An East Chattanooga neighborhood plagued with blight and crime is setting its hopes of revitalization on two young visionaries and more than three dozen designers and architects who have helped plan the community’s future.

Historic Glass Street had no written plan for development before architects visiting Chattanooga during AIA Tennessee’s annual convention in late July, titled “Boom Town,” participated in the Urban Design Workshop hosted by Glass House Collective.

The collective, led by program director Katherine Currin and communications and outreach coordinator Teal Thibaud, invited AIA members to collaborate with community members to develop a set of ideas that will lead to a larger plan and vision for the future of Glass Street.

Currently, there are more empty buildings on Glass Street than occupied ones, with only a few scattered night clubs, hair salons, and convenience stores filling in storefronts. But residents remember when the Glass Street commercial area was like a small city, with its own grocery store, dress shops, motorcycle shop, post office, doctor’s office, and dentist.

They want to bring that vitality back to the community, with businesses—preferably operated by Glass Street residents—filling the empty spaces and giving the more than 10,000 motorists who drive by every day, en route to Enterprise South Industrial Park, a reason to stop.

During the workshop, architects produced near- and long-term plans, with hopes of attracting more businesses and turning vacant lots into parks. Residents are now using those schemes to create a Glass Street master plan for development.

Scheduled for completion by the end of this year, the plan is an important part of the community’s revitalization efforts. Glass House Collective has received a $300,000 grant from ArtPlace, a Chicago nonprofit that draws together 11 foundations, eight federal agencies (including the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]), and six national banks to award grants to local organizations for urban and rural placemaking.

To begin revitalization, Glass House Collective is emphasizing the community’s vision for Glass Street by coordinating a series of transformative creative projects, including bus shelters, benches, and bike racks. Residents have already held three of the 10 planned community meetings to exchange ideas and discuss ways to make Glass Street more marketable to businesses. Repopulating storefronts and restoring old buildings could be the catalyst for economic growth on Glass Street. In January 2013, Glass House Collective plans to start commissioning murals and small green-space improvements.

“We love Chattanooga for what it is, has been, and can become—and we’re committed to giving it the attention it deserves,” Thibaud says. “We believe a revitalized Glass Street can kickstart positive change in East Chattanooga, ultimately adding to the vibrancy of our city as a whole.”

Richard Beeland, spokesperson for Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, believes the group is moving in the right direction by adding more “curb appeal” to Glass Street. “Developers come to areas that are attractive to them,” he says, “and urban designers and architects are key to helping bring revitalization to inner-city communities.”

“Glass Street is only one of Chattanooga’s community revitalizations influenced by architects and designers,” said Christian Rushing, a principal with Studio C.Rushing, an urban design consultancy in Chattanooga. “Main Street in Chattanooga—the place with busy coffee and sandwich shops, retail stores, and a grocery store—was as empty as Glass Street until designers started working in the community.”

Rushing points out that it was a student from Chattanooga’s Urban Design Studio who first mentioned the idea of the Tennessee Aquarium, designed by Peter Chermayeff, FAIA. It was also designers who came up with the plans for Miller Plaza and the southside community revitalization that transformed a community known for crime and dilapidated houses into a place where professionals and artists want to live.

The architects and designers also displayed their talent in the yearlong Urban Design Challenge. River City Co., the local nonprofit behind much of the city’s redevelopment since 1986 (including the $12.3 million riverwalk and $45 million aquarium), asked local archi­tects to create plans to revive some of downtown’s bleakest areas. More than 500 people attended a meeting in August where the architects were rewarded and their ideas were presented.

Challenge winner Elemi Architects created a proposal that prompted the Tennessee Department of Transportation to incorporate ideas presented by the architects into its own plan for a portion of Highway 27 along 4th Street Corridor. Its new plan incorporates the design ideas of enhanced pedestrian connections, expanded public transportation opportunities along 4th Street Corridor, and increased develop­ment infill.

Other plans showed how to transform a vacant block in downtown Chattanooga into a mixed-use multilevel destination center, and another plan included drawings showing how a historically significant block of market square could include a war memorial park, housing, and retail.

“People may think of architects as people who are trained only to design individual buildings,” says AIA Chattanooga Executive Director Lisa Williams, “but part of their education deals with the history of city building and urban planning, and what elements make a city prosperous and successful.”

Chattanooga architect Andrew Smith, AIA, said there is still more work to do. Inner city communities such as Alton Park, Piney Woods, and East Lake are still without design assistance, but that may change in the next decade as other Chattanooga neighborhoods serve as precedents for successful, design-driven public–private partnerships. “Residents in those communities see the development in downtown Chattanooga,” says Smith of initiatives like Glass Street’s revitalization, “and they have hope of living in an area where their children feel safe and can prosper.” —By Yolanda Putman