Although change is inevitable, it is sometimes long overdue. In the case of the City Centre and the attention grabbing block-of-gold structure at the MLK exit, it has finally come—in the form of a new hotel and all the frills that go with it. In fact, with this new 260-room Westin as the anchor, the entire 800 Block is attracting commerce and traffic, even after office hours, adding opportunities for business and pleasure where they didn’t exist before.
The repurposed 10-story office building was once home to BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and creates a visual landmark for Chattanooga. This sub-district, on the western edge of the City Centre, has its own distinctive character. It is a gateway of sorts, into the heart of downtown, say officials of DeFoor Brothers, developers of the 800 Block. It includes the hotel property at 801 Pine Street, the former Gilman Paint building across the street, the office building once known as the Pioneer Building and the CitiPark Garage. The $88-million upgrade is nearing completion and the recruitment of new business to the available retail locations has been critical.
“We’re picky,” says Jay Raynor of DeFoor Brothers. “We look for businesses and shops that will complement each other and provide a unique destination.” The new tenants will enhance the activities of this signature Westin located in what once was called the Gold Building, a John C. Portman design. During Portman’s long career as an architect and developer, he also designed the Atlanta Hyatt Regency and New York’s Marriott Marquis, among others.
In Chattanooga, retail shops along Chestnut Street have been involved in the process of revitalization and while it has been stressful due to road closings, they have been supportive. Many say improvements are long overdue.
River City Company, the familiar public/private partnership charged with enabling new initiatives in the City Centre has also been resourceful and supportive according to the DeFoors. A significant part of the revitalization effort has been installing a new sewer system, since the old one had not been updated since the late 1800s and could not manage the water capacity for the hotel. The new sewer will also solve some of the drainage problems for several other businesses in the area. “People are beginning to see—all that has been promised is coming to life,” says Raynor.
The biggest piece of the puzzle has been the Gold Building. From corporate office campus to luxury hotel, the transition has been a challenging one. “It sat empty for ten years,” Raynor says. But DeFoor Brothers is sparing no expense in bringing it to life in the City Centre.
“We’ve put the guest experience above budget considerations,” says Blake DeFoor, spokesperson. “The Westin will have new outdoor meeting and entertainment spaces, while we’re preserving classic elements of the structure.” The gold glass, the spiral staircase and interior atrium are all a part of the original design. “We have been pleased that Westin has been receptive to our ideas for the project,” says Blake. Though some of those ideas may have been a little different.
“Byron doesn’t like to be a ‘me, too’ type of innovator. He’s an original,” he says of his company’s co-founder Byron DeFoor, who along with his brother Ken, has in a few short years designed and built mixed-use centers in suburban East Brainerd and now downtown. The suburban property was an entirely fresh canvas on which to paint, however, the 800 Block had a handful of established businesses, both new and old, that would need to be assimilated, while maintaining the neighborhood vibe.
Contributing in large part to the block’s energy are older businesses like Figgy’s sandwich shop, InnSide Restaurant, Epic Optical and Aladdin Printing Company. These companies have remained, although Aladdin and Epic Optical have moved to the Clemons building on 8th Street. Epic Optical has been downtown since 1990 and owner Tony Leach says, “It was time for a remodel, and the space became available all at the same time, so I suppose it was meant to be. We got a little more space.”
Newly updated storefronts on Chestnut Street.“Even though the street renovations have been difficult, when the construction is finished 8th Street will be an entertainment corridor much like the area between Stir and The Terminal in the Southside, and with entertainment comes walking traffic and window shopping—sunglasses and other retail opportunities bringing new customers in.” Leach enjoys the excitement and activity of the downtown location. “It’s a perfect fit for downtown business people and now for a broader group of newcomers.”
The newest enterprises arrived in 2015 and they are enjoying the increasingly busy commercial center. Darin Wright’s Elea Blake Cosmetics is next door to The Strand, a hair salon on Chestnut Street. These companies share a few customers and can even help each other out occasionally. “We’re excited to see how everything will turn out,” says Wright. “Even though we may have growing pains during the construction—it’s all positive.”
“Each tenant has differing needs in square-footage and placement,” Raynor says. “It’s like putting together a puzzle.” He and Blake enjoy the creative aspect of designing a sophisticated shopping and entertainment destination—especially one with a residential component—like the 3-story Gilman Lofts. Barry Payne Construction is building the 800 to 1,700-square-foot condominiums at Gilman Lofts, an Elemi Architects adaptive reuse design. These luxury lofts on Pine Street across from the hotel will sell for $425 per square foot. On the ground floor, Shula’s Steakbar 347 has been designed by Chattanooga architect Thomas Palmer and Payne will soon complete the build-out there.
The combination of residential, dining and business enterprises is expected to animate the block, seven days a week. The condominiums will provide 24-hour activity. But the Gilman Lofts will not be the only residences in the district. The Clemons Lofts opened on 8th and Chestnut in January 2016. Once the showroom and offices of Clemons Brothers Furniture store, the historic building has been repurposed by the Via Nova Development Company with 54 luxury apartment homes and retail space on the ground floor. There, the Street Corner Market opened last fall, providing staples and fresh lunch selections to residents and downtown office workers.
Across Chestnut, the Mountain City Club’s (MCC) General Manager, Joe Fidelibus, welcomes potential new members to this recently renovated and stylish private club. In recent years, MCC has added outdoor patio dining. Its elegant bar caters to members who want to stop in after work for cocktails and the dining rooms, both large and small, offer a selection of spaces for events and celebrations. Throughout its long history, MCC has maintained a strong presence and will continue to grow its membership, Fidelibus believes.
“With more and more people being drawn to downtown living, the Club is playing an important role in meeting some needs,” says Fidelibus. “Those who work remotely will find the Club’s Rotunda Business Centre a good fit with its shared work space, business center and meeting rooms. The Club provides them with a venue that offers a prestigious business address where they can meet with clients and offers private Club amenities not found in public restaurants or coffee venues.”
When everything is in alignment, things come together for change say residents and business owners in the 800 Block. “We like our new neighbors,” says Darin Wright. “Life is good!”
Photography by Steven Llorca