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May 31, 2006 8:00 AM CDT

Perservation and Redevelopment: Working Hand in Hand


An aerial view of the two Tennessee Aquarium buildings, part of Riverfront Chattanooga.
Photo courtesy of RiverCity Company
Let's visit a few areas among hundreds that are creating a buzz by redeveloping forgotten sections and making new what was once considered wasted space.

Redeeming a waterfront area long left to the elements has become an international cause. In Asia, Singapore can lay claim to being at the forefront of development with a 10-year plan to link dozens of green areas into a continuous belt of gardens and parks. One area, rivaling New York's Central Park, features a botanical garden, beach and conservatory linked by a pathway intended for pedestrian traffic at all times of the day and night.

The United States also has similar developments underway, albeit somewhat smaller in scope. Despite great distances, diverse backgrounds and cultures, and different plans, two elements typically remain the same: the goal of creating a unified area to strengthen a community and the use of masonry.

Riverfront Chattanooga
Chattanooga, the fourth largest city in Tennessee, is located in the southeast corner near the Georgia border. Chattanooga was one of the first American cities to effectively use a citizen visioning process to set specific long-range goals to enrich the lives of residents and visitors. In Chattanooga, citizens like to get involved, and they like to show off their accomplishments. The result? The city has received national recognition for the renaissance of its beautiful downtown and redevelopment of its riverfront.

"By putting the 21st Century Waterfront Plan together with a comprehensive job growth strategy, Chattanoogans have committed themselves to the mission of raising the standard of living for the entire community," said Bob Corker, the mayor of Chattanooga.

According to Corker, the largest obstacle to achieving Chattanooga's vision of reconnecting with the river has been the existence of Riverfront Parkway, a roadway that lies between the Tennessee Aquarium and the riverfront. Until recently, Riverfront Parkway was a state highway, and the lack of local control frustrated efforts to modify the road.

"After proposing several scenarios, we finally asked the state to give Riverfront Parkway to the city, and the Tennessee Department of Transportation agreed," Corker said. "Suddenly, with the removal of that obstacle, our community had a ?blue sky' opportunity to transform the waterfront."

The 21st Century planning process began in January 2002. Chattanoogans then developed the plan through a series of public meetings. "Gaining control of Riverfront Parkway was like being handed a blank canvas," Corker said. "The community responded with so many great ideas we couldn't wait to make them happen."

After reviewing the 21st Century Waterfront Plan, Corker said he realized Chattanooga could leverage its experience with public and private partnerships to complete the plan in just three years. He organized a joint fundraising campaign involving the Tennessee Aquarium, the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Creative Discovery Museum. In 90 days, private donors pledged $42 million for implementation of the plan. According to Corker, the private sector donations were combined with public sources of revenue to create the $120 million fund needed to complete the 21st Century Waterfront Plan.

Along the banks of the Tennessee River, Riverfront Chattanooga provides recreation facilities and cultural attractions that rival those in much larger cities. According to the RiverCity Company, a private, non-profit organization founded to redevelop the riverfront area, "The 21st Century Waterfront Plan will complete Chattanooga's return to the river. A sweeping, multi-million dollar vision, the plan transforms the downtown riverfront with a careful combination of development, preservation and enhancement. The plan honors the history and beauty of the area as it primes the pump of the metropolitan economy."

The Tennessee Riverpark is a complex set of green spaces, including a walking path that extends 12 miles from downtown Chattanooga to the Chickamauga Dam. The Walnut Street Bridge, a vehicle bridge that had been slated for demolition, was converted into the longest pedestrian bridge in the world, connecting the Riverpark on the south side of the river with Coolidge Park, a recreational area featuring an antique carousel and a fountain pool, on the north side of the river.

Naturally, masonry plays an important part in the development of the area. Preservation would obviously require renovation of the many existing masonry buildings - after all, the city and state are well known for the extensive masonry work in its history. But masonry was also chosen for the new buildings, both to keep them in harmony with the older, renovated structures and because the architects and builders knew they were creating for the ages. As Ted Jenkins of Jenkins Masonry in Chattanooga explained, "Brick is a traditional building material in this part of the country. We've done many buildings in Chattanooga's downtown using masonry and are working on an up-scale condo now that uses brick veneer, stone and cast rock."

One of the most conspicuous signs of Chattanooga's efforts at revitalization was the construction of the largest freshwater aquarium in the world on the southern bank of the Tennessee River. Completed in 1992, the Tennessee Aquarium became an anchor for downtown business investments and regional tourism as well as a symbol of Chattanooga's rebirth and reconnection to the river. The red and tan brick "River Journey" structure has one glass wall facing toward a park area and a neighboring brick structure that houses the second aquarium building, "Ocean Journey." The use of green areas throughout Chattanooga's redevelopment is improving the usability of space that was once considered blighted and wasted.

Fells Point, Maryland
In Maryland, Baltimore's Harbor East area is being developed with new residential projects such as Spinnaker Bay, a $90 million effort spanning a city block. Spinnaker Bay will offer 316 luxury apartments and 32 condominium residences with floor-to-ceiling windows and on-level parking. The development will include more than 43,000 square feet of high-quality retail/restaurant space. The classically styled building is, of course, masonry construction.

Nearby is Fells Point, a harborside community that encompasses approximately 75 acres. Founded in 1730, Fells Point was a thriving seaport by 1796. Through the first half of the 19th century, the rapid development continued. The second half of the century brought an influx of immigrants into the U.S. and, at one time, Fells Point was the second most popular point of entry next to Ellis Island.

Featuring predominately 18th- and 19th-century residential, commercial and light industrial buildings, Fells Point also includes antebellum warehouses and some Victorian architecture as well. The district was home to seaman and sailmakers who lived in the small, two-story houses, as well as prosperous merchants and sea captains who occupied the larger three-story homes. Now a middle-class neighborhood, the residents continue to support the waterfront open market that dates to the 18th century.

On the National Register of Historic Districts, Fells Point includes many houses and commercial buildings that date from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The oldest house in the present-day Baltimore area has stood since 1765 and is now a museum. Most houses in the neighborhood are brick rowhouses, featuring Federal and Georgian architectural styles.

One noteworthy building in the district is the Long House. Robert Long built his home in Fells Point around 1765, in an architectural style better known to the eastern Pennsylvania/Delaware region, than to Maryland. Like so many urban houses of note, the structure fell into disrepair over many generations. Slated for demolition in 1969, the original members of the Preservation Society fought the city and federal government to keep the building standing. The Preservation Society acquired the property in 1975, and painstakingly researched the interior design and architectural elements. Even after a devastating fire in 1999, the Robert Long House was once again restored to colonial splendor.

One way Maryland is helping save its historic areas is through a tax credit. The Heritage Preservation Tax Credit Program, administered by the Maryland Historical Trust, provides Maryland residents and companies income tax credits equal to 20 percent of the qualified capital costs expended in the rehabilitation of a "certified heritage structure."

Many other states are offering similar programs to encourage the preservation, renovation and redevelopment of areas that have fallen into poor conditions and to open new areas for harmonious development near the preservation sites.

Not every renovation area is a historical district, nor does every building bring big sale prices when the work is done. In Brooklyn, N.Y., the Red Hook Housing Project was developed in the early 20th century as low-income housing and is currently being renovated. The 100 buildings in the project are approximately 65 feet high, and the work includes façade repairs and new brickwork and parapet walls. The New York City Housing Authority decided that work like this could be most economically done with the use of mast climbers instead of pipe scaffolding. The contractors doing the renovation are, therefore, using 20 Dunlop mast climbers, allowing quick set up and movement, speeding up the overall redevelopment of the area.

Smyrna, Georgia
Further south, the city of Smyrna in suburban Atlanta saw that a strong action was needed to save it. The city established a vision, purchased 28 acres of occupied land, and leveraged the development of a library and community center into a town center with private housing, retail and office space, a new City Hall, courthouse and public safety building. This has changed the perception and the course of the city.

The first objective was to revive the downtown. Secondly, assessments of community needs suggested that the city needed to construct a library and a community center to provide broader recreational services to its citizens. Thirdly, Smyrna was being consumed in Atlanta's sprawl and losing its identity. Smyrna's image, to the extent it existed, was suffering. In 1989, after many hours of discussion and study, with assistance from leaders in the private sector and several citizens' groups, the mayor and city council retained architects from the Sizemore Group to manage the process and design the recreation of the downtown area.

The Downtown Development Authority, engineers, appraisers, surveyors and attorneys were all brought together to begin the process with city staff. The city then purchased much of the downtown land. A new community center and library would be constructed, relocating and restructuring the downtown. This created an opportunity to leverage future private sector development in the town center, improving the overall community. City structures would be of such a high quality that they would improve Smyrna's image and clearly establish its new identity.

With this objective clearly defined, the council set forth to achieve it.

Phase I of the restoration effort set the tone for future development and encouraged private sector interest: the 55,000-square-foot community center, 28,000-square-foot library, a main street, an attractive duck pond, a retaining pond for future storm water requirements, a loop road to bypass the pedestrian core, and a village green that became the focal point of the city. The total cost for Phase I improvements, including land and bond financing, was $15 million.

Mike Sizemore of the Sizemore Group, the architects involved with the Smyrna redevelopment from the beginning, commented on the project's use of masonry, saying, "Brick above all gives a sense of stability. For instance, in public buildings, that's what all cities are looking for. Brick gives the buildings a sense of roots, tradition and stability that no other material can match. It shows people that these buildings will be here long into the future.

"Using brick, we can create forms that are also very stable, not just look stable," he continued. "That's important in an era when many public buildings look like they'd blow over in a wind storm - and some actually do. And finally, there is the wide color palette available in brick. In Smyrna, we chose several colors but focused on creating what we call 'The Smyrna Brick.' There are a number of suppliers that can provide us with that brick, that color and texture, so it's not a proprietary brick, just one that has become the standard and the one that seems to represent Smyrna best."

Obviously, in Smyrna there is a public preference for local renewable and natural materials, so brick is high on their list. Especially successful has been the introduction of the brick materials and details into the interiors. The resulting design is a clear expression of the values of stability, order, human scale, history and warmth articulated early in the process.

Throughout the country and especially along the Eastern Seaboard and deep into Dixie, in big cities and small, rural areas and booming growth areas alike, masonry has proven itself as the material of choice in building, renovation and redevelopment. It just fits.

About the Author

Tom Inglesby is a San Diego-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous online and print publications. He is the winner of the Construction Writers Association's 2002 Boger Award for Special Reports.


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