A P3 Payoff

April 30, 2014
Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport finds the three Cs of P3s—communication, collaboration and community—in a water quality project that benefits the entire city

What does “yes” look like?

Chattanooga City Councilwoman Carol Berz posed this question many times over the last five years as she pushed for the renaissance of Chattanooga’s Brainerd Road community.

For years, three vacant car dealerships rotted away along the roadway, near the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport’s runway protection zone. The deteriorating buildings were a source of concern for local businesses, residents and city government officials, but commercial developers expressed little interest in purchasing the land and revitalizing the area.

Berz finally found an answer in a $4.5 million improvement project, where a public-private partnership (P3) transformed the 8-acre, decaying urban landscape into a rolling field of prairie grass and native plantings sprinkled with public walkways.

 “When the airport and the city came together, this project took life. That’s when we learned what ‘yes’ looks like,” says Pete Yakimowich, Arcadis’ national discipline leader for green infrastructure.

The senior consultant for Arcadis, a U.S. firm that provides consultancy, design, engineering and management services worldwide, says the Jay Hollingsworth Speas Airport Award winning project is a keystone effort that is part of a larger venture to revitalize the Midtown Area, which he characterizes as a “diamond in the rough that’s gotten a little tarnished over the years.”

“This venture helped kick off that effort,” he says. “It’s a great demonstration project for future public-private partnerships.”

SUBHEAD: Communication

“An airport is here to serve the community,” says Terry Hart, president/CEO of the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Authority (CMAA).

But serving the community is impossible without communication. Hart, who has held his position since 2007, believes in monitoring the pulse of the community by regularly attending city meetings and networking with community members. Without these relationships, he believes the cooperative storm water project may have never occurred.

The property along Brainerd Road, with its vacant Volvo, Infiniti and BMW dealerships, sorely needed some TLC. Initially the airport sought FAA funding to purchase the land, tear down the abandoned buildings and build grass on the razed site in an effort to control its runway protection zone (the FAA prefers that airports control the land in these areas). However, the project expanded when Hart learned of plans for a city-sponsored water quality project in the same area.

Due to some legacy problems with the city’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit with the EPA, the City of Chattanooga had agreed to do a supplemental environmental project in the Midtown Area, according to Don Green, Chattanooga’s water quality supervisor. When the city sought stakeholder support, the CMAA raised its hand to help.

“We thought instead of just planting grass why not do something that would also help the city with storm water,” Hart says, explaining the area flooded whenever it rained really hard, closing the roadway and business along it.

The two entities partnered to tackle the area’s flooding problem and storm water challenges in a collaborative effort that has since become a National Water Quality Demonstration Project. The work demonstrates how green infrastructure may be used to divert storm water runoff to prevent it from entering a city’s sewer system.

Yakimowich characterizes the project as a perfect storm. “You had the city needing a supplemental environmental project for compliance purposes; an airport looking to facilitate its long-range plans; and a community seeking to revitalize and reinvigorate the area,” he says. “This truly was a team effort.”


All in, the project bolsters airport safety by extending the landlocked airport’s runway protection zone. An FAA grand covered all but 10 percent of the project’s price tag, with the CMAA laying down the rest.

The airport paid $3.69 million to purchase the former car lots and spent more than $670,000 razing the buildings. Workers salvaged, repurposed and reused materials from the building. A machine crushed concrete on site, recyclers picked up usable metals and other materials, and crews stockpiled soil removed from the area for later use, netting the project a Tennessee Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award for Excellence in Sustainable Performances

“The concrete buildings were rubbelized,” says John Naylor, vice president of planning and development at CMAA. “They are in the gravel pathways in the area, and sitting underneath the airport’s solar farm. It didn’t get transported off-site and it didn’t go into the landfill.”

The city became involved at this point, as did Arcadia, which executed a traffic study, and performed geo-technical analyses and hydrological assessments before developing an engineering plan and final design.

“There were five components to the project,” says Patty West, a landscape designer with Andropogan Associates Ltd., a landscape architecture and ecological design firm committed to “designing with nature.” These components included removing the buildings and hard surfaces, grading the land, creating bio-retention systems, soil remediation, and adding plantings and native grasses.

Once the area was clear, workers began improving the soil. This involved decompacting the area and adding nutrients by treating the soil with a “compost tea” designed to introduce microorganisms into the ground. “Soil is a living organism,” West explains. “There is bacteria, fungus, ciliate and amoebas in there, and they all need to work together and start nutrient cycling in order to have a healthy meadow or forest. We needed to add those critters back into the soil.”

Crews then leveled the land in a way that mimicked natural flow patterns. Because Tennessee is a mountainous state, this included adding small hills and other terrain variations. They also created basin-like bio-retention areas and rain gardens to hold storm water until it’s absorbed into the ground.

“This is not just a flat field of green, which would have been very easy to do,” says Yakimowich. “We designed in contours and created sort of a passive walking area that people could enjoy.”

According to Green, the project disconnected the city’s storm water system from the area. Instead, during hard rains, water spilling on the roadway gets diverted into large bio-retention ponds, where the chemistry of the soil and the vegetation itself acts as a sponge, absorbing and purifying the water before it hits the groundwater table. “Instead of going into pipes and being dumped into the creek, the water goes into the green infrastructure.  The water seeps into the soil, moves its way down to the groundwater table, and eventually makes its way into the Chickamauga Creek,” says West.

The last step, in the final stages as spring rolls in, recreates a vegetation cover by planting prairie grasses, trees and other vegetation.

“We planted native vegetation that was here before the settlers came. This vegetation is adaptive to the climate here and doesn’t need a lot of water and fertilization. And, it’s root system is very deep so it really helps water infiltrate the ground,” says Green. “Regular grass would need mowing and has shallow roots.”

Employees from Arcadis, Andropogan, the CMAA and the City of Chattanooga turned out enforce recently to plant more than 400 trees. The trees included Redbuds, Sumac and Dogwoods because their mature heights are less than 4 feet, keeping the airport’s line of sight clear. The trees also do not produce seeds or berries that might attract wildlife. “Meadow grasses were also planted,” says Yakimowich. “We wanted to create something that was very natural.”

The city added sidewalks along the road and gravel pathways that allow visitors to walk through the improved area. The pathways extend all the way to the creek where visitors can enjoy the creek, its levies and more.

Though it will be a few months before the vegetation fully takes hold, Yakimowich deems the project a success. “We were recently able to handle almost a 3-inch rainfall without flooding,” he says. “We restored the natural balance that existed long before those car dealerships and roads were in place."


While the completion of this project will vastly change the drainage system along Brainerd Road to remedy the flooding situation, it has also paved the way for future developments and improvements of this kind throughout the entire city, says Green.

“We have had a good partner in the airport; they bent over backwards to help us,” says Green. “The P3 has been a great way to get what we needed done.”

Education was a critical part of this project, adds Yakimowich. Arcadis installed a live camera feed to document the site’s progress, and posted the video footage at http://earthcam.net/projects/arcadis/. Students from Chattanooga State Technical College also produced a documentary outlining the entire project.

“These measures were important because they allowed the community as a whole to see the progress on the site,” Yakimowich says. “Arcadis also produced a couple of videos that told the story about water quality, flooding and revitalization of the Brainerd Road area.”

The videos and the project itself are a positive addition to the airport’s educational tours, which are designed to provide schools and other community groups with information about the airport’s sustainability projects and environmental goals.

These efforts demonstrate the site’s transformation, showing exactly what happens when a community comes together for the greater good. “If you looked at the site before, you would have characterized it as hard, dirty and hostile,” Yakimowich says. “Now it’s clean, green and inviting.”