Is Rapid Growth Really Healthy For Chattanooga?

  • Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Chattanooga, especially, and the entire tri-state area, is growing at an unbelievable pace. According to a story from the on Oct. 11, 306 people are moving into Chattanooga every week from out of state, while 100 are moving out of the city. If that holds true, the total population will grow by over 10,000 people or more in the next 12 months. Is there a downside to this? That’s 120,000 people a year! Is that a good thing?

Rapid growth always mean change. Can we handle it? No one will say. If nothing else, the aesthetic we’ve created is at best, planned obsolescence or, at worst, future urban blight. 
It seems that many have adopted the perspective of “rapid growth at any price.” “The New Urbanism,” the planning philosophy that calls for denser housing, also calls for several other things: connectivity, mixed use diversity, mixed housing, neighborhood structure, quality architecture and design, walkability, traditional neighborhood structure, smart transportation, sustainability, and quality of life.

It seems that if you can afford it, you may find some of these qualities. Like in North Chattanooga or along Main Street and the traditional wealthier parts of the city/county.

But what about our one wastewater/sewage plant that is overwhelmed? What about our almost complete lack of public transportation i.e., CARTA, except for the poor and tourist on irreparable electric buses? What about traffic and traffic flow? What about roads? What about gentrification that removes affordable housing that the poor could once afford? What about a public education system that is known more for its failure than its success? What about the public safety, with almost daily shootings in Chattanooga that are always pushed under the rug? We can’t even handle the homeless or the panhandlers. 

Is this progress? (A look into the history of historical theory finds linear, evolutionary, cyclical, dialectic/Marxist and post-modern views.) “Progress” is a relatively new idea. The earliest historians thought in terms of a termination to a linear timeline.

Chattanooga was developed because of its unique geography, the Tennessee River, and the break in the mountains. Even before the Civil War, Chattanooga had become a hub of a new technology: railroads. At one time Chattanooga was the nexus of many rail lines. The downtown had a huge infrastructure to support it. Terminals, freight, manufacturing, hotels, restaurants, and such served the railroads. Lincoln called Chattanooga the “Gateway to the Confederacy” because of its primacy in railroads to the southern states. 

By the 1950’s, this had faded. The city leaders sought to put a “new face” to Chattanooga. This gathered most of the city leaders and was championed by then Mayor P.R Olgiati. It was called the “Golden Gateway.”

What a horrible mistake this was. None of the businesses that were recruited to build there survived. (Anybody remember Zayres?) And beautiful Cameron Hill, developed by Colonel James A. Whiteside an early civic leader, was razed.

Under the Eisenhower administration, the Federal-Aid Highway Act was signed in 1956. Eisenhower had seen the success of the Autobahn in Germany in World War II and felt this was needed for the country. One problem. So much money was involved that cities like Chattanooga under Olgiati saw the opportunity and lobbied like many cities for the system not to just connect cities, but to go through them. (They were not conceived for local traffic, but they became substitutes for planning and development without raising taxes.)

This has created mountainous problems for cities as local commuters use them alongside long haul, soon to be robotically controlled, tractor-trailers. Look what this has done to traffic in Chattanooga? Everyone has been stuck at I-59 or I-24/I-75, sometimes for hours. This is progress? And it’s not just Chattanooga, drive to Atlanta. Adding lanes is a long, expensive project, and really doesn’t solve the problem. (And this hardly touches on the thousands of small towns along old state routes that were bankrupted by the rerouting of traffic away from them.)

Because Chattanooga had an historic problem with flooding, to get the highways through Chattanooga, the new road to Chattanooga would have to be built high above the flood zone. This led to the destruction of Cameron Hill, probably the most beautiful neighborhood ever to exist in Chattanooga, for fill dirt. (Anyone remember when Olgiati Bridge went nowhere?)

This was progress, the Golden Gateway. (Someone has wisely said that something old is just trash, until it becomes a treasure, analogous to the lineage of antiques.) 

Chattanooga is now filling quickly with cheaply built 15-year life span condominiums and apartments instead of the traditional 30-year lifespan. They are mostly cheaply built and hurt the eye. The huge load this is putting on the infrastructure is probably unsolvable. These cooky cutter developments are marshalled with little aesthetic…and no thought to the future…only a quick dollar. Is the planning commission overly influenced by builders? I think so. 

Or look at the housing projects which have become an ongoing challenge for all sorts of reasons. Harriet Tubman and Alton Park Homes are huge examples of “Great Ideas” cooked up in the New Deal that have been disastrous. Old neighborhoods used to mix the poor and the middle class. There, as people rubbed shoulders, values changed. People learned that prosperity was something they could achieve. 

The Tennessee-American water intake off Amnicola destroyed the ancient Native-American earthen pyramid, Citico, of the mound people who preceded the Cherokees.

Another example is what’s left of the “Brainerd Mission,” a fascinating era now eclipsed by the blunder of Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears.

What about Moccasin Bend, a hugely significant historical site? The state put an overwhelmed hospital there that from all informed accounts is unable to handle the demand for the growing mental health tsunami. The city built a horrible golf course. AM radio towers dot the low land. The sewer plant is there. This was garbage property at the time. No one cared.

Or what about the conversion of four lane roads like Broad, McCallie or Bailey to two lanes …with added unused, dangerous bicycle lanes. Recent mayors championed this. It makes no sense unless you want to discourage people from leaving downtown and going to the suburbs and get on the “right side” of history.

Then there is the private sector. What happened to small retailers when Walmart came to town. They closed. Malls had to transition, just follow CBL’s evolution or the decline of malls. Or the most beautiful farmland or forest that is turned into $400,000 homes, that all look alike.

The more you build in a low tax, beautiful area like Chattanooga, the more people will come. It is just as true of the panhandlers as it is of the logistic entrepreneur.

So is progress, at any price, always the answer? 

Not so long ago in 1889, we preserved our Civil Wat history, and Chattanooga was the site of the great reconciliation or Northern and Southern soldiers that created parks and monuments, not to slavery, but to bravery.

One wonderful exception is the Walnut Street bridge. Everyone wanted it torn down. Mayor Pat Rose, with a suggestion from attorney Hank Hill, thought better. Now you see pictures of the bridge more than the Choo-Choo.

No. Planning with a long-term view of what we want Chattanooga to be in the future is the answer, with massive well-thought-out input by all the citizens. This has not happened. We dont't need more consultants on the “right side” of history. We need input from all the citizens, including millennials, the homeless, panhandlers, first responders, small businesspeople, courts, not just the Chamber of Commerce and more unaccountable non-profits.

The rapacious appetite of most politicians knows no bounds. (Thus, we have the new baseball stadium project at Broad Street.) Nor, it seems do the foundations, lenders, venture capitalist and tax dollars that flow to the “New Urbanism.”

Presently, developers precede the infrastructure. That’s backwards! Just look at how long it has taken the city to develop adequate roads for East Brainerd. Infrastructure has to precede development. There is not another smart way.

Do we just want more of this? This is inherently a scenic city. It may well become the best mid-sized city in America for urban decay in the future. 

When the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in Britain in the 1830’s and 1840’s, the displaced workers who complained became known disarmingly as “Luddites”. Progress, loved for the economic impact, completely displaced them. In its present usage, “Luddite” it is no longer disparaging, but refers to people who may want “out.” They have had enough.

Perhaps it’s time for a new group of Luddites to rise up with an organized voice who want the city and county to rethink what is celebrated as progress. There is a much better way to do this, but our leaders won’t slow down. New, local elections are years off. But it’s not too late to raise your voice. 
I guess I’m a new-age Luddite!

Doug Daugherty

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