published Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Downtown Chattanooga project for former Bijou Theater battles clock

Rendering for proposed climbing wall at former Bijou Theatre.
Rendering for proposed climbing wall at former Bijou Theatre.
PROJECT TIMELINE

2009 — Bijou theater closes

October 2012 — Plans for The Block announced

February 2013 — Demolition work starts

March — Work on "The Pit" starts

October — New projected grand opening

The plan to give the former Bijou Theater in downtown Chattanooga new life as a climbing gym and retail space is hitting snags that have caused organizers to push back the planned opening from this summer to early October, and costs for the project are on the rise.

The project's cost now exceeds $5 million, said Jim Williamson, vice president of planning and development at River City Co., which is putting $2.5 million into the project. Planners initially estimated the renovation would cost $4 million.

High Point Climbing and Fitness co-owner John O'Brien said his costs are at $2.9 million — about $1 million more than he'd initially planned to pay for the work at Third and Broad streets.

"Costs have escalated, but the size of the gym has gotten bigger and the quality we're putting in is better," he said. "I think it's something the city will be proud of when they see the finished product. We're not cutting costs. And in the end it will be worth it."

When finished, The Block will host a Rock/Creek Outfitters store, the Chattanooga Visitors Center and High Point Climbing and Fitness — a climbing gym with both indoor and outdoor walls.

O'Brien plans to have 25,000 square feet of climbing space, which will make it one of the largest climbing gyms in the country. He hopes to cater not only to Chattanooga's regular climbers, but also to tourists and first-time climbers. The space will include a 5,000-square-foot bouldering room, as well as locker rooms, showers and a fitness center.

Organizers hope to create a downtown attraction that is both functional and a landmark piece of design. But while they originally planned to open The Block this summer, planners are now aiming to open by the RiverRocks festival during the first weekend of October.

"When we were doing demolition on the building, we found a bunch of existing stuff that wasn't accounted for," architect Craig Peavy said. "Which is always the case whenever you are doing renovations. We had to back up a little bit and do a little more design."

Designing the building has been a collaborative process that included input from climbing wall experts, the tenants, architects, city planners and structural engineers.

"It's a tricky ballet of contractors, and we're working through it as best we can," said Williamson. "We don't want to rush through it. We'd prefer to wait another month or so and get it done right."

Part of the delay springs from a section of the building called The Pit, which is an 18-foot deep, 55-foot long and 36-foot wide hole that will allow High Point Climbing and Fitness to fit a 40-foot tall climbing wall inside the building.

The plan is for climbers will use stairs to reach the bottom of the pit — which will be about as wide as a tennis court and a little longer than a tour bus — then climb upwards.

But digging the hole is tricky because of Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, groundwater and support beams. Workers will need about two months to dig the pit and line it with concrete, Williamson said.

"You run into critical path issues, where you can't do Y until you finish X," he said. "The pit is one of those things — we were hoping we'd be able to dig it quicker. And, we still might be able to."

The plans for the space have gone through several iterations, Williamson said. The exterior climbing walls, for example, evolved from an original idea that called for a narrow glass tower on the side of the building.

Organizers are still nailing down the details of the exterior walls, which will be "half-rock climbing wall, half-art piece," Peavy said. The material needs to be both translucent -- so it can be lit up -- and something climbers can grip.

"We're doing something that doesn't happen very often in architecture, which is to redefine how things work," Peavy said. "There's never been an outdoor climbing wall that works like this one."

The final design will look a bit different from the initial conceptual drawings, he added. It will feature separate sections, rather than looking like one flowing object.

"Hopefully it will go from something very linear, very vertical, to something that's a little more drastic — maybe even change materials — and then dematerialize it when it gets toward Third Street," Peavy said.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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