Project to put 50-plus new apartments in hard-hit part of downtown

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Through a square hole left by a missing ceiling tile, Vic Desai looked up and pointed out the nearly 100-year-old brick wall hiding behind the suspended ceiling and Sheetrock walls.

The original brick walls, wood ceilings and mushrooming pillars inside the old Clemons Bros. building on Chestnut Street downtown have stood the test of time and the coming and going of BlueCross BlueShield.

Desai said the building is strong, good quality — a product of its times and the men who built it beginning in 1917.

“We loved the bones,” he said on Tuesday, walking visitors through the empty floors.

Desai is principal partner at ViaNova Development, a young Chattanooga company with an ambitious, $7.5 million plan to retrofit 730 Chestnut St. as an apartment building dubbed The Clemons.

By this time next year, ViaNova plans to have at least 50 urban loft-style apartments in the top four floors of the building and retail space on the ground level. Desai said there will be primarily two-bedroom floor plans, with some one-bedroom options and one three-bedroom unit per floor.

Pricing for one-bedroom units will start around $900, and rent will top out for larger units at around $1,600, he said.

The Clemons will use partnerships with the Mountain City Club and Citi Park to provide parking for residents.

“We were always looking to do an apartment complex downtown,” Desai said.

He said ViaNova looked at the Clemons Bros. building a few years ago, when the company wanted to start a project.

“We saw this building, and we fell in love with it,” Desai said.

But the time wasn’t right. Time passed, and the building sat empty. ViaNova looked elsewhere but eventually came back to the Clemons Bros. building. This time, Desai and the other founders knew this was it.

ViaNova is young, and there are no major projects like this in its portfolio — a point raised by many local banks that deemed the project too risky to finance.

So ViaNova turned to Tupelo, Miss.-based Bankcorp South for help with financing, and Bankcorp came through.

Bankcorp had just opened a Chattanooga branch, and Desai made a simple pitch, from one newcomer to another: “Let’s do something that people are going to notice.”

And here they are, Desai said Tuesday, braving the bitter, mid-morning cold and standing to show where a rooftop deck and dog park will be.

To the west, the Clemons offers a nearly unobstructed view of Signal and Lookout mountains and stretches of the Cumberland Plateau.

And then there’s the Gold Building: quiet and empty, another remnant of the days when hundreds of people commuted to this part of town, primarily because of BlueCross BlueShield’s presence.

Amy Donahue, marketing and communications director at River City Co., said Tuesday that BlueCross BlueShield’s departure was a blow to this part of the city.

“We’re still struggling with that because of the commercial space that was left,” she said.

The Gold Building has 180,000 square feet of space. The Clemons building has 92,000.

Both have been empty for four years.

“Our business dropped off about 30 percent because of that move,” said Larry Jackson, owner of Figgy’s Sandwich Shop. “It dropped. We could feel it.”

Jackson describes the mixed blessing of being in the city’s financial district, home of Figgy’s for 12 years now.

There’s tremendous growth and prosperity going on below in the Southside community. There’s continual growth along the riverfront and in the North Shore neighborhoods. Meanwhile, in the central-west heart of the city, fortunes have been a little worse.

“We’re kind of stuck in the middle,” Jackson said. “We’ve seen people come and go.”

All the more reason he welcomes residential development with open arms.

“We need more people in this two-block, three-block area, really,” Jackson said.

Donahue said ViaNova’s Clemons project is an exemplary model for bringing balance back to the heart of downtown, saving historical buildings, repurposing existing commercial space and creating residential development — especially in the neighborhood so affected by BlueCross’ departure.

“Honestly, it’s an incredible opportunity for these buildings to, in ways, kind of diversify and offer something different than just commercial space,” she said. “So when we get people living in this area, then this is their home.”

Desai said it’s a surreal opportunity, and responsibility, to have such a potential game-changing project on his plate.

“When we actually took hold of this building, it really opened up our eyes to the future,” he said, one hand on the wooden guardrail of his favorite staircase in the Clemons building, where you can stand on the sixth floor and look all the way to the ground.

He thinks renters will come, when it’s finished. There are thousands of employees within six blocks of this building, Desai said, “and we only have to attract 55 of them.”