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.