Chattanooga, the Next PXXXXX XXXXX ?

Ladies and gents – be forewarned that the next couple of weeks on the ole C.Rushing blog will be dark. I’m going to use this week and next to experiment with another way of making the argument that both design and the triple bottom line matter.  The way to do that is to project what our city might look like if we continue to sacrifice our uniqueness and quality and to see if there are other cities that have followed that path. In a last second change of heart I have decided not to actually call out all the example tourist trap cities- it’s not really about them anyway.

This year’s obligatory news reports of Americans spiriting off hither and yon for the holiday weekend rubbed me the wrong way. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the institution of the vacation, on the contrary, I embrace it. My agita stems from what a number of our cities have done to themselves in a struggle to grasp the tourist dime. For those who have not had the pleasure of visiting XXXXXX XXXXX, imagine if you would a place flowing with cheap plastic trinkets, airbrushed t-shirts and salt-water taffy. A place cluttered with cheap and cheesy enterprises that appeal to the lowest common denominator of tourist traffic. Its sister cities are likely Panama City Beach, FL and Blackpool, England. If you think I’m being snobby, or that the amount of lucre generated by such places justifies their state– read no further, there is no help for you here.

Our Destiny?
The reason people are still attracted to these places is the nostalgia and myth associated with them. Assuredly these places were not originally founded on principles of visual clutter, renegade advertising, and discount bric-a-brac, otherwise no one would have ever visited in the first place. What made these places once distinctive is their physical setting and environmental quality. These qualities generated visitors and spawned local businesses to service them. Over time the places have become victims of their tourism success. The thirst for the tourist dime has compromised the features that made the places authentic and turned them into caricatures of themselves.

Surely Chattanooga, poster child of American downtown renewal, will never follow that path to the dark side. Right? Well my friend, the transformation is afoot. The symptoms can be seen in the new Buffalo Wild Wings, Applebee’s, the new riverfront ticket shack, our lack of attention to public realm detail, and the way in which we treat the entrance to our downtown home. The symptom is the declining standard of quality- the causes are simplistic accounting, a lack of community discourse and the failure of the citizenry to form and implement its collective will.

When the Aquarium hit the scene in ‘92, developers could have filled every parcel within a 3-block radius with all manner of chain restaurants, souvenir shops and gas stations within weeks. However, there existed an understanding in the community that every parcel downtown should contribute to the quality of the whole, that there is value in home-grown business, and that quality matters. This understanding was not the innate notion of a few individuals, it was the result of community conversations that produced a consensus about how the city should evolve. The consensus galvanized a collective will that drove both the public and private sectors and mandated them to partner with one another.

Apparently, somewhere along the way we as a community lost our resolve. 20 years ago, would BWW or Applebee’s have been allowed to develop in their current forms? Absolutely not. Would a city department have been allowed to plop down an out of context shack in the middle of our most impressive public space without community discourse? Not only no, but hell no. Would utilities have gouged out pavered sidewalks and replaced them with cheap asphalt patches? No-sir. Would there have been uproar from angry citizens and community stakeholders? Bet your tail there would have. Well, how about 2010 when these things happened? Cue the crickets.

Ach, I hate the colonel, with his wee beady eyes.
"Oh, you're gonna buy my chicken, ohhh."
Why are things different now than in days past? The private and not-for-profit players are still here. City and County Government are still here. We have more downtown business/chamber/resident coalitions than we can shake a chicken wing at. Where is the uproar? Where is the righteous indignation? Where is the mild casual comment? Cue the crickets…

Considered in isolation, none of these sub-urban transgressions have the ability to undo a downtown. The problem is that they are not happening in isolation, they are occurring concurrently and continually. The problem is that there is virtually no community conversation regarding these things and that they are actually being encouraged by local government. By not challenging these things, what we as a community have done is lower our standards. Without a significant voice of protest, these now-lowered standards will only continue to decline.

Next week, the root of this evil.


Happy New Year

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
Eliel Saarinen

This past week, my friend and fellow urbanist Blythe Bailey and I were given the opportunity to serve as facilitators for the Hunter Museum’s Art+Issues program. Each week of the series a selected speaker chooses a work in the museum and uses that as a starting point for a conversation concerning their particular field. As we share an affinity for all things urban: people, cities, public spaces and transportation, Blythe and I were both drawn to the Reginald Marsh painting,  Subway - 14th Street.  The painting is a snapshot of subway scene in New York in the 1930s, but perhaps more important than what is shown in the painting is what has not been shown. Out of frame are the portals into the city, the ultimate destination of the subjects in the painting.

Considering that the piece is as much about context as it is content, it made sense to discuss the context within which the piece was being viewed. The gallery in which the painting hangs is a relatively compressed space (in some ways similar to subway in the painting) with a low-hung waffle slab ceiling. From that space we emerge into the more voluminous gallery spaces of the museum and eventually outdoors. The museum itself occupies a place within a district, that district a place within downtown, and downtown a place within the larger region. From the standpoint of the built environment, the success or failure of all of those elements can be gauged by how well they relate to the context in which they exist. 

As we made our way through those spaces and out to the Museum balcony, we engaged in a conversation concerning various past projects and processes in the downtown area. The common thread in the success stories was a high level of public discourse and dialogue. The common thread in our failures has been lack of attention to context. What has not escaped notice of the participants is our flagging level of public discourse regarding the physical development of downtown. The silver lining to that cloud is that there seems to be a groundswell of concern over some regrettably designed projects and a clamoring for a return to the day of active dialogue and discourse.

We were both very pleased with the turnout and heartened to see how passionate so many of them were about downtown. We encouraged all to keep their eyes open for ways to contribute to the civic dialogue and to make their voices heard in processes over the coming months. Several little birdies have mentioned to me that a number of opportunities will present themselves this summer. More to come soon…

Switch Up- Last year has finally ended. I mark my years and seasons with sports. The year actually starts at summers end with the first Alabama football game. The year ends in late May with the last Birmingham City game. The remaining time is summer. This year was pretty lame- ‘Bama underachieved, and yesterday Blues got relegated. On the bright side the Tide killed the vols and Blues whipped up on Villa en route to winning the Carling Cup. I’m looking forward to a relaxing summer without the psychological rigours of fandom.

If I may quote from Conan..."What is best in life?"
"To crush your enemies -- See them driven before you,
and to hear the lamentation of their women!"

Switch Up- In breaking news, Kennedy, Coulter, Rushing & Watson was honored with the Better Business Bureau Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics. Apparently the bribes worked... oops...I've said too much. But seriously,  I'm very proud of all the whole crew. That's good stuff.


In Every Direction

I come to you this week from outside of the 423.  My bride and I needed a break and since she was indifferent to my initial suggestion for a day-trip to the Lost Sea, we had to look elsewhere. In a stroke of perfect timing one of our favorite bands in the world, Junip, happened to be in North America and happened to be within driving distance, so here we are in the beautiful burg of Asheville, NC.

Love me some Jose Gonzalez
This is my first visit to Asheville, although I’ve wanted to visit for some time. Over the years I have heard and read comparisons about this place and our city, but I can’t really see it to be honest. Having been here for a day, I wouldn’t hazard to attempt a full-on comparison/contrast between the two but it’s nice here.

The initial approach to a building, a city or any other place is a very important experience to me, and one that I try to pay special attention to. The approach into Asheville is fairly unremarkable. The procession into the city doesn’t do justice to what seems to be a pretty cool downtown. My approach to Asheville brought to mind my first approach to the city of Chattanooga. (Note: This story will confirm what many of you may have long suspected, that I am an idiot of the highest order).

The year was 19 and 99, and I was on my was to the Scenic City for a job interview with the Chattanooga Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency Frankly, I didn’t know much about Chattanooga other than the fact that some work had been done downtown and on the riverfront. A friend of mine had mentioned that there were several decent hotels near the riverfront and suggested I stay there. So with no idea of where I was going I set off in search of the river (Of course, this was back in the day before widespread use of navigation devices, peer rated hotel reviews and online booking).

That day I had to wait until late afternoon to leave Awbun, and as such didn’t arrive in Chattanooga until well after dark. As I passed through the ridge cut and saw the city before me, I knew that I had arrived.  Continuing along I-24, my first impression of the city was that it was a bit sketchy. To be fair, that stretch of interstate as it passes through the city is not particularly scenic. When I saw exit 178 Market St/Downtown I thought it was all figured out. However, as I exited and turned north on Market I immediately got the impression that I was going the wrong way. There wasn’t a soul to be seen and the surroundings looked ill maintained and inhospitable. Before I reached Main Street I pulled a u-turn in Market and headed back to the interstate. Of course we all know, that had I been a bit more intrepid and proceeded another block I would have come to the Choo-Choo and picked up on the cues of streetscape and public realm improvements.

Back on the interstate, I figured that US-27 north would be the next most likely route to the riverfront. Making the turn north I was impressed by the industrial complexes to both sides of the highway that quickly gave way to a more panoramic view of downtown proper. At first glance it was apparent that downtown Chattanooga was a very well-scaled place and my spirits were buoyed. I opted not to take any of the exits into downtown because at this point I still had no idea where the river was.

Once you can actually see the river, it’s too late to make an exit on its southern side- so I made my way north. From this point all you have to do is exit onto Manufacturers Road and head east and south. At the time that didn’t appear to be a good option. The name of the road made it sound like it led to an industrial area of town and I couldn’t actually see a physical connection. So, my strategy was to take the next exit and see if I could find a way to navigate back south and east. After about 30 minutes of wandering in Red Bank I decided to abandon my quest for the river and head back to a hotel near the interstate. I settled for an overnight stay at what once was the Days Inn at 20th and Market.

C.Rushing Slept Here
As you may have guessed, the story has a happy ending. I had a decent night’s sleep, a good interview, and got the job. Of course, those events changed my life and led to me meeting my wife, settling down, having children, making great friends, developing professionally and all of the other blessings I have experienced over the past dozen years.

Now don’t be the jackass that’s going post comments on how I could have a) stopped and asked for directions, b) dropped $3 to buy a map, or c) spent a little more time driving around downtown. We know this. The point of this story is that first impressions are important. The gateways into our city and between our districts make important statements about how the community envisions itself, what our aspirations are, and what our common values are.

What do the gateways into downtown say about us in 2011? At Exit 178 off of I-24 we have a car dealership, Welcome Liquors, a few dilapidated buildings and a semi-shady Kanku’s.  At exit 1C off of US-27 we encounter a movie theatre loading dock, the loading dock of the John Ross Building and the ass-end of Applebee’s dumpster before arriving at the architectural marvel that is Chili’s. Each of these design elements was rationalized in isolation, but in concert and context they present a less than appealing face for our community. The good news is that both of those conditions can be influenced and impacted as we move forward with the development of our city- we just have to design like give a damn.


Form Ever Follows Function

I do pretty much all of my writing for the blog on Sundays. This particular Sunday is Mother’s day. Before I delve into the thème de la semaine I want to wish BaBa, Mom, Denise and all you Mothers out there the happiest and healthiest of days.

Back in my architecture school days in New Mexico, the maxim that “Form ever follows function” was relentlessly drilled into our malleable young brains. Depending on the professor, the quote was attributed to pretty much every modern architect depending on his or her personal preferences. What I always took from that statement was that the shape of a building was supposed to be driven by the activities that occur within it. A building’s ultimate purpose is to accommodate its use as perfectly as possible. If that use is perfectly accommodated the resulting form of the building will be perfect as well. Of course, the secondary reference is to the modernist architect’s disdain for decoration and embellishment for its own sake. Their thought is that clean, elegant detailing, the interplay of positive and negative space, and the quality of light is a higher and better aesthetic than stylized flower relief and decorative molding. I buy that assertion by the way.

It has lately occurred to me that that hoary old saying can be applied on many different levels. One of the inevitable gripes that surfaces in the discussion of the developments such as Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebee’s is that the materials, color and architectural style of the buildings are incongruous with downtown as a whole. This is true. But more important than those things is how the building functions within the downtown ecosystem. In this sense “form follows function” could be taken to mean that the physical appearance of the thing is less important than how the site contributes to downtown. Form truly follows function...in importance.

I have argued previously that the health of downtown as a whole depends on sites that respect the principles that make places urban: respect for the scarcity of land (density), and respect for the sense of place (context). Neither of those principles necessarily require beauty or aesthetic quality. The point is that the otherworldly hues and ambivalent architecture of BWW is less an issue than are the facts that it is a single-story, single-use building with no frame of reference to anything around it.

The sword cuts both ways. There are a number of buildings downtown that drip with nostalgia and embrace superfluous architectural decoration that support a mixture of uses at a density that contributes to the urbanity of the place. While some of these buildings make my inner aesthete throw up in his mouth a little, the fact remains that they embrace and support the things that make downtown great. In this case, the style is less important than the substance, the form subjugated to the function.

It appears that the City is now putting together a set of design guidelines for downtown. I’m sure I will devote a great many pixels to an analysis of that endeavor at a later date. For now, I can only hope that the involved parties recognize at an early stage what their ultimate purpose is. At their best, design guidelines do more than simply make buildings more aesthetically palatable- they protect, reinforce and grow the positive characteristics that define a place. At their worst, design guidelines can create superfluous layers of bureaucracy, discourage new development and add costly delays without addressing the true root of the problem. Lovers of downtown have to hope that the powers that be recognize that the true issue is not making pretty buildings, it’s making urban buildings. Beyond that it’s all window-dressing.


Gales, Greens, and Grandmas

Well friends, it has been a crazy week down here to say the least. Given the topic of the blog, I guess I should be writing about how we can responsibly rebuild what was lost. But frankly, my heart is just not in that. I can’t get into writing about rebuilding when hundreds of folks are dead and I have neighbors living three blocks away who can’t read this because their power is still out. So, I’m going way off topic today. In difficult times we can turn to the things that comfort us- for me that’s family and food. Like so many southerners (or any other group of humans for that matter) some of my favorite memories are of food that my grandmother cooked. So this week, instead of urban design thoughts I offer childhood memories and my interpretation of one of my grandmother’s greats.

When I was but a young C.Rushing growing up in Alabama attending Bear Elementary School, it seemed we were always having tornado drills. During drills (and storms) the kids and teachers would open all the doors and windows, huddle in the hallways and cover our heads with tented textbooks. I vividly remember the smell of the school and the texture of the ochre bookcovers. It’s hard to think about those storms without thinking about experiencing them with my brothers at Baba’s house as well. At her place, instead of hallways and textbooks, we found ourselves in a cast iron tub covered with a mattress. Of course, the aroma at Baba’s was that of fantastic food as opposed to the noxious cleaners and child sweat of the elementary school.

Bear Elementary. Probably not named for "the" Bear.

Baba doesn’t cook much any more and I don’t get to see her as much as I would like. When I’m feeling down, one of my melancholy pastimes is trying to recreate the smell of her kitchen. Let it be known that Baba made the best fried chicken in the history of proteins fried in lipids (The pulley bones at Martin's can give her a run, but they will never measure up). I know my limitations and can’t compete with her bird. However, I am not as daunted by her classic accompaniment. So this week head to Buehler’s, pick up some pork, grab some collards from a local farmer and have at this…

Collard Greens

4 lbs Collards – cleaned, thick stems trimmed and discarded, leaves roughly chopped

2 lbs Smoked Pork Neckbones
1 Smoked Ham Hock

Cider Vinegar

Salt and Pepper to taste

Put the neckbones and hock in a pot, cover with cold water, bring to a boil and let it go for 5 minutes.

Pull out the goodies, discard the water and rinse the pot. Rinse the meat off, return to the pot, cover with water, bring to a boil again then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 2 hours or so.

Take the meat out of the pot and reserve the cooking liquid. Pick the meat off the neckbones and hock, reserve. Discard the bones from the neck, but place the ham hock bone back in the pot with the reserved liquid.

Put the collards in the reserved cooking liquid along with the bone and bring to a boil. Once it boils, reduce to a lower simmer, cover and cook for 2 hours while stirring occasionally.

Add the meat back to the pot to warm through, adjust seasoning with a scant amount of vinegar to brighten things up. Season to taste with salt and pepper if you wish – but beware the pork parts will add a fair amount of saltiness.

Serve with pepper sauce and make sure you have cornbread to sop up the unctuous juice. Eat these with someone you love, then give them a hug.