COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

The Chattanooga Riverpark: Transforming a City and its Economy

Dec 31, 2008
Jan 28, 2019

Chattanooga, Tennessee

The legend of Chattanooga goes something like this: A faded industrial town on the Tennessee River was burdened with empty factories, a deteriorating downtown, sprawling suburbs, and the worst air quality of any city in the country. In five years, the air was clean, and a vision for the future was developed, with leadership from the private, nonprofit, and public sectors, to rebuild the downtown, reconnect the city to its historic riverfront, and in doing so, bring economic stimulation and tourism to the city. Today it is one of the most talked about, emulated cities in the southeast.

Project Background

The keys to Chattanooga's success appear to be openness to new ideas, flexibility to adapt to them, and an extensive community process that has allowed ideas to be widely discussed and then implemented. This process which seeks to change nearly every facet of the city, began with a startling "wake up call."

In 1969, air pollution in Chattanooga was so bad it reduced what should have been magnificent views of nearby mountains to a foggy haze, and motorists drove with their lights on in the daytime. After a Federal Air Quality Report labeled the city as the most polluted in the country, leadership from civic and industrial sectors rallied the city to begin to make the difficult changes necessary to effectively clean the air. Within five years of the report, Chattanooga had met or exceeded all air quality standards.

The price, however, was high. Although the air was clean, outdated factories and the siphoning of manufacturing jobs to other countries or locations had left the city in a recession. Highways and industrial zones separated residents from the Tennessee River and the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains into which the city is nestled. The people of Chattanooga were awake, but they could clearly see that there was a great deal more to be done.

The city's considerable resolve in licking the air quality problem gave hope to a few dedicated individuals who decided to take on the city's future. One of the first to get into the fray was Rick Montague, director of the Lyndhurst Foundation, a local philanthropy enriched by the Coca-Cola bottling fortune, who was also serving as chair of a task force that was preparing a plan to revitalize the city riverfront. A tremendous amount of citizen involvement had already occurred, and Montague, taking a cue from other cities that had strong community participation, helped form a citizen committee called Chattanooga Venture.

With the unusual idea that the city's economic fortunes could be reclaimed through planning, Chattanooga Venture attacked the city's problems with zeal. They involved any and all who would participate, and tried to take all suggestions and comments seriously. They sought out opinions, rather than requiring people to come to them. And instead of developing a plan and later asking for approval, they allowed ideas and plans to germinate up from the meetings with participants.

Chattanooga Venture called this process "Vision 2000." The primary goal of the plan was to increase Chattanooga's livability and raise its attractiveness for potential investment. The key feature of the plan was Riverwalk, a 22-mile greenway along the Tennessee River that would serve as a catalyst for new development, generating jobs and tax revenues benefiting both the city and county. The vision of the Riverwalk was "the spine that supported everything Chattanooga wanted for itself," recalls Rick Montague, director of the Lyndhurst Foundation.

A nonprofit corporation was created to coordinate redevelopment projects along the riverfront and downtown. Thus, the RiverCity Company, later renamed RiverValley Partners, was formed to raise funds for and participate in the development of the renewal project. Formally organized in 1986 as a private, not-for-profit corporation, RiverValley Partners was to drive the master planning process and fuel a public/private collaboration. Initially, they were given $12 million, contributed by eight local foundations and seven financial institutions, to start the transformation. The money was used as a revolving fund for beginning and completing development projects.

One of RiverValley Partners' first projects was to acquire, for $4.5 million, several riverfront properties adjacent to downtown. This was the place where John Ross, a half Scottish-half Cherokee chief, established a trading post in 1815, in the process founding the city of Chattanooga. Known as Ross's Landing, it was here that the Tennessee Aquarium was built - all of the funds were provided by private gifts.

Around the aquarium, a new plaza was being developed with public funding. This public/private sharing of costs would become a hallmark of Chattanooga's process. The Aquarium opened in 1992, attracted 1.5 million visitors in its first year of operation, and is now the most visited site in the city.

RiverValley Partners returned the land on which the aquarium sits, and helped to create Tennessee Aquarium Inc., a separate nonprofit. RiverValley Partners kept the surrounding properties, with the idea of continuing to be a major force in the development of the riverfront. A plaza, visitor's center, children's museum, 3-D Imax theater, and shops were built here as well, to create the catalysts for tourism, income development and community-building they had envisioned at the outset.

RiverValley Partners has played a unique role in Chattanooga, leveraging land purchases to stimulate development for the public good. Because of their delicately executed planning, many other projects in the area have received financial support, increasing the economic benefits received by the city, including the Riverwalk, which links together the various parks and commercial districts they are helping to develop.


Another key project that Vision 2000 helped to create was the Walnut Street Bridge. A 107-year old bridge spanning the river near downtown, it was saved from demolition, and the money slated to demolish it was put towards its revitalization. The bridge is now open only to pedestrians, and it is a major destination.

The Riverwalk has also helped to stimulate private investment in Chattanooga. The Bluff View Arts district, an old Victorian riverfront neighborhood on a hillside near downtown, was renovated by a local developer who has restored the surrounding buildings, and built an indoor and outdoor art gallery; four restaurants; a bed and breakfast that is now housed in three restored buildings; and an executive conference / fine banquet center.


In addition to the funds and motivation supplied by Lyndhurst and other local foundations, leadership has also come from the public sector. Since 1991, the city and county have committed increased funding in capital and operational parks and recreational budgets, recognizing the importance of parks to enhance the quality of life in Chattanooga. They have also provided the flexibility and openness to new ideas and community involvement that has allowed these innovative projects to flourish.

(Spring 1998)

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