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.

No comments:

Post a Comment