The Illegally Parked Frog Was Toad

Sorry for title, wack joke. But in a way, surface parking lots are a wack joke. One of the very odd things about our city is that a number of the highest profile sites in downtown are surface parking lots.

As our city grid was initially being filled out from its creation in 1838 through the civil war there were no parking lots (as there were no cars). As we continued to develop, our city grid was almost fully built out with structures and their accessory open spaces. As downtown entered its well-documented decline in middle of the last century, a number of buildings that were perceived to have outlived their usefulness were demolished either actively or through neglect. Through the ‘50s and into the ‘80s some of those sites laid vacant and others were turned into parking lots. Parking lots made some of sense, because the auto boom was in full effect and there was no market for the land as building site. As we entered the ‘90s and were able to right the ship, surface lots became a valuable resource. Existing lots remained, and ill-maintained buildings and vacant lots were cleaned up to provide car storage for visitors and downtown workers. From the tourism standpoint it made great sense because our sub-urban visitors could relate to and were made more comfortable by the sub-urban typology of street-level parking. Remember, at that time the experience of going downtown for diversion or entertainment was a foreign concept to a whole generation of Southerners.  

Fast-forward and the city is now in a different position. Downtown is about more than just tourism (although we still love and welcome our visitors), and we have found that for the most part people are not averse to using structured parking. In a sense, we have outgrown surface parking lots. From a city-building standpoint, a surface lot in a downtown makes no sense. A single-use, surface lot is pretty much a dead loss when it comes to animating and energizing the city. They also require a large amount of our scarce land resource. The parking lot itself is an accessory, not a generator- unless you are high school, one does not go somewhere just to park. Additionally, there are numerous environmental downsides to surface lots including negative effects on both quantity and quality of stormwater runoff and contribution to the heat island effect. And frankly, they just look awful and detract from the perceived quality of a place.

Despite the wasteful nature of a surface lot, you can’t fault landowners: they make more money charging for surface parking than they could charging rent in a new building. It’s a pretty straightforward function of the market. As we know, there is no such thing as a good market or bad market, a market simply is. Until the land has greater value as a building site, it will likely remain a surface lot. However, the issue is that the lot as economic generator only benefits the landowner and the lot operator. Whereas, retail stores, offices, restaurants and the like are economic generators with spin off benefits for numerous parties. They are more valuable to the city as a whole.

Lest we fret, there is a silver lining to the surface lot cloud. As they relate to the future of our city, they can be assets. Each of those lots is a potential site for new and exciting economic generators. When “The Next Big Thing” comes to town looking for a home, we have a laundry list of kick-ass sites:
 across 2nd St from the TN Aquarium,  the corner of 4th and Broad, the corner of MLKing and Market, any of the UNUM lots, the old EPB building site
, Riverfront Parkway and Power Alley
, the old Urban Forum block
, the terminus of Patten Parkway
, the list goes on…

Of course there's also rain in that cloud. Instead of the “The Next Big Thing” we could potentially end up with The Next Big Buffalo Wild Wings, The Next Big Applebees, or The Next Big Walgreens. Look at this map and think about what our city could look like if surface lots developed according to principles of good urbanism. Look at the map and think about what our city would look like if the surface lots are lost to sub-urban scheisse...

Behold, the power to transform our downtown- one way or the other...


Of Terminated Vistas & Tiger Blood

Having whinged for a couple of weeks, I thought I would get back on task and write more specifically about urban design in Chattanooga. As any urban design geek worth his salt, I’ll rely on Kevin Lynch to help frame my observations. In his classic book, The Image of the City, Lynch outlined five elements that people consistently use to mentally map their environment: paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. But rather than slavishly churn out another Lynchian analysis, I’m going to use that framework to describe some other random conditions. This week, let’s look at terminated vistas in downtown.

A “terminated vista” is, as the name implies, a view that focuses on a consciously chosen object or scene. In common practice the view or visual corridor is usually a street (or path in Lynch’s parlance). Although it’s a stretch, I’ve always made a connection between the terminated vista and Lynch’s landmark element. While landmarks need not be the focus of a terminated vista, and a vista need not terminate in a landmark, I find that the two are mutually supportive. But in as much as they support each other they also beg of each other. This relationship escalates with the level of quality or importance of the elements. An important landmark wants to be the focus of a view or views. A well-traveled, open visual corridor wants to be paid off with a focal element where it ends or shifts.

In Chattanooga, we have some good terminated vistas, some opportunities for the future, and a couple of places where we’ve eff’d it up. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, but it’s fairly representative.  Let's have a look…

The best two terminated vistas in Chattanooga are the 8th Street/Dome Building pair and the Holmberg Bridge/Hunter Museum pair:
Hunter Museum from Holmberg Bridge
The Dome Building at 8th & Georgia

I'm also quite partial to the following:
First Methodist Church Steeple
on Georgia Ave.
Waterhouse Pavilion in Miller Plaza
at a shift of MLKing
St. Johns Building
at a shift in Market St.
Lest I paint too rosy a picture and in the interest of equal time, I offer you a poor terminated vista:
Looking to the future, we have some great opportunities to add some special detail to our city. Here are a couple of places where deft handling of a vista will make a big impact:
Eastern terminus of Patten Parkway
SE corner of Main & Market
So, who gives a damn? Why does this matter? Well, that depends on your life perspective. If you define life by its functions: eating, breathing, sleeping, defecating and procreating, then this doesn't really matter much. However, if life is measured by the sum of our experiences and relationships, then this matters a great deal. Mies* once said that God is in the details. When a designer arranges elements in a way that acknowledges you and your position in space and time, he is effectively speaking to you. Oh, the joy of happening upon a place where a designer has left a gift for you. Communing with another human being across time and through the medium of the built environment is a powerful experience. In the grand scheme of life, who is to say that that experience is less important than our national deficit, the ups and downs of the stock market, or what Charlie Sheen is doing these days?


Will Ye No' Come Back Again?

As anyone who has come within earshot of me in the past four days knows well, I had the great fortune to be invited to the first round of a certain golf tournament in Georgia last week. That place is amazing. But as amazing as the place is, it’s not very easy to identify exactly what makes it so special. It is clearly more than a collection grass, trees, paths, athletic facilities, azaleas, creeks, bridges, buildings and parking areas. Everything element there works in concert and enables every other element to be the best it can. The place is the embodiment of synergy.
I would wager that if you charged a horticulturalist, a golf course designer, an architect, a transportation engineer, a golfer and a hydrologist to each design their idea of a perfect place and overlaid them, you couldn’t come up with anything close to the quality found there. For example, on this course a tree does not exist just for environmental purposes or aesthetic appeal, it also provides shade for patrons and other plants, habitat for wildlife, detention for stormwater, and challenges for golfers (and Presidents). Likewise, every other element of that place plays a number of roles in a number of the nested systems that comprise the ecosystem of the golf course.

Cities follow the exact same model. In a perfect world, a street would not only move cars, but move pedestrians, provide an organizational structure for buildings, house other infrastructure, accommodate parking, and provide opportunities for social interaction. However, in our country we have been more than willing to abdicate the responsibility for designing holistic, integrated places to experts who design their little piece of the pie without concern for how the disparate elements of the city relate to one another.

Despite arguments to the contrary, the soulless, sub-urban sprawl we have produced for decades is not a nefarious act perpetrated by greedy developers. Our cities have developed according to a comprehensive and prescriptive set of design guidelines. We haven’t called them design guidelines, we call them street design standards, subdivision regulations, and zoning ordinances. Sub-urban sprawl is mandated by law. Those guidelines were based on sound principles; the safety of automobile drivers, providing fire and police protection for houses, and segregating incompatible land-uses- all worthy goals. However, as experts in various fields were drafting their design guidelines, no thought was given to how all of the pieces fit together in this very complex system. The ultimate effect is the opposite of synergy, our whole is less than the sum of the parts since the parts are often working at cross purposes.

The greatest cities in the world have been created incrementally by generalists, comprehensive thinkers and renaissance men- not credentialed experts. Clearly, the solution is to do away with laws that force us to do the wrong thing and start over with integrated development codes that enable healthy city building. Unfortunately, we have chosen to go in the other direction and engage more experts to create more layers of regulation that do nothing but band-aid a broken system.

The great Bobby Jones*, co-founder of the Masters Tournament, was a renaissance man, an attorney and an amateur golfer. Our city builders need to have a similar focus on not only having a well-rounded game, but a well-rounded perspective.

*If you can watch this without getting misty you have no soul…(8’ long, but worth every second)


Check Your Math

One day as I was driving to see my good friends (and Small Business of the Year Award winners) at Collier Construction, I came across the following billboard for a new apartment complex…

Questionable accounting

When I decided to start writing I promised myself that this space would not become a bastion of bitching. I also wanted to try to avoid singling out developments for criticism. I think it's more interesting to talk about concepts and big picture issues than it is to dissect specific projects. However, this week I’m flirting with crossing that line. 

I have a hard time getting too fired-up about goings-on outside of downtown, so frankly I'm ambivalent about this particular project. However, the billboard got my goat. Let’s never mind the fact that this development is not actually urban. Never mind the fact that half the site is not even in Chattanooga, much less downtown. Denuding a hilltop, building at 11 units per acre and accessing the site by a minor miracle of modern engineering does not urbanity (or perfection) make. However, this development is no worse than 3 or 4 four others in that same area, so I will stop here lest I cross too far over the line of development critique.

Development quality level aside, their mathematics need work:  “Urban + Suburban = Perfection”. Having married into the marketing world and living in a society that bombards us with pitches, I understand the game. Usually, I can chalk such silliness up to the ad game, but I couldn’t shake this one. I understand that a marketing firm came up with that line for an ad that will run for a month or two, and for them it’s a throwaway piece of prose. But this statement is so obviously and fundamentally wrong that I have to address it at face value.

Urban + Suburban = Perfection, this is not possible. “Urban” relates to or is concerned with a city or densely populated area. “Sub-Urban” means less than urban. Those two conditions are antithetical. The two cannot coexist in the same space much like matter/anti-matter, silence/sound, 'Bama fans/Auburn fans. As one introduces sub-urban elements into an urban setting, the urbanity is eroded or destroyed and one is left with a sub-urban condition.

I’m a child of the sub-urbs (God’s own Montgomery, AL), and most of the people I know grew up in sub-urbs as well. In a way, it's difficult to stomach the thought that our way of life is anything other than ideal (especially since we also happen to be Americans). Millions of people in our country have psychologically invested themselves in the perceived decency and righteousness of the suburb. However, we have had nothing else to compare it to since city design guidelines have ensured that sub-urbs are essentially our only residential option. But if we are to be honest with ourselves it has become increasingly apparent that this scheme of development is deficient from financial, environmental, health and social standpoints.

My old stomping grounds

One of my favorite articles on the subject is an oldie-but-goodie from Newsweek. One of the reasons that I like the article is because it frames the issues as solutions instead of just bitching about what sucks. Its easy to see how dated the article is because there is no mention of the (oh so en vogue) sustainability issue or any mention of how the collapse of the financial system that was set up to create the sub-urb has almost bankrupted us. The unfortunate reality is that we will not have the resources to continue to inhabit suburbs the way we have for the past sixty years. But the more salient question is: even if we had unlimited resources why would want to continue to build this stuff anyway?