: student apartments. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is not an entirely commuter school, but one with leading programs that attract 66 percent of its students from outside the city. Shockingly, White says, housing is available for only 27 percent of these students.

“UTC is becoming a school of choice for people from Nashville, Memphis, and elsewhere,” she says. “So we have students living ten miles away because there are no options in the city.” Construction is underway on 1,300 beds, including space for 690 beds at a student housing development on MLK, but this is only a fraction of the 3,500 beds White says UTC needs.

The need for more student housing reveals a key aspect of the current wave of projects in Chattanooga, White says: People are not building out of blind hope in the economic recovery; rather, demand is driving the investments.

“Millennials want to live downtown. Retirees wants to live downtown. People are turning to the city for its amenities,” White says. “Instead of going to the suburbs, they want to experience what makes this city great.”

What’s more, the market is in a giving mood, White says. “Banks are lending, and developers are wanting to develop. We have to maximize this opportunity while we can because markets change.”

Even with the considerable amount of development taking place downtown, White hopes to see even more. For example, for a company like Publix or Trader Joe’s to be willing to open a grocery store that would serve South Side and MLK, 3,800 additional people need to be living in those areas. With people drawn to amenities, and the presence of amenities being dependent on the size of the local populace, development can be a tricky game.

One of the ways River City Company is hoping to ensure success is by making sure living downtown isn’t just for the rich and locally famous. To that end, its leadership has worked with the City of Chattanooga to freeze property taxes for developers that build a certain percentage of their apartments to be affordable.

According to White, “affordable” means people who make at least 80 percent of the median income in Hamilton County, or at least $32,000. So, to keep their tax incentive, 20 percent of the apartments developers build must be affordable. This puts the cost of renting an apartment downtown between $700 and $2,000 a month.

“We don’t want all high end housing. We’re deliberately trying to have a mix,” White says. “The thing that makes a city great is its diversity of people.”

White is able to clear up concerns people might have about the amount of development taking place. If someone asks about the limited amount of space available for new development, and if things will begin to feel crowded at some point, White says there’s a wealth of space available – all one has to do is realign one’s thinking.

“We don’t have a lot of land but we do have surface parking lots. Surface parking lots are land banks,” she says. “We shouldn’t have surface parking in our city. We need to go vertical to maximize our space.”

White can also allay concerns about the amount of outside investment being made in Chattanooga. The majority of investment – 60 percent – is coming from local sources. What’s more, some of the outside development is handling projects local groups would be unable to tackle. “We’ve recruited out-of-town developers who could take on a project a local developer maybe couldn’t,” she says. “The 700 block had been sitting there a long time, and no one had been able to figure out what to do with it. But the Atlanta group did.”

Finding the right fit for downtown projects is what River City Company does. Currently approaching its 30th year, the private nonprofit works with the city, county, foundations, and stakeholders to develop the downtown footprint. “We look at where the gaps are and who we can partner with to fill them,” she says. “In our early days, we were a developer because no one believed there was a need to develop anything downtown. Now we’re a developer of last resort.”

Among the more recent projects River City Company has developed are The Majestic Theater and High Point Climbing and Fitness – both of which offer amenities to visitors and residents while adding to the visual appeal of downtown Chattanooga. Just as important, they are a part of the economic lifeblood of the area. “When people see a movie downtown, they tend to spend another $30 at a restaurant,” White says.

White has been living downtown for ten years, making her a resident long before it was stylish to be one. But as hopeful as she’s been the entire time that more people would move to the area, her optimism has never been higher than it is now. “We’re attracting a lot of entrepreneurs, our university is growing, and you can’t look at a top ten list and not see the name of our city,” she says. “Everything is aligning to give us these opportunities. In five years, I believe you’ll be able to come downtown 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and find things going on.”

Including White walking her dog – or rather, her dog walking her.