insights (2006-30)

Don’t Despair for Market Square

The drug trafficking and money laundering charges against Market Square entrepreneurs Scott and Bernadette West, as shocking as they are, have done little to dim what are otherwise bright prospects for the square’s commercial vitality.

The Wests plan to continue operation of the four businesses they own on the eastside of the square in buildings they rehabilitated. Even if, worst case, they are eventually convicted, imprisoned and their properties confiscated, those businesses, or at least their locations, figure to remain viable under new ownership.

Meanwhile, at least four new businesses are due to open this fall on the westside of the square in space that’s been vacant ever since the demise of Watson’s department store in 1998. According to developer David Dewhirst, who acquired the several buildings that once housed Watson’s tenants, the refurbished space includes:

• Salon Visage

That leaves Dewhirst with two neo-Watson’s storefronts yet to be filled, but he reports good prospects for both of them. Fulfillment on his part, together with the recent openings of yet another restaurant, La Costa, and Salon Barnes and Barnes, will leave scarcely any vacant space on the square’s westside.

A handful of holes remain to be filled on the eastside, but taken as a whole Market Square has undergone a remarkable resurgence since the city turned to a Chattanooga firm, Kinsey Probasco, to spur its redevelopment in 2002.

All of this happened without benefit of what Kinsey Probasco then billed as the sine qua non of its Market Square redevelopment plan: namely, a new downtown movie theater nearby on Gay Street. Construction of the oft-delayed cinema is finally underway, and its scheduled opening in early 2007 can only serve to accentuate what’s already become a positive.

So will the opening next month of the Mast General Store, again just a block away on Gay Street, that promises to have a lot of pulling power for bringing shoppers into the downtown area. Many of them figure to park in the city’s new 650-space garage just to the west of Market Square.

A growing list of special events is also pulling people in. These include Sundown in the City concerts, Shakespeare on the Square on weekends in the summer and movies in the fall, ice-skating in the winter, and a Saturday Farmers Market from spring until November.

Underlying all of this is downtown’s even more remarkable residential growth as nearly all of the historic buildings that once housed the city’s “big box” retailers of a bygone era get converted to loft dwellings. More than 250 new dwelling units have been populated in just the past three years and at least that many more are in the works or on the drawing boards.

As the supply of older buildings gets depleted, developers are turning to new construction to satisfy a seemingly insatiable demand for the “urban lifestyle” that Market Square thrives on. Kinsey Probasco’s 24 condo units that are going up adjacent to the Market Square Parking Garage mark the first new private sector building started in the central business district since the ’80s. A much larger condo complex on a vacant Gay Street site is on the drawing boards of architect/developer Buzz Goss.

What’s still needed is to reverse what appears to have been a downtrend in downtown workers and a renewed emphasis on visitor attractions. These are complementary elements of a holistic downtown strategy that was best articulated in a 1998 assessment by the Urban Land Institute that is worthy of repeating here:

“Downtowns achieve success when they become crossroads destinations for visitors, residents, and all sectors of local market support and when they provide multiple reasons for their use. A downtown that is a strong employment node where people opt to spend discretionary time and money is more balanced than a vertical office park with a nine-to-five population. A downtown that is the preferred site for apartment, condominium, loft or townhouse living… can support a broader array of retail and service establishments than a place where all workers retreat to their homes after work. A CBD using its unique urban environment as the basis for an entertainment/dining district that appeals to residents, tourists and workers has a means of competing with the more standardized commercial strip found in every community. A downtown actively programmed for and genuinely embraced by a wide portion of the local population becomes important in the lives of many.”