On the Declining Standard of Building Downtown – Part 2 The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

You may want to read Part 1 first

As promised, this post will use pictures to illustrate the evolution of how our community has dealt with national chains that have come to our downtown. As noted in earlier posts, the sub-urban form that has only recently started cropping up downtown is a symptom of our larger problems. When considered in isolation, none of these buildings have the power to undo a downtown. However, considered in concert, these present a very real threat to the character and uniqueness that make downtown a special place.

I am not tilting against chain store windmills. Most chains started off as small businesses and because they provided a good or service that people wanted, they became successful and expanded. I think that is super duper. That is the promise of western capitalism and one of the premises that made us a superpower. However, I for one prefer to spend my few farthings at locally owned businesses...but that's another story.

The Good
In each of the following cases, our community had processes in place to welcome these chain operations and work with them to develop projects that respected their corporate brand while respecting the character of our downtown. The photographs below show a typical sub-urban version of the chain and the iteration that was built in our downtown.

The Bad
In these cases the poorly designed projects were identified in their early stages. Token gestures were made to make each of them appear more urban, but to little effect. In both cases the powers that be blinked, and in doing so set the precedent for what was to come.

The Ugly
Its fair to say that the pictures below speak for themselves. Is there any difference between what they typically build in the 'burbs and what they have built downtown?

Isn't this backward? Why brick in the 'burbs and EIFS downtown?
The dumpster on the corner of 4th and Broad welcomes the million+ visitors
that enter our downtown from Exit 1C.

Virtually the exact same building. Staring directly at it can cause blindness.

This goes beyond matters of style. This matters to the city. Density, scarceness of land, and uniqueness are in the DNA of downtown. The examples shown above are of projects that actively degrade all of those characteristic elements. The more we continue to do these things, the more our downtown becomes a shadow of itself and a replica of Anywhere, U.S.A.


On the Declining Standard of Building Downtown – Part 1

This is the first of a two-part post. In Part 1 I’ll use words, in Part 2 I’ll use pictures.

There has been a recent spate of craptastic urban design offenses in downtown Chattanooga over the past few months. One subset of this problem has been the invasion of the hackneyed sub-urban chain restaurant monotype. The elements that comprise the poor design are on display for all to see: lack of response to site and context, disrespect for the character of the street, poor use of material and color, ignorance of scale, and a general character that is incompatible with downtown. These buildings represent at best incompetence, and at worse contempt for the people who think Downtown is a special place.

My partner and friend The Real Ann Coulter commented on this for Chattarati several weeks ago. The fact that these shanties are not of an urban place and are hopelessly F’ed up is apparent to all. Even my hyper-right wing friends will concede this much before going off on a “city-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do-with-my-land-by-Gawd“ tangent. Well, I for one completely agree with the CCTMWTDWMLBG argument.

When addressing poor design, the logical next step is to tackle how to guarantee that those concerns are addressed. The inevitable leap is to suggest that government enact law and regulation: design guidelines, form-based codes and the like. The logic is that we can only ensure that people will do the right thing if the City forces them to. The problem is that laws governing aesthetic issues are quite tricky. From a political and technical standpoint they are very difficult to draft and adopt unless you’re in a historic district. Beyond that, design guidelines that are specific enough to keep out the bad apples tend to stifle the responsible designer who doesn’t need them to produce good work in the first place.

So, If not by law, how does a community maintain it’s own identity and elevate its character above the banal shite that we find everywhere? The answer is both simple and complex- collective will. As Chattanooga embarked upon its journey of downtown revitalization, collaboration and cooperation were common elements in virtually every downtown project. Partnership was the norm and there were open lines of communication between public, private and non-profit sectors. When new developments were proposed, there were mechanisms in place to review them and partnerships were crafted to make each project the best it could be. In virtually every case the project improved from an urbanistic standpoint and resulted in a more attractive, financially sound product for the developer.

Those partnerships and collaborations were mandated by the collective will citizenry. Our community was lauded for the inclusive, participatory nature of our past processes that involved citizens-at-large in, visioning exercises, charrettes and public meetings. Instead of public participation being a novel event, it became an expected part of the process. Because the general public was actively engaged in planning the future of their downtown, decision makers were mandated to be proactive in ensuring that development was compatible with the expectations set forth by the community.

Somewhere along the way that civic mentality and the mechanisms to offer assistance broke down. Some of the old players are gone, there has been turnover at most of the involved institutions, and due to our success there are more people playing in the downtown sandbox. The unfortunate result is that new projects are designed and developed in isolation. And as self-evident as the particular truth seems to me, most developers cannot differentiate between design for a sub-urb and design for a downtown. I wouldn’t argue that developers set out to construct ridiculous and inappropriate buildings, they just don’t know any better. And now, there is no one to suggest to them the correct ways to design for downtown.

Which brings us back to our friends who are not so “…Good in the Neighborhood®”. There are ample examples of how communities can work with national chains to ensure that new designs are sympathetic to the place. For that matter, there are numerous examples in our own city. Courtyard by Marriott, Residence Inn, and TGIFridays are all examples of projects where the developers arrived with a set of cookie-cutter, sub-urban designs and through cooperation and collaboration were assisted in redesigning the buildings to ensure that they were consistent with this unique place and with the level of quality that Chattanoogans expect.

We’ve all heard the tired argument that in these lean economic times our community doesn’t have the clout to risk “scaring off” chain retailers by asking them to play by our rules. That is simply not true. After having established a 30-year track record for excellence in urban design, it is our responsibility to be stewards of our inherited built environment, and to protect and nurture it for the future. Places with special, unique character are the ones who have the leverage to make others play by their rules. We’ve done it before and we should be doing now.

My point is this: our community pulled itself up by its bootstraps and developed one of the most unique, vibrant and healthy downtowns in the country. This was done without design guidelines from city government, and it was done without selling our souls for an Any'tizer® QuesaDipper™. It was accomplished because our community understood that quality matters. It was accomplished because of processes that produced community consensus about how the city should evolve. That consensus galvanized the collective will that drove both the public and private sectors and mandated them to work with one another for the good of the community. I suppose the big question is whether or not we will have the collective will to reassert our Collective Will.



Before I start venting my spleen over the goings on out there, I thought it best to warm up with some general concepts to set the stage. For the sake of these posts I am broadly defining urban design as how the public realm looks and feels, and how it is constructed and maintained. For the uninitiated who want more you can find a generic description with links to prominent authors in the field here.
Downtown is important to our entire community, whether you live here or not, and regardless of if one ever comes here to work or play. It is the center of our community, and its wellbeing affects the wellbeing of the region. I will not belabor the statistics (you can find them here, here, and here) but Downtown’s daytime population is 50,000- almost a third of the city’s population. Annually, over 3 million visitors come to downtown and drop almost $690 million. The Community Research Council found that on a per square mile basis the Downtown census tract had an assessed value of nearly four times the value of the next highest census tract.

As sexy as stats about the lucre may be, the true importance of downtown can’t be measured in Benjamins. Downtown has become the symbol of (if not the reason for) the city’s comeback from “Most Polluted City in the Country” to poster child of civic renaissance. It is a place where rich, poor and middle class live. It is the place where a third of us work. It is the place our friends and family gather for any number of celebrations, parades, festivals and fetes. It is the city’s living room. Downtowns are special places. Because they are special, different rules apply. That understanding has been self-evident for most of human history, but over the past half-century we have managed to forget somehow.

When downtown was originally built, the lack of widespread motorized transportation meant that buildings and activities needed to occur close to one another for the obvious reason of pedestrian circulation. Over time, virtually every parcel and building downtown was developed with an eye toward permanence and quality due to the relative scarcity of land close to the center. Out of necessity uses were mixed within blocks and within buildings. Development was vertical to accommodate as much activity as possible within that relatively small footprint.

From a stylistic standpoint, the traditions of how cities were built had been learned incrementally over the course of centuries, and based on those traditions most architecture respected the context in which was sited. Up until the last half of the 20th century there seemed to exist a sense of the common good as it related to how these places were built. The character and quality of the building, and in turn that of the public realm it defined, mattered.

In contrast a sub-urb is a collection of standardized, but unrelated elements; streets are strictly for cars, each land use is segregated, and buildings relate only to themselves. Because of their auto-centric nature, proximity and scarcity do not factor and these places “sprawl”. We all know that if you’ve seen one sub-urb you’ve seen them all. Same McDonalds, same Home Depot, same Applebees, same 13’ asphalt travel lane, same massive parking lot. Except for our own little pieces of the pie, most people don’t really give a damn the ‘burbs themselves. That makes sense, these “places” are brand new and weren’t designed for people anyway.

The places that people do care about are unique in some way. There is some element of environment or character that makes that place unlike any other- that’s what makes it special and worthy of care. When we transplant sub-urban (read: generic) things into a downtown, they destroy the character that makes that downtown unique. The horizontal, single-use, single-story nature of a building, the excessive width of a travel lane, and mandated superfluous parking requirements waste the scarce land resource that defines a downtown.

In a very real way, our city’s deference to sub-urban standards will bastardize downtown. Scarcity, density and uniqueness are in the DNA of downtown, these are the very elements that sub-urban standards attack. If land is continually developed into one-story buildings with large setbacks, what happens? If all of the streets downtown are widened to suburban standards, what happens? If the design of new buildings is no different from those out at Hamilton Place, what happens? If our scarce downtown land is dedicated to excessively sized surface parking lots, what happens? If we continue along those paths, then downtown ceases to exist and we are left with a sub-urb in its stead.

Thankfully, there is inertia at work that will preclude the total sub-urbanization of downtown. However, the argument is sound. Every Applebees, every Buffalo Wild Wings, every dim requirement that comes of the traffic engineers office degrades the jewel of a downtown that many have worked so hard to restore. And make no mistake, there comes a tipping point. While downtown may never be fully sub-urbanized, every incremental step we take in that direction makes this a significantly less special place. In fact, there is a fate worse than the sub-urbs, just ask Pigeon Forge or Panama City…uh, on second thought please don’t…



For the unenlightened, the Scenic City to which I refer is Chattanooga, TN. Over the past couple dozen years our city has become a shining example of downtown revitalization. During those decades, a city that was once declared the most polluted in America has rebounded with a thriving urban center. A major component of that revitalization has been our community’s understanding of the vital importance of the quality of the urban public realm. Our commitment to cooperation and collaboration in the planning, design and stewardship of our shared assets has been one of our defining characteristics.
However, despite our hard-earned reputation, there seems to have been a recent sea change in the level of quality of the built environment and in the level of public discourse that once was the cornerstone of our renaissance. In this space I will express my thoughts and concerns about our downtown, please feel free to comment as you will. From time to time I may also make observations about architecture and urban design as they relate to our city.
Downtown Chattanooga is very important to me, as it has been my personal and professional home since leaving graduate school a decade ago. Accordingly, I do not intend to sugarcoat any observations.  My vocabulary is somewhat limited due to an Alabama public school education. As such, I often have to revert to working “blue”, so read at your own risk (sorry Mom). I promise to do my best to not make this a place of constant bitching and moaning about the state of things. However, it is the nature of critique to make observations that are sometimes unpleasant. I will call 'em like I see 'em, and hopefully in the future we will see more projects and processes worthy of praise.