Merry Christianmas!

Well friends, big week in the C.Rushing world. Wednesday is both the kickoff of the Urban Design Challenge and the 39th Annual Worldwide Celebration of Christianmas.  I won’t run Christianmas  into the ground other than to say that if you haven’t finished your shopping yet, you still have a day or two (although the crowds will be nasty). However, I will take this opportunity to devote a few words to the Urban Design Challenge.

Beware the Christianmas rush.

As mentioned last week, the Urban Design Challenge is a year-long design competition sponsored by River City Company that will feature design and visioning work by local architects on six sites in downtown Chattanooga. The inevitable questions are “what are the six sites?” and “why are those sites important?”. The answers:

700 Block

This site comprises a number of now-vacant, mid-block parcels on the east side Market Street between 7th and 8th street. The site has the potential to add significant animation to the city center. The parcel almost got developed…but we know how that went down. This site has been the focus of a number of visioning and planning exercises in the past, but perhaps a new look will help provide a kick start for the future.

Civic Forum Block
This site is the block bounded by Market Street, 10th Street, Broad Street and 11th Street. The Civic Forum Block provides a unique opportunity to plan an entire city block that is currently undeveloped. The site is bounded on three sides by large, single-use buildings (TVA, EPB, Library). I’m interested to see if the designers choose to embrace or mitigate those scale issues. The Market Street edge was also a part of the original 1984 Miller Plaza plan, it will be interesting to see if the designers make any reference to that.

Patten Parkway

This site includes the Parkway itself and the parking lots to the east and southeast. The centrally located site has the potential to impact the city center and provide connections to both the University and the MLKing district. Back in my design studio days I did some kick-ass work (if I may say so) on what was essentially this same site. So I speak from experience when I say that there is wealth of potential here.

4th Street Corridor

This site focuses on 4th street from the US-27 ramp to the intersection with Market Street. The parcel to west of the Creative Discovery Museum and the Majestic Theatre parking lot are included for consideration as well. Exit 1C from US-27 is that portal through which many of our guests enter downtown. Robert Moses only knows how the TDOT US-27 “improvements” will impact this gateway. My guess is that their work will complement the casual dining restaurants, but work at cross-purposes with the task of building a great downtown. Hopefully the 4th Street team will show us the way.

Vine Street Corridor

This site includes Vine Street and adjacent undeveloped parcels from Georgia Avenue to the University. Since I’ve been in town, people have been talking about the importance of better integrating the university and downtown. This corridor seems to be a logical place to get that done. The relatively large amount of unimproved property (in the form of parking lots) should provide the designers ample opportunity to think big.

Main & Broad

This site addresses Main Street from the US-27 connection to the intersection with Market Street. In addition to the corner, the site includes the block bounded by Broad Street, 13th Street, Chestnut Street, and Main Street. This site serves as an important gateway into downtown (ditto my US-27 comments from the 4th Street site). Since the completion riverfront project, the Southside has probably seen more activity than anywhere else downtown. Consequently, I would wager that this site stands a chance of having a more “realistic” vision attached to it.

As for the folks who will be doing the work, all of the teams will be led by Chattanooga-based, licensed architects. Eleven teams made submissions for the six available Challenge sites. The winning teams will be announced at the kickoff meeting on Christianmas, July 27th at 5:30 at the Chattanoogan. The highlight of the Kickoff event will be a presentation by noted architect, planner and urban designer Alex Kreiger. Alex is with Chan Krieger NBBJ in Cambridge and has been lauded for his work in Dallas, Detroit, post-Katrina New Orleans and Shanghai, China. He is the former chair of the department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard* Graduate School of Design.

I look forward to seeing both of my readers on Wednesday! Make sure to stop by and say hey.

*Reminds me of joke related to an Ivy League school: Once upon a time an Awbun grad was in New Haven at a bar. He turned to the lovely co-ed sitting next to him and asked "Where do you go to school at?" To which she replied "Yale". His response, "WHERE DO YOU GO TO SCHOOL AT??"....
Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week.


A Challenge for the Challenge

Note: a portion of this week's post has been omitted as events in Germany yesterday rendered it inaccurate. I will say that I am quite proud of Amy LePeilbet and the girls. We'll get 'em next time.

For those of you living under a rock (or outside of Chattanooga), you may be unaware of the upcoming Urban Design Challenge. The River City Company is sponsoring this year-long design competition that will feature design and visioning work by local architects on six sites in downtown Chattanooga. (Full disclosure: KCRW is working with RCC to facilitate the Challenge). It all kicks off at a public meeting on July 27th at the Chattanoogan, which also happens to be Christianmas (To the uninitiated, this the day that people across the globe celebrate my birth. Get your shopping done early to avoid the rush). This is the radio spot we did on WUTC describing the program. Yes, I realize I used one of the worst phrases ever and dropped an "outside the box". Sorry, I choked.
Ghost of Christianmas Past.
Ya'll don't know nothin' 'bout white, short-pant leisure suits.

Because of our role in the process, I’m not going to be able to participate on any of the design teams. In fact, I’m insanely jealousy that I don’t get to do any actual design work on the sites. However,  for those participating, it will not be all fun and games. There is the pressure of the blank slate. In the “real world” these designers are accustomed to dealing with constraints based on clients, programs and budgets. None of these exist in this exercise. There is also the pressure of producing ideas and imagery that will no doubt be compared to those of the other teams. No one wants to be “the guy” whose work wasn’t on the same level as his or her peers. I would guess that as the Challenge progresses we will find that the teams will be trying to outdo one another (which is good for everyone). I’m really excited to see our able community of local architects rise to the Challenge.

What is the metric for determining whether or not this endeavor is a success? I think it's safe to say that if the six sites are eventually developed in a way that was informed by the Challenge, it would be considered a great success. But what if the designers produce work that the community hates and developers won’t touch? Would it possible for the Challenge to be a success with that result? Absolutely. Perhaps that would even be a preferable outcome. Think “give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach and man to fish, feed him for a lifetime”.

It would indeed be a benefit to the community to have a design team develop a plan that has a realistic opportunity of being developed. This would be something that “pencils out” from a developer’s standpoint and has a style and substance that is easily digestible for a mass market. In fact a designer might construe this as an opportunity to “audition” for a potential client by creating something that is safe, grounded and plausible. So a potential outcome of the challenge is a set of 6 well-packaged concepts in search of client and capital. But in that scenario, after the dust has settled we would have 6 individual projects- nothing more, nothing less. In a sense, this is the “easy way out”.

The Sites.

On the other hand, it would be nice to see designers to go out on a limb and challenge some traditional notions. There would be great value in a design team developing a proposal for an impractical or improbable concept if it sparks imagination. The true challenge is how the designer forwards a concept that has intrinsic value, but does so in a way that sparks community dialogue. If the community hates a proposal, they would hopefully give voice to why. That voice naturally leads to a discussion of preferable alternatives. This type of public discourse is how we develop the collective will and design conscience of the community. This community constituency can then inform everything that we do downtown – not just on six sites.

Ya'll know I’m always on about how building a great downtown has to come from a community that is engaged in conversation and in partnership with one another. Design guidelines ain’t doing it, developers ain’t doing it on their own, non-profits can’t force it, and local government alone can’t do it either. Only in concert and with the mandate of the community is it possible. Getting each private/public/non-profit institution focused to do their job can be a relatively straightforward exercise. Finding a way to create consensus and voice for a community as it relates to design issues is far more challenging. The only way to get it rolling is to provide constant and continuing opportunities for conversation. The Urban Design Challenge is a fantastic opportunity to re-energize the community conversation regarding what we value as a community and how we want to see our community grow over time.

Over the course of the coming year I will be keeping you posted on the Urban Design Challenge. If you're reading this, you presumably have some interest in urban design or Chattanooga- I challenge you to work as hard as the architects and to participate in the process.


Prose v. Poetry

First, let me say, that I know my writing is not poetry. Hey, I'm doing the best I can with an Alabama public school education. So, moving swiftly on...

One of my favorite books of all time is A Pattern Language. For those of you not familiar, it is one of four books written by Christopher Alexander that provide insights into the design and construction of our built environment. The book comprises 1171 pages of “patterns” for everything from the scale of cities to the tiniest detail of a windowsill. The author suggests that the 253 patterns together form a language.  The designer selects his patterns and makes a composition based on his pattern language in much the same way that a poet would select words to create a sentence. However, this book is not a kit of parts. I better let Alexander explain it:

“This language, like English, can be a medium for prose, or a medium for poetry. The difference between prose and poetry is not that different languages are used, but that the same language is used, different. In an ordinary English sentence, each word has one meaning, and the sentence too, has one simple meaning. In a poem, the meaning is far more dense. Each word carries several meanings; and the sentence as a whole carries an enormous density of interlocking meanings, which together illuminate the whole.”

I love this book, but it’s not an infallible work. There are some passages that are a bit quaint, some that are seemingly contradictory and he is harsh on all things Modern. Additionally, a number of the patterns seem a bit hippy-ish to a slightly-right-of-center Alabamian. But get past that and the work has a wealth of insight on an incredibly broad range of topics.

Read this book

This past week I was consulting APL for some insight into the nature of light (one of the great strengths of the book) and stumbled across pattern 75, The Family. Alexander asserts, “The nuclear family is not by itself a viable social form.” He goes on to say that only in the past few decades has the extended family broken down due to unprecedented mobility and societal conditions. His critique of the nuclear family is that “It is too small. Each person in a nuclear family is too tightly linked to other members of the family; any one relationship which goes sour, even for a few hours, becomes critical; people cannot simply turn away toward uncles, aunts, grandchildren, cousins, brothers. Instead, each difficulty twists the family unit into ever tighter spirals of discomfort”.* After rereading that, my first thought was that Christopher was on some ole Hillary Clinton bullshit (19 years before she came up with it).  But I allowed for the distinction between “village” and “family” and moved along (although Alexander does go on to make the leap to community relationships as surrogate for extended blood relatives.)

Insert liberal/democrat joke here

Let us accept that a healthy city will accommodate all manner of families (however you choose to define them) and at all stages of their lives. If you consider specific elements required to service people at various stages of life, they actually exist (for the most part) downtown. For the very young there are hospitals and doctors for medical care, a bevy of daycares for supervision, and a number of parks for recreation and exploration. School aged children have two new elementary schools, and adequate open space for recreation. Adolescents, have a number of opportunities for recreation and socialization- places to see and be seen. Young Adults have institutions of higher learning, reasonably priced rental housing and any number of bars and restaurants. Middle-agers have a wide variety of housing options, the biggest job pool in the region, the best restaurants in the region, and ample opportunities for recreation and diversion. But despite the fact that all of these elements exist, can we argue that downtown Chattanooga is the ideal place for an extended family?

We are a real life example of the prose v. poetry point that Alexander makes. We have words and sentences, but limited poetry. As we have all heard, one of the big challenges cities everywhere will soon face is how to accommodate the needs of an aging population. How are we poised to accommodate that in downtown? We have assisted living facilities in the Westside, a pharmacy on Frazier, a slew of doctors and hospitals on the eastern edge of downtown, a green grocer on the North Shore, and a free electric shuttle downtown. But how do these necessary elements work together? They don’t. They are singular elements that essentially work independently of each other. They only work if you hop in your car and drive to each of them. Of course having to access a car defeats the purpose of downtown and is a luxury many seniors don’t have.

That's a long walk for a 70-year-old.

All of this is to say that simply continuing to add or regulate singular elements does nothing for us. We have all seen examples of places where “words” are strung into simple “sentences”, these places result in dysfunctional monoculture. We need to return to the art of city building as science has failed us. We need to structure our city as a poem with an enormous density of interlocking meanings, which together illuminate the whole. This cannot be accomplished by a set of design guidelines. This cannot be accomplished by individual property owners. This cannot be willed into existence by politicians. This can only be accomplished by a community that has an engaged and energized citizenry that mandates their elected officials to act on their behalf and demands action of the private sector. Of course, no one likes to hear that answer because it's not simple and it's not easy. But as another Democrat once famously remarked, we should do these things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win"

*Of course, I have no earthly idea what he’s talking about. Spence and Stern are, without exception, angelic gentlemen. Denise is ever without fault. And, as you may have guessed I am as close to a perfect husband and father as can be found on this green earth...or something like that...


Heureux Anniversaire!!

Well my friends, this is my 27th post of the year. I am officially halfway through with my year-long experiment of weekly posts on Urban Design. I have come to the conclusion that writing is like eating crawfish- it’s a tremendous pain in the ass, it’s better while drinking, but in the end is a rich and rewarding experience. Speaking of milestones and anniversaries, in addition to the anniversary of the birth of our nation, there are a couple of other very conspicuous anni's related to urban design in our city.  This year marks the 25th anniversary of the River City Company and the 30th anniversary of the Images of the City exhibition.

The list of River City Company accomplishments is long and distinguished. For all of the great physical projects they've been involved with, I think the greatest value of the organization has been its embodiment of more intangible concepts. The fact that the board comprises City and County leadership in addition to a diverse group of community leaders means that the organization is essentially an embodiment of the collective will of the citizenry. The vast majority of our successes downtown are a result of cooperation and collaboration. RCC, in and of itself a form of public/private partnership, helped engender the practice of innovative partnerships to tackle difficult challenges. These are things we take for granted now, but only because RCC blazed that trail.

In 1981 through ‘82 over five thousand people experienced the Images of the City exhibition. This was a principle driven exercise that challenged Chattanoogans to envision the reinhabitation of the city. In ’82 downtown was dead, so it was indeed a challenge to envision a future that involved people living, working and playing downtown. The exhibition put forth a vision for what the city could become based on the following principles: reinforcing positive patterns of activity; maximizing the use of existing streets and buildings to reinforce existing city structure; clear and coherent street structure that differentiates regional routes, city routes and city streets; variety of landscape structures to define character and quality of streets and places; urban public realm defined by the conscientious design of buildings; linked open spaces; excellence in design, planning and implementation. These are things we take for granted now, but only because that trail was blazed back in the '80s.

Happy 30th Birthday!

The reason that the exhibition was so successful in capturing the imagination of the city is that in addition to listing the principles, they were expressed explicitly on specific sites. The six opportunities identified in the exhibition were (and went on to be): 

1. Miller Plaza  (A runaway success)
2. Downtown Housing  (Thousands of units, all over the place.)
3. Fountain Square  (Probably not as significant a site as was originally hoped)
4. State Aquarium  (Successful beyond anyone’s dreams)

5. Market St. Depot  (A fine project that pales due to other insanely success projects)

6. Landscape in the City (The riverfront, Riverwalk, and streetscapes, still some work to do)

What the inimitable Stroud and his students did was to show people what the future of their city could be instead of simply introducing abstract architectural theories. If the layperson sees concepts expressed on a site they know from every day experience it becomes a much more tangible exercise. As we all know, for the next twenty-plus years Stroud was able to continue the work of making urban design/architecture/planning accessible to the community at large while sparking public discourse and engendering a community spirit of generosity. The Chattanooga model of publicly displaying plans, dreams and visions in a common, public place began with Images of the City exhibition. That tradition reached its pinnacle with the Design Studio- a repository for our collective plans and visions, and a common ground for discussing cooperative solutions to challenging problems. Sadly for the city, this is no longer.

I ask, who can rock a cravat like Stroud? No one.

Perhaps we have become an effete community resting on our laurels, perhaps there was a marked change in the tenor of public discourse. For whatever reason, since the completion of the 21st Century Waterfront projects, there has been virtually no community conversation regarding our downtown.  What is worse, not only have we not been talking about what is happening now, we have not engaged in any discussion of what we aspire to be.

A repository for dreams, plans and visions.
A common ground for community discourse.

I am very happy to note that this post is not just about fond reminiscences. As fate would have it, the River City Company will be leading the charge to reenergize our civic discourse and foment a new round of visions for a new set of sites downtown. Keep your ears open and eyes peeled for more details in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you want to comment on this anniversary post, please do so on the back of a box of CAO L'Anniversaire Maduro Belicosos and send to my attention at 420 Broad St, Suite 203, 37402