Making the Possible Impossible

Update: Yesterday, I wrote this concerning the food fight between Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen. This morning I awoke to an email from my mom chastising me for daring to speak ill of Ms. Deen. Poor Tony, I can only imagine what he’s been going through. Moving swiftly on…

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." - Patton

As most of you know, the first of six Urban Design Challenge projects was unveiled this past week as the Dynamic Density team tackled the 700 Block of Market Street. This project was the first of two that will address the City Center. In November we will see the Frank & Taylor team set forth a vision for the Civic Forum Block. The Sky Farm project proposed by Dynamic Density was inspirational (and impressive considering their time constraint). Similarly, I anticipate that Frank & Taylor will acquit themselves well on their site. These exercises invite the community to take a hard look at our current state while challenging us to dream about what we could be.
Dynamic Density's Sky Farm

Since I have been in Chattanooga, there has been a lingering question concerning how the Center City can be enlivened. If you run down the checklist of health points, the district seems to be great shape: it is the densest part of downtown, there are a wide range of uses, it has open space, it has a residential component and it has arguably the best designed public realm in the city. None of those facts seem to dispel the notion that the Center City is simply the space between the Riverfront district and the Southside.

Part of the problem is scale. If you were to take the residences, restaurants and bars of the Center City and put them anywhere else in the city, it would be the hottest place around. I would wager that the sheer numbers of restaurants, bars and residences of Main Street is less than what can be found in the Center City. Yet the Center City is seen as boring and Main Street as the happening place in town. The district is so dense and the buildings are so large it just feels like there should be more there there.

The solution to the problem of how to enliven the Center City is deceptively simple. The solution is more. Existing buildings and storefronts need to do more. We need more residential units in upper floors of existing buildings, we need more bars, we need more restaurants, and we need more retail. More, more, more. To be sure, that “more” needs to comprise healthy ingredients, but need not be anything exotic. The first step in the journey is to increase the residential base of the area. The easiest way to do that is to encourage the adaptive reuse of existing buildings. The sure way to make real and lasting progress toward the goal of enlivening the Center City is to take a broad-based, incremental approach to infill. Although there are a few developable sites, the true opportunity lies in the myriad vacant, upper floors of our historic building stock.
The Center City is agressively programmed and
has a well-designed public realm.

Miller Plaza was completed in 1984. Almost 30 years later, why is there not more? A big problem is that the market is not being allowed to function properly. (Of course, The current malaise of the economy is definitely a factor, but if we were to wake up tomorrow and find that all the banks were fixed, credit markets were functioning and the national debt was gone, portions of our downtown development market would still be dysfunctional.) The problem is policy: our local, one-size-fits-all policy holds downtown and the ‘burbs to the same standard. That sounds fair, but those standards were the ones that created sub-urbs. In effect, downtown is being held to a foreign and more onerous standard than other portions of the city. The reason that downtown housing has been so pricy is a direct result of that fact. Developers have to charge more for their units to cover the additional costs of development caused by capricious parking, stormwater and sewer, and code policies. Please note, we’re not necessarily talking about laws or codes, we’re talking policies and interpretations that are currently being enforced.

I believe there are scores of current Chattanoogans that would love to live downtown if they could afford it. My belief is anecdotally supported by the incredibly strong rental market downtown. The notion is also supported by a consideration of the Southside and North Shore. These neighborhoods don’t get hammered the same way downtown does from a regulation standpoint- they’re primarily detached, single-family units that more closely fit the suburban model that the city favors. As a result, the houses cost less to build, have a more accessible price point, and have a lower vacancy rate than pricier downtown digs. I think you would find that many who live in these neighborhoods would actually prefer to live in the City Center if the money was right.

Again, the solution is simple (and it doesn’t involve grants, incentives or government spending). Governmental action, however, is needed. The community has to persuade our elected officials that the health of our urban areas is of utmost importance. Those officials then have to embrace that concept and adopt a development-friendly attitude. City staff then has to be empowered and encouraged to allow common-sense solutions to issues of urban development.

Unfortunately, there's not much building going on right now. The primary reason for this is to do with the cascading effects of poor global credit markets. Good news is that there are a number of local factors that we can put us in a position for growth when the possibility returns. Those solutions aren't difficult to implement, but require the full force of our civic will to overcome the inertia of the status quo.

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