My Favorite: Block

A few weeks ago I wrote about a favorite building, this week I thought I would highlight a favorite block. An “actual” city block, the area circumscribed by the four streets enclosing it, could potentially have 4 very different characters. Therefore, I’m defining the block as the street segment and the buildings on both sides of that street. However, before I set about the task of describing the block, I am going to make a sad observation (whether it is the observation itself or the subject that is sad, I will leave for you to judge).

When picking my favorites for the blog, I go with my heart. The decision-making process takes about 2.7 seconds. Afterward, I spend a little bit more time thinking through the alternatives just to makes sure than I’m not proposing anything too dense. As I was reviewing all of the blocks downtown I realized something that has disturbed me since I recognized it- we don’t have a single ideal block in downtown. Of course, “ideal” is a loaded word, but from the standpoint of form and function every block in downtown Chattanooga is deficient in one aspect or another. I obviously don’t have space to critique every downtown block, so if you want to argue, please feel free to comment on this page or send me an email. That said, we’re on to my favorite…

While not perfect, I’m currently in love with the 700 block of Cherry Street. I will concede that at the time of writing I happen to be in said block enjoying a distilled beverage and a Padron 1964 Anniversary Exclusivo so my judgment may be (literally) clouded. Regardless of my current state, I remember the impression I got the first time I experienced the block- I thought “cool, that’s a city block”. Indeed, that is the strength of this block: it doesn’t rely on any one particular element. It feels like a city block because the wide range of elements all work together. While we can analyze the elements in isolation, there is a synergy to their arrangement that is greater than the sum of the parts.

The street grid is the driver of urban form in this part of the city. This block is part of the original city grid that was laid out in 1838. The block is also one of those ravaged by the flood of 1867. Because of that flood, the City (with the help of citizens) backfilled to raise the street level of downtown. The current level of this section of street is now roughly 10 feet higher than it was when the city was founded.

Cherry Street was part of the misguided one-way street network until (our hero) Corker reversed that in 2002. So we currently have a well-connected block with travel lanes in each direction, on-street parking on both sides, and an in-block cut-through to interior alleys on either side of the street.

The proportion of the block is excellent. Building face to building face is roughly 60 feet and those buildings are, for the most part, 3 stories tall (although some of the offices on the east side are a tall two stories). I think 3 stories is the ideal height for buildings in our city. That height respects the scarcity of land in our core while maintaining a pleasant human scale.

Building architecture in the block is pretty solid. There aren’t any masterpieces, but there are some fairly handsome older buildings. Not terribly crazy about the modern parking structure, but the scrim could have been worse.The block is also home to the city’s first LEED Gold building, that housing my friends at River St Architecture.

From a land use standpoint, the block is very diverse. In this 430 foot section of Cherry we have a restaurant/pub, jeweler, sandwich shop, diner, architect, couple of title companies, several attorneys, bank, parking structure, loan service, event planner, bondsman, printer, office furniture store, and a surface parking lot. The only thing missing (and it is close to a fatal flaw) is a strong residential component.

Beyond the lack of housing, shouldn’t the fact that the block is home to a surface parking lot automatically disqualify it from “Favorite Block” consideration? On the face of it, yes. However, cities are like forests- constantly growing and evolving over time. In this case, I choose to consider the surface lot an asset. This is an opportunity for the block to continue to improve over time. However, as with all potential it could either way. So here’s to hoping that the eventual designer and developer of that lot will do something that strengthens the block instead of weakening it.

Kahn once noted that in architecture we start with something immeasurable, go through measurable means, and end with results that are immeasurable. We can translate that architectural concept to a city building concept. The elements that comprise the whole can be described and quantified, but the feeling of the block is something more difficult to measure. To me, this block looks, feels and works like a “real” city block. While it’s not perfect, its my favorite.


Oy VeyI Again With the Design Guidelines?

In response to an earlier post I have received some hate mail from a couple of friends who think I am disparaging the holy sacrament of the design guideline. A couple of these are people I love and respect, so I thought I should dignify their comments with a response.
Let me first say that an urban designer blogging about guidelines is a bit like a foodie dining at the Fat Duck* and writing about the tableware. A fork is a very useful tool, and there are no doubt fork blogs out there that discuss the ins and outs of tine-crafting. However, when all is said and done, a fork is a tool, a device that aids in accomplishing a task. Design guidelines are no different. As much as I do not hate forks, I do not hate design guidelines.
So if design guidelines and overlay districts are the fork, what is the meal and who are the chefs? The chef de cuisine has to be embodied by the collective will of the citizenry. It is the citizens who have to decide if we will be dining on saddle of venison with beetroot soubise, risotto of spelt, umbles and black truffle or if we’ll be choking down a #5 from Taco Town. As in a restaurant kitchen, teamwork and cooperation are essential elements in executing “the dish” that the community desires.

Establishing a collective consensus about the state of our community, and nurturing the partnerships that grow out of that process are far more important than the tools used to implement them. I have argued (successfully) that those partnerships in and of themselves can actually be just as effective as tools. We didn’t have design guidelines downtown during the 80’s and 90’s and our community did a fantastic job of maintaining our identity and making the city a world-class example of good urbanism.
It is the people that make the difference not the tool (although some people are tools, but that’s a subject for another post). What I have stated is that the remedy for things like the bad chain restaurants is not to slap a set of design guidelines on them. A case has to be made to the community that these things matter, and we need a stable of engaged citizens who understand the language of urbanism and why it matters. Only then do tools like design guidelines and overlay districts began to even remotely make sense.
Design guidelines that are worth a damn have to have broad support. This support has to include buy-in from local government, the development community, and the citizenry at large. Without that broad support the wrong compromises get made and the guidelines get watered down. The result is a process that doesn’t really work for anyone and exists only for its own sake.
My point can be illustrated with a local example. (I have no interest in opening old wounds or rehashing the past in great detail, so I will omit the specifics.) Several years ago there was a proposal for a chain store in one of the local overlay districts. Both site and building design clearly violated both the spirit and letter of the district guidelines. However, after grousing and grumbling from folks on both sides of the issue, the development was approved, built, and is in operation today. How did it happen? Well, that depends on your point of view. There are two possible scenarios. If one believes that the board genuinely thought that the proposal fit the guidelines, then either the guidelines were flawed, or the individual members did not understand them. The other scenario is that board members, for whatever reason, did not vote their conscience. In either event, we have a scenario where having a tool in place made: absolutely…no…difference.
I read this week that the RPA has undertaken to draft design guidelines for downtown and will have them completed in six months. Having worked for the RPA some years ago, I still know most of the folks down there and think they will do a fine job from their end. However, I must admit that the timeframe scares me. In the current environment I have doubts that it is possible to convene stakeholders and community, have substantive conversations about downtown, establish how design should address those conditions and draft a technically proficient document within six months. I rather suspect that this is a knee-jerk response to the Applebee’s and BWW buildings. I think it's great that there is support in the community to do something, but if we are going to do something, I think we should focus on doing it right instead of rushing to get something in place.
Design guidelines have their place, and perhaps over time that will make sense here. However, judging by our past successes and failures I think it's folly to believe that guidelines are the nostrum to cure our urban ills. The more pressing task is for the community to restart its dialogue and reform its partnerships.
Perhaps before we try selecting which particular fork we should use, we should find out what we’re eating. Shall we eat our soup with a fork?

Heston Blumenthal is an unqualified genius. My foodie friends should go here and watch the two videos of Heston preparing a “Trojan hog”. He sous vides a whole…hog…in a hot tub.


Design Creating Community

Earlier this week an interesting question was posed on the CreateHere blog concerning “how design creates community”. Paul Rustand went on to further define the question as “how does making things right create a group of people living in close association with common interests and goals?”
To be fair, Paul was probably talking graphic design (hence his inclusion of a number of marks and logos). But since I deal in cities and buildings my mind immediately leapt to the design of the built environment. If we accept the broad interpretation of the question, then any of the New Urbanist developments can be offered as proof that design does indeed create community. The whole New Urban schtick is design driven: dense, diverse, walkable communities. Through regulating plans and form-based codes everything in the urban public realm is considered and designed.  What those tools help create are places that attract groups of like-minded people. In fact, a common interest of those residents happens to be design as practiced by the New Urbs.  Tangent Alert: Though the New Urbanism is for the most part a good thing, it is far from the panacea some of the true believers purport it to be. I'm sorry, but I have to hate on the New Urbs a bit: 1) I seriously think it's a cult 2) the architecture drips with nostalgia 3) their prime examples were all built in greenfields in the hinterlands, and 4) their land use may be diverse, but I’m not sure their populations are.) 

I could leave it at that, but it seems a bit of a cop-out to offer greenfield subdivisions as proof of the link between design and community. Besides, this blog is about Chattanooga. So, I offer an example that is near and dear.

Jefferson Heights, like so many other urban neighborhoods, languished during the post WWII sub-urbanization of our country. Issues of vacant and ill-maintained properties and the homogenization of socio-economic class are all too familiar. The potential jewel of the neighborhood, Jefferson Heights Park was underused, largely unprogrammed and contained only a modest pavilion and a couple of swings. But, in the grand tradition of Chattanoogans working together to fix things, the neighborhood became the focus of reinvestment by non-profits, the philanthropic community, private interests and most important, existing residents. Vacant and derelict properties were cleaned up and developed, salvageable buildings were restored, and existing residents offered assistance for repairs and maintenance. Over the past ten years the neighborhood has attracted hundreds of new residents and millions of dollars of new investment. One of the most remarkable things about the neighborhood is that it has seen a high level or investment and redevelopment but it has not been gentrified. In our 12 block area are African-Americans, Latinos, and Caucasians all of varying socio-economic conditions. Proof of that can be found in the faces of the dozens of folks found in the park at any given time. But did design create the community?
This was the conceptual plan for the
area around Jefferson Heights Park

3d Model of the conceptual plan.
The plan wasn't perfect, but it's heart
was in the right place.

Several years back, while at the Planning & Design Studio, CNE (our nonprofit housing organization) asked me to put together some design concepts for the park and surrounding parcels. The general program was to maximize residential density and project some improvements for the public space. My plan ended up projecting around 70 housing units focused on creating four edges of development around the park. Over the course of the next few years, vacant land around the park was acquired by Jefferson Heights Tomorrow (a partnership between the Lyndhurst Foundation, CNE and RiverCity). The park was redesigned, reprogrammed, and a design competition held for the creation of a new pavilion. Affected properties were rezoned to allow for the type of residential density that existed in the neighborhood, but was no longer legal under our current zoning. The land was then put up for bid in phases to the private sector via an RFP process.

Panoramic view of the new pavilion and the
western and northern edges of the park.

All of the lots that went through the RFP process had to be built to third party green standards and were subject to design review. The design standards included requirements for generous front porches, mass and scale that fit the context of the neighborhood, and substantial, active edges facing the park. The public realm improvements focused on pedestrian safety and comfort: narrow streets, on-street parking, and generous sidewalks. As with the New Urbs, Jefferson Heights is dense, diverse (in many sense of the word) and walkable- but I wouldn’t call it New Urbanism, simply urbanism. The design of the lots and homes is not a new condition. The scale of the new lots and buildings, and elements of new architecture are driven by the existing design of the neighborhood. So in a sense Jefferson Heights is a new community, not independent of, but evolved from a community that was designed a hundred years ago.

Before/after of Jefferson Street

Before/after of 18th Street
Before/after Madison Street
 As one can make the case that the design of streets, architecture and open space creates community one can also illustrate the point by showing how the poor design of those elements breaks community down. Had the lots, streets, and buildings been developed to suburban design standards the community would not have been created. The reasons are simple- lot standards would have meant far fewer people living there, standard street design would have provided far fewer opportunities for people to walk and interact, and the insular design of most sub-urban architecture precludes the opportunity for chance encounters with neighbors. Any community (as we have defined) that exists in a typical sub-urb does so in spite of, rather than as a result of the design of the place.
In Jefferson Heights, design has created a condition where there is population density, a comfortable pedestrian environment, an architecture that allows people to interact with each other, and a shared place for people to gather for pause, recreation or celebration. These conditions exist not by happenstance but because people understood the power of design to create community and planned for them in advance.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have done some work in the neighborhood including a plan, the pavilion and the housing phase that eventually became known as Madison Street (the first LEED Platinum homes in Tennessee). Though I have been involved in a number of projects, let me be quick to point out that there are literally dozens of other professionals and neighbors who have worked harder and had a greater impact on the neighborhood than I. My family and I are truly grateful to them because we now reap the rewards of their hard work.


I’m fixin’ to write

Warning: At almost 1,300 words I’m a bit long this week ….(cue Steve Carrell)
Back in the days of my misspent youth while living in New Mexico, a friend of mine made the following observation: “everything in The South must be broken, because you’re always ‘fixin’ to do something.” For those of you not fortunate enough to be from ‘round here, ‘fixin’ means getting ready to do something. I was reminded of his comment earlier this week when my Spence proclaimed that he was “fixin’ to go play soccer in the park”. I was simultaneously mortified at his grammar and elated that he was embracing his Southerness (after all, he is half-yankee on his Mama’s side). However, his words got me thinking about fixing (not fixin’) things.
Over the course of the past 30 years our city has done a pretty good job of fixing things. Once upon a time our downtown was not a very pleasant place. However, the community came together, established plans and turned things around. While we once were the dirtiest city in America, that is no longer the case. Where there was no memorable “heart” to downtown we planned and built our communal living room, Miller Plaza. We planned a return to the river and the reinhabitation of our city, and the efforts at the riverfront and in our urban neighborhoods have been very successful.
However, some of the biggest fixes we’ve had to make were (and continue to be) to our transportation system. At one point in American history, the prevailing goal of planners and transportation engineers (who are still at that point) was to get cars from one place to another as quickly as possible, everything else be damned. As a result, the broadest development strokes in our downtown were painted with asphalt brushes. I-24 cut off residential areas of the city from downtown, US-27 cut off the Westside from downtown (and lopped off the top of Cameron Hill), Riverfront Parkway isolated us from our river, and the 1-way pair of McCallie and MLKing created a racetrack through our historic neighborhoods.

Cameron Hill once had a profile very similar to Lookout
Mountain. During the original US-27 work the
neighborhood on the hill was razed and the top of the
hill excavated to provide fill for the project.

The first thing we were able to fix was the 1-way pair. To his eternal credit, Mayor (now Senator) Corker championed that effort. However, there was an almighty uproar from a cadre of transportation engineers. We were warned that careening drivers who don’t know how to navigate 2-way streets would maim or kill untold dozens and that gridlocked traffic, pollution, and neighborhood degradation would ensue. We’re eight years on now, and from an anecdotal standpoint I don’t believe any of that has come to pass. However, I do believe that millions of dollars worth of new medical facilities, restaurants and residential developments have followed in the wake of the conversion.
The second thing we fixed was Riverfront Parkway. After investing millions downtown leading up to and after the opening of the aquarium, we were still no closer to actually engaging the birthplace of our city. The 21st Century waterfront plan proposed reducing the size of Riverfront Parkway in order to provide access to the river for our citizens and visitors. The engineers again warned that without this limited-access facility, truck traffic would have nowhere to go, and that 18-wheelers careening at breakneck speeds would overrun our downtown. We’re six years on now, and from an anecdotal standpoint I don’t believe that has come to pass. What we got in return for that reconfiguration was the lynchpin for millions of dollars of private investment and an accessible, beautiful riverfront for residents and visitors.
Those examples are a prelude, not meant as a “told ya so”-I have no interest in rubbing it in. I have reasonable friends who were on both sides of both of those arguments. The point of those two stories is that when dealing with “experts” who are protecting their turf, you have to take everything with a grain of salt. Traffic folks* worry about traffic- not people, not economic development, not quality of life, not social justice, and not sustainability. But in a way, it’s not their fault. Our society has been duped into believing that everything can be broken down into individual components and those components addressed in isolation by experts. We have largely lost the ability to think comprehensively and see the interconnectedness of nested systems. How we handle our automobile traffic is important, but is it more important than the places we spend the other 22.5 hours of our day?  What is the point of having a massive road system that can handle a shitload of traffic if the places that it serves aren’t worth visiting because they’re all paved over?

But I digress, back to fixing things. Because of politics and inertia it can be tough to fix the big things. During the two-way switch we constantly heard the phrase “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, (never mind the fact that it was broken). People just don’t like change. So when things are changing anyway, it pays to take advantage as the opportunity presents itself. It just so happens that the expansion of US-27 is upon us. The last set of drawings I saw are a traffic engineer’s wet dream – massive retaining walls, frontage roads, and a sweet-ass roundabout thrown in for good measure. It’s as if they thought the initial work of scalping Cameron Hill and isolating the Westside wasn’t complete, and now they’re back to finish the job.

The Westside of Chattanooga once had a well-
connected street grid. The neighborhood, along
with Cameron Hill contained hundreds of
single family homes and dozens of
acres of mature tree canopy.

Animation- What we got in return for US-27:
1 church, 1 shopping center (viable for 30 years),
1 apartment complex, 6 housing towers, 2 car
dealerships, a disconnected street network,
loss of acres vegetation, and a city cloven in half.

The project has come and gone in fits and spurts. Some years ago when the project first came ‘round, an alternative study was done to investigate how we can fix what we broke back in the 50s. That study recommended an at-grade boulevard that would reconnect the street network thereby reconnecting the two cloven halves of the city.  The by-product of that would be acres of land freed for new economic development and city building. As you might expect, many a traffic engineer suffered brainsplurge at the very thought. Of course, they have their reasons for disliking the concept: truck traffic would have nowhere to go, 18-wheelers careening at breakneck speeds would overrun our downtown, gridlocked traffic, pollution, and neighborhood degradation would surely ensue (sound familiar? I’m sure they mean it this time).
Unfortunately, for those of us who think this is a prime opportunity to fix one the problems with our downtown, I do not know if we will be able to win the day. TDOT has held their stealth public meetings, right-of-way acquisition is afoot, and from everything I’ve heard they really like their design and are more concerned with gittin’ ‘er dun than fixing things.
I find the whole thing depressing. If we’re going to make a massive intervention and spend millions on top of millions to do it, why wouldn’t we want something more to show for it in the end? Instead of spending that money to accomplish one, single-minded goal, why can’t we develop a solution that accomplishes many goals? This is a once in a generation opportunity to rectify poor decisions of the past, addresses concerns of the present, and provide opportunities for the future. I guess the question is whether or not our community sees this for the rare opportunity that it is.
* There are places in our country where the vision of traffic engineers has been fully realized. In these places hierarchical (as opposed to networked) streets are laid out with mandated parking requirements, then segregated uses fight for the leftover land. As you may have guessed, we call these places sub-urbs. Oddly enough, even though the places are driven by traffic engineer's requirements, they also tend to be the places where traffic is most jacked up and congested- go figure.