Chattanooga: The Next $$$$$$ $$$$$ ? – Part 2

Last week I wrote about how a number of places have lost their identity in the quest for the tourist dime. I made the observation that there is evidence that we’re heading down that same dark path. It all comes down to money. More accurately, it comes down to simplistic first cost fiscal accounting. Every argument for or acquiescence to the degradation of the place we live is based on the first time cost of doing business.

Why does that dire casual “dining” restaurant have to look like that? 

-“It costs too much to hire an architect to design something better”
-“The folks who spend money here only recognize our store if it looks like that”
-“Conspicuous architecture will attract customers”
-“Building materials other than EIFS cost too much”

On the bright side, they probably didn't have to pay a lot for it.

Why did we place an out of context ticket booth in the middle of our riverfront park?
-“It didn’t cost us anything” 

-“Money can be made by selling tickets there”

What is appropriate next to an historic building
looks out of place in a 21st Century Waterfront.
(no matter how much money we saved)

Why are streets and sidewalks being ripped up and replaced with inferior, incongruous materials?
-“As long as it works, it doesn’t matter what it looks like”
-“Doing things ‘right’ is too expensive”
-“It’s cheaper”

If prevailing forces are concerned only with how cheaply we can build, and immediate first-time costs, what are the alternatives? Triple bottom line, long-term thinking.

In and of itself, money does not sustain life. Among our fundamental human needs are functional societal and environmental settings (the interacting field of Max-Neefs matrix). The triple bottom line is way of accounting for our activities in terms of profit, planet and people as opposed to simply profit. We have to recognize that impacts on the environment (including the built environment) and on our community of individuals are as important as monetary profitability. The pro-forma for a new development should be a factor in the decision-making process, but so should an analysis of the project as it relates to issues of sustainability, local environmental quality (including built environment), and the community and neighborhood. Whether or not the new (fill in the blank) can make money is an important factor, but just as important are how it physically relates to its site and how it supports our local culture of community. The only way for us to stop our turn toward the dark side is to recognize that environmental and community concerns are co-equals with monetary concerns.

There's no free lunch. When we save money on the front end building cheaply, we pay for it several times over in the long term. People visit and live here because downtown has a unique character, is set in a beautiful environment, and because of our commitment to quality in the public realm. When we make decisions based solely on how cheaply we can do things, we destroy the elements that make Chattanooga the place that we love. Once the bar is lowered we find ourselves on a very slippery slope. Every unfortunately designed chain restaurant, every asphalt patch in a pavered sidewalk, every cut corner degrades the quality that makes people want to live and visit here in the first place. Saving a few cents in the short term, costs many dollars in the long run. Once those decisions are made, they become easier and easier to justify again and again. We run the risk of waking up one day to find that the unique character of our place has been lost. What remains will be the sum of years of cheap thinking.  Instead of a vibrant and diverse economy we would be left shilling kitschy trinkets and happy meals to the lowest common denominator of tourist traffic in a place that will be difficult to care about.

There are a number of reasons to be pessimistic about our ability to stem the oncoming tide. Chief among those is our general apathy about design quality. This includes the emerging refrain that “Well, it’s not very pretty, but it makes money, and it’s their property to do with as they see fit”. That’s an argument that money is more important than our community identity or the environment in which we live and raise our children. I reject that argument, not from a socialistic standpoint, but from a capitalistic one. Capitalism presumes that the players will be making decisions based on rational or enlightened self-interest. Therefore, the future of our downtown is dependant upon on both public and private sectors understanding that their long term self interest lies as much in environmental and social realms as it does in fiscal realms. Not only do they have to understand that, they then have to make rational or enlightened decisions based on that understanding… uh-oh…

Epilogue: Do I really think were going to turn into a full-on Pigeon Forge? Not likely. I would wager that the inertia of the city scale will preclude that possibility. However, I do think that our quality and character can be seriously degraded by a lack of attention to the issues I’ve pointed out. With every step we take on that dark path we lose a piece of ourselves that will be very difficult to earn back.

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