...I'm going to Disney World!

A few weeks ago I received a comment from a reader who felt my observations regarding bad urban design were irrelevant. He made the point that what happens downtown doesn’t matter since 35%* of our fellow Chattanoogans live below the poverty line. His other point was that the riverfront portion of downtown Chattanooga (5th to Frazier and West of Georgia) was designed and executed as a theme park so we should expect nothing less than the ultimate sub-urbanization of the district. By calling the area a theme park he suggests that it exists solely as a money-making mechanism, that it caters primarily to tourists and lacks authenticity. Those are some pretty heady claims, so instead of simply posting his comment I thought I would devote this week’s column to addressing his points.

The Poverty Question
There is no doubt that the successes of downtown have not been shared across the board by all Chattanoogans. However, you can’t blame poverty in our city on downtown redevelopment. If anything, our downtown renaissance has contributed to the quality of life all Chattanoogans. The tax revenues generated enable the City and County to provide services to all citizens. Downtown businesses provide tens of thousands of jobs to Chattanoogans of all socio-economic backgrounds. After the initial success of the riverfront, that investment has spread into languishing neighborhoods. ML King, Highland Park, North Chattanooga, Cowart Place, Fort Negley, and Jefferson Heights are all neighborhoods that have seen new investment and marked improvement. We’ve also built two new elementary schools to serve inner city neighborhoods- these would not have possible were it not for the economic engine of downtown. I will not make the case that we are where we need to be- but I will refute the argument that the rebirth of downtown has happened at the expense of our city’s indigent.

Our community still has issues concerning social equity. However, like a downtown, the issue of poverty is very complex. I think that urban design can have an effect on the quality of life of impoverished citizens- that it can treat some symptoms. However, the cure to the root causes of poverty has more to do with education, family structure, and access to opportunity than it does with setbacks and building materials.

The Theme Park Argument
Because of the wild success of the Tennessee Aquarium and the restaurants and hotels it spawned, maybe it’s easy to convince a casual observer that the riverfront portion of downtown Chattanooga has become a caricature of itself. However, the most cursory of observations of the area reveals a complex ecosystem- one in which Chattanoogans live, work and play.

My first issue with the theme park claim is that it requires a sub-urban mindset to even make the argument. There are places where you can paint a 130-acre area with a broad brush, but a downtown is not one of them. In the sub-urbs, where monoculture is a defining characteristic, it’s easy to say “that’s a shopping area”, “that’s a residential area”, “that’s an office area.” However, downtowns are incredibly complex systems that resist the broad brush. These days, downtown marketers love to use the phrase “live, work, play”. In other words, these places afford residents the opportunity to conduct most of life’s business in this one place. Perhaps the best way to judge if the area is theme park or city is to test the viability of living, working and playing in the district. 

My wife and I both work in that area (neither of our jobs are theme park oriented…most of the time). The same can also be said for 2,500 Unum employees and 4,000 BCBS employees in the district. I don’t have the time or patience to list every other non-service-oriented business with employees in the district, but they are legion.

The dozens of people who live in the Cherry St Townhomes, the dozens who live in Walnut Hill, the dozens who live in River Pier Landing, the dozens who live in 1st and Market, the dozens who live in Museum Bluffs Riverside, the hundreds who live in Museum Bluffs Parkside, the dozens who live in the Robert E. Lee and the hundreds who live in the Riverset apartments would argue that their homes are not a theme park. (This is not a list of all downtown residents, just the ones that live north of 5th street and west of Georgia.)

Yes, there is a high concentration of restaurants and eateries in the area. Do they serve the tourist trade exclusively? Do Chattanoogans eat at Easy Bistro? (yep). Do Chattanoogans eat at Lupi’s? (you betcha). Do Chattanoogans drink at Hair of the Dog (this one does). Locals at Big River? (affirmative) Hennan’s? (check) Blue Plate? (yessir) 212 Market? (indeed). And the list goes on…

By definition, a downtown will attract people from outside its borders. Healthy regions have vibrant centers, and vibrant centers exist in part to serve their region. It is good for downtown to be a destination for visitors. Downtown is the shared living room for the region and the logical place for us to come together. Does the fact that the riverfront district attracts visitors make it a theme park, or is it indicative of a healthy urban environment? Downtown is supposed to attract people, to house people, to feed people, to offer them diversion, and to provide them a chance to make a living. Ours is an authentic place, not nostalgic. What happens here matters, because the health of our downtown affects not just the people who live, work and play here, but the health of the region as well. 

Downtown is not a theme park, it’s a city. 

*That’s his stat, I think the real number is closer to 27% in Chattanooga in 18% in the region - which is still too high.

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