Saving the Chattanooga pedestrian bridge

If you aren’t from the Southeast, you might not know that Chattanooga is a fun city. I recommend it as a place to spend a day, with or without kids. The aquarium and Lookout Mountain attractions are fun.

The riverfront downtown area is booming (in a low height building restriction kind of way). Developers are building fancy new townhomes near the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge. The middle of the bridge offers lovely views of the river and mountains.

I noticed a sign saying that residents had “fought” to save the bridge from being demolished. Sometimes, it seems like a bad idea for residents to fight to save a historic structure. Insisting that a house built in 1890 must remain as it looked in 1890 can stifle the growth of a city. This instance seems different to me. The story of this beautiful bridge is an example of having a vision, clever city planning, and providing public goods through a mix of private and government funds.

The bridge was closed to motor vehicles in 1978. It’s not hard to imagine why a bridge built before automobiles could become unsafe for modern traffic by 1980.

I’ll quote the American Planning Association for the rest of the story:

The Tennessee Department of Transportation recommended demolishing the bridge, but Chattanooga’s then-Mayor Pat Rose suggested another idea: use it for pedestrians only. Rose and Ron Littlefield, AICP, the city’s Public Works Commissioner, kept the idea alive by hiring local architects … to develop a study for restoring the bridge.

Under the auspices of the not-for-profit organization Chattanooga Venture, a committee was formed to determine whether the bridge could and should be restored. Once it was determined a rehabilitated bridge could support pedestrian traffic, the local community rallied behind saving the bridge. Helping transfer the $2.5 million in federal funds originally designated for demolition to rehabilitation were former Chattanooga Mayor Gene Roberts, former U.S. Representative Marilyn Lloyd and former Sen. Al Gore. Local fundraising efforts secured the additional $2 million needed to restore the bridge.

The ice cream and coffee shop at the beginning of the bridge has a menu in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Russian. That’s pretty cosmopolitan for the American South. The lovely historic bridge really draws a crowd.

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