Cambridge Square: Following Chattanooga’s smart growth lead

Authored By Michael McGowan

With the arrival of Volkswagen, Amazon and Wacker, growth is coming not only to Chattanooga but also its surrounding communities. Ooltewah, in particular, has already seen a major surge in population, prompting some of the region’s civic leadership to look for ways to implement a smart growth strategy in what was once a sleepy bedroom community of Chattanooga.

As with most suburbs, Ooltewah does not have a true city center or urban core. That is changing with the introduction of Cambridge Square, a mixed-use development now underway at the corner of Lee Highway and Ooltewah-Georgetown Road. Cambridge Square is the vision of River Street Architecture and Barrier Properties. Over the past 10 years, this development team has worked to create a new community utilizing smart growth principles akin to Chattanooga’s Riverfront re-emergence. The result will set a precedent for suburban development throughout the county.

Historical perspective
In 1940, Chattanooga was one of the largest cities in America, with a population centered on a vibrant urban core. Post-World War II, the city’s growth began to decline, and Chattanooga’s urban core gave way to suburban expansion. Cars dispersed the population at random, and a variety of low-density uses grew along the roadsides. To make matters worse, Chattanooga was named the most polluted city in America by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1969.

By 1983, concerned citizens, city leaders, local government and business leaders came together to form Vision 2000, a committee intent on guiding the future of Chattanooga in a smart growth direction. Vision 2000 led to hundreds of projects, including the Tennessee Aquarium, the Bluff View Art District and the Walnut Street Bridge renovation. As a result, the redevelopment of the Riverfront began to spark adjacent urban infill and ultimately became the driving force for the beginning of an economic turnaround.

During the early 1990s, the North Shore became a major community talking point. The Walnut Street Bridge created a pedestrian link between downtown Chattanooga and the blighted area that was Frazier Avenue. Again, civic leaders, the community and local government came together to develop the plan for Coolidge Park.

In 1995, River City Company commissioned a smart growth study that focused on the Southside of Chattanooga. This study included plans for a new football stadium, expansion of the convention center, a new conference center, the rejuvenation of Market Street, new housing and additional green development. The Southside plan was brought to life with both private and public investment, once again proving that private development and municipal government can work together to implement sustainable smart growth.

A 2006 press release from River City Company indicated that the years of smart growth planning and downtown revitalization were paying off: “After losing more than 10 percent of its population in the 1980s, Chattanooga became one of only 18 major U.S. cities to rebound from a decade of decline and increase in population in the 1990s.”  

Modern-day transformation
With proven examples such as the North Shore, the Riverfront and Southside, the Cambridge Square development team has looked for ways to implement the same smart growth in Ooltewah utilizing Chattanooga’s urban general commercial (UGC) zoning. UGC enables a developer to apply smart growth strategies to suburban markets.

UGC promotes having a mix of uses in close proximity. Unlike traditional modern zoning, this allows people to live, work and be entertained in one location. The offices, restaurants and stores of Cambridge Square have been located close to one another, making it convenient to walk or ride a bike. Not only does this physical activity benefit the person choosing to walk or ride but also helps improve air quality and reduces fossil fuel consumption.

In the layout of Cambridge Square, the development team has taken advantage of the smart growth principal of compact building design. This encourages the organization of buildings in such a way that leaves more open space and creates more efficient use of the land. Designers have adhered to this principle by designing multiple-story buildings in lieu of large, expansive, one-story buildings. Compact building design also suggests that buildings be located closer to one another, resulting in cheaper utilities like water, sewer and electricity.

Another smart growth principle being utilized in the planning of Cambridge Square is encouraged community participation. There is a direct correlation between the longevity of a development like Cambridge Square and the amount of community involvement. Cambridge Square will contain a central green space reminiscent of an old Southern town square, around which many of the buildings have been organized. This center square will have a stage for performances, vendor kiosks and an interactive fountain for kids to play in. The development team is encouraging all commercial tenants and business owners to sponsor a day or night activity in the square. Keeping this space active will become an asset for all businesses within the development, as it will generate patron visibility that might not have otherwise existed.  

Smart growth also means constructing quality buildings that have architectural integrity and won’t fall out of style within the upcoming decades. All too often, buildings are torn down and their materials wasted in the dump. The development team of Cambridge Square is of the opinion that downtown areas should be planned to last for well more than 100 years. The Cambridge Square buildings have been designed with sturdy historical materials and classical styles to assure a timeless public appeal. 

Cambridge Square is a very real opportunity for Ooltewah to develop a new community that will hold its value. It’s a destination that can maintain the integrity and character set forth by its citizens, local government and its developer.  

Michael McGowan is a partner with Chattanooga-based Riverstreet Architecture and the lead designer on the Cambridge Square project. He resides on Lookout Mountain with his wife and family. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.