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.

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