Right V. Legal

I received a number of comments and observations after last week’s post. Please know that I greatly appreciate your comments and love to hear from you. Some of the notes were personal, but others contained gems that could benefit us as all – please consider posting those types of comments in the space provided below. The standard format for a blog is that I write and you read. However, I think it would be kick ass for ya’ll to be able to see what each other have to say rather than being stuck with just my stuff. Moving on…

I am going to be explicit about a concept this week that has been implied in a number of my past posts. That concept is that doing the right thing does not necessarily mean doing the legal thing. Another way of phrasing that may be “just because something is legal doesn’t make it right”. To hammer all of that in ground: what is right trumps what is legal. Before any of my jackass friends submit a cheeky comment below, please know that I am by no means trying to establish myself as a moral authority or someone who always knows what is right. I am as flawed as anybody else (if not more so), some of the skeletons in my closet still have meat on the bones.

One of our issues is that we can no longer approach a situation from different perspectives and work through them to craft a solution.* We immediately make the leap to what the law says we can or can’t get away with. We too often use the law as a substitute for a moral compass. Fortunately, in our society the right thing to do is legal most of the time. The notable exception is the body of law that applies to our built environment.

All of the laws governing building and land use are derived from the police powers (protecting the health, safety and welfare of the community). Plumbing, electrical and structural codes all work to make sure that buildings are safe. Zoning and subdivision regulations are designed to keep citizens safe and healthy. The laws are, in effect, design guidelines because they dictate the form of the elements they address.

Zoning and subdivision regulations (aka design guidelines) spread throughout out country at a time when the prevailing philosophy was that every aspect of life should be separated and segregated. We created places to shop, places to live, places to manufacture, places for recreation. This is, of course, flew in the face of thousands of years of human settlement and civilization. Our system has been around for 60 years of the several millennia of human existence, and is an unmitigated disaster. In so short a time, the system has already started to collapse under its own weight (see 2008-present). The problem is, our system is broken, most people realize it, but we can’t build anything else because the design guidelines force us to continue to build in a dysfunctional way. In this case, we cannot do the right thing because of an unjust law.

The common misconception is that a developer will always build to the lowest common denominator. The fear is that they will build down to any minimum and up to any maximum for a given requirement. That’s not always true. In our market system, the assumption is that every developer will do what is in his or her best financial interest. Getting by with minimum requirements is not always in the best interest of the developer. One of our current dilemmas is that in making laws that dictate minimums we are in essence proclaiming that these minimum practices are “right” or “good”. The result is that every developer now begins with these low standards as a starting point.

The fact is that the quality of our built environment is being undermined by our current design guidelines (zoning, subdivision, and traffic requirements). These laws have a direct negative impact on economic development, job creation, our current governmental budgets, and the ability of future generations to pay for their inherited city. These issues run far deeper than “quality of life” or aesthetic concerns (not that they have to in order to be valid). We have created a situation in our country where building in a good, conscientious, and responsible way is often against the law.

Yet beyond all of those things, there is a more fundamental issue of “right” that we should be ever mindful of. That, of course, is how we treat all of our brothers and sisters in the community. I refer to everyone in the community – not just helping the poor or disadvantaged (although these are the instances where doing right seems to be most evident). Take, for example, the case I outlined in last week’s post. Our neighbors lived in a house that had some issues. The law of the land dictated that under those conditions, the home needed to be condemned until it was brought up to the standards that our society has established for what a human being can safely live in. Our neighborhood had a choice to either do the legal thing (call the city and let the legal process run its course), or what I think would have been the right thing (to reach out help and our neighbors). Unfortunately, we all know how that went down. (On an absolutely and totally unrelated note, it appears that the neighborhood drive to raise $16,500 to purchase public art for the park is progressing nicely.)

I don't believe that making better laws is the ultimate answer.  We need to be more focused on doing the right thing instead of simply keeping it legal.

*I read somewhere that this can, in part, be attributed to youth sports culture. Way back when I was a little one, neighborhood kids played sports with one another unsupervised. We had to resolve all disputes amongst ourselves or none of us would achieve our shared goal, which was to play the game. For team sports, you needed all of the kids you could muster, so there was an incentive on everyone’s part to do what they could to make the game work. Theses days, kids play in organized leagues with referees and helicopter parents. They don’t get to experiment with the art and nuance of compromise- only the rules that are adjudicated by an authority figure.


Am I My Neighbor's Neighbor?

This has been a manic month. In fact, the year has been crazy to this point and it appears that it will continue to be so until at least September. You know what I need? A trip to St. John to unwind. As fate would have it, one lucky member of the Rushing clan has that great fortune! Unfortunately for the C, it is not me. I am, however, delighted to have some guy time with Spence and Stern. The one downside to having the boys to myself is that writing time goes out the window. (it took me 45 minutes of constant interruption to write the preceding few sentences). Fortunately, I have an entry in the can. I wrote this over Christmas break, but decided to sit it on a while so that I could come back and review it with a fresher eye at some point in the future. Having reread it, I think it’s a pretty accurate description of a situation and my sentiment remains essentially the same.

I want stress a point that I mention below – this is not an indictment of any one single person or group, it is (as usual) all about me. With that in mind, please enjoy….

I have to get an episode off my chest. Please note that I am taking no person to task and chastising no one. I am simply describing a situation. Earlier in the year I wrote a post about my neighborhood, Jefferson Heights. I observed, “One of the most remarkable things about the neighborhood is that it has seen a high level of investment and redevelopment but it has not been gentrified.” Yeah...scratch that one...

Our neighborhood has an internet group to update  residents on goings-on down here. Neighbors use the message board to make announcements, offer items for sale, and put the word out regarding crime in and around the area. When we moved, I joined the group, and signed on to get email alerts when there is new activity. I’ve never posted anything to the group, as most of the topics that get discussed aren’t of particular interest to me. I do, however, read it when it shows up in the in-box to keep myself informed about what’s happening ‘round here. The group is fairly benign, but as with anything that involves groups of people, it occasionally gets chippy. As you can imagine, those instances are generally brought about by emotionally charged events such as crime. It’s nice to read about folks bringing meals to families who just had babies, neighbors giving goods and services to one another, and proposals for public art. It’s not so nice to read borderline racist rants and proposals for Orwellian neighborhood security cameras.

Fifty yards from my house is another house that has been there for a long time. The residents of the house had been there long before any of the new round of well-heeled folk landed here. To say the house is modest is an understatement. To say that it is in disrepair is more than accurate. The residents, however, seem to be nice enough. I've had several occasions to chat with them during the construction of our house and since we moved in. At various times I have thought about making an offer for the property and cleaning it up a bit, but never could find the motivation. Besides, the residents seemed to be content, so why not live and let live.

The offender...
A few weeks ago there was a spate of message board postings by residents suggesting that the neighborhood should influence the city to condemn the house. Some folks thought it was abandoned (and were corrected), some offered to board it up themselves, but the consensus seemed to be that repeated calls to 311 to get the city to take action was the thing to do. It was done. The city, to its credit, acted swiftly, and the week before Christmas the house was condemned and the residents put out onto the street. According to our neighbors in the internet group, this outcome was “sweet”.

...is no longer.

I have to say that I have mixed emotions about the episode. On one hand, the removal or renovation of the house will theoretically improve my property value. This also serves as an example of a neighborhood coordinating its efforts to achieve a desired outcome by collective action. That said, my overriding emotions are sadness and disappointment. I am sad that two of our neighbors are now homeless (at Christmas time no less). I am disappointed that a neighborhood that is demonstrably capable of mobilizing and helping chose not to. I am disappointed that rather than reaching out to engage the people who needed help on their house, we sat in our (very new) homes, discussed the problem electronically and made calls to 311. I am disappointed that we took joy in the eviction process.

I am, however, most disappointed in myself. I could have gone to my neighbors on the Google group to make an appeal on behalf of the long-time Jefferson Heights residents. I could have walked 150 paces down Madison Street and offered help. I could have found a way to engage my friends in the building industry to help. I could have taken this opportunity to teach Spencer and Stern about the value of community and helping those in need. Instead, I sat on my narrow, white ass and watched it all go down.

I sit in this very comfortable chair every week and write about neighborhoods, community and the importance of doing the right thing instead of the legal thing. If I do not act on those writings, however, they’re not worth the pixels they’re rendered with.


In Defense of Jack

Part of my morning routine is to make a quick stroll through cyberspace to make sure I’m not missing anything:  al.com for Alabama football news, bluesmuse.com to check on my blues, Chattanoogan to get the lay of the land in the Scenic City, then Facebook, Twitter, and my various (and too numerous) email accounts. Somewhere during that process last week I came across an opinion piece that laid out a list of the most overrated places in Chattanooga. I can’t seem to locate the link and I’m too lazy to go find it, so you will have to take my word for it. Fortunately, I remember 4 of the 5 places that were the object of his (I think it was a dude) derision. According to this fellow, among the top overrated places in Chattanooga are Hamilton Place, Sir Gooney’s, Rock City and Jack’s Alley.

I do not relish the proposition of heading out to Hamilton Place (for that matter I don’t often relish the proposition of leaving downtown). The mall and its environs are typical of our poor, sub-urban land use planning and development patterns. Banana Republic is, however, the only place I can buy a suit off the rack that fits me properly, so the place is not a dead loss. I don’t personally know anyone who loves the mall, so I’m not sure if it qualifies to be overrated or not, but I see what the author was getting at.

I have no comment on Sir Gooney’s- I’ve never been there. I am embarrassed to admit that I have never seen Rock City. I can offer no comment on that one either.

Jack’s Alley is another story. I freely admit that I am biased when it comes to the Alley. The Worldwide Headquarters of Kennedy, Coulter, Rushing & Watson was located there, my wife’s office is located there, and during our courtship, The Big Chill was our watering hole of choice.  Biases aside, it’s hard to overstate the positive impact of the Alley from an urbanistic standpoint. The function of the development, the way the form was crafted, its impact on the city, and its internal operation are all exceptional.

Jack's Army Store and a vision for the future that arrived...

Ya’ll know that I offer no quarter to chain restaurants (see my comments on Chili’s, BWW, and Applebee’s). I do not care for their product, and I do not care for their building. More often than not, chain establishments erode the unique character of cities as is evidenced by the homogeneity of suburban development across the country. The single-use concept also destroys density – the defining characteristic of a downtown. The issue is that many of these chains are loath to alter their physical presence as that serves to reinforce their brand. Three of the five ground floor tenants of Jacks are chain establishments (the two other ground floor tenants are locally owned: a bar and clothes boutique). All three of those chain establishments fit within existing, rehabilitated buildings. The menus are of a chain, but the spaces are unique. The result is a development that is unique and is the quintessence of Chattanooga. The alley is a perfect example of how to integrate chain restaurants into existing urban fabric to the benefit of both.

Photo by Stephen Greenfield

One of the measures of a great athlete is whether or not he or she makes their teammates better. Good players can make numbers for themselves, great players enable those around them to perform better than they ordinarily would. Jack’s makes the other parcels in the block and in the surrounding blocks more viable than they would be on their own. In fact, you could say that most of the business in the surrounding parcels would not be there if Jack’s had not planted the flag. It could be argued that Broad and Market Streets between 4th and 5th streets are the most vital and energetic bocks in the city. The overwhelming majority of vibrant business in that area came as a direct result of the success of Jack’s Alley. Chili’s, Applebee’s Five Guys, Sweet Peppers, Lupi’s, Sugar’s, Tazikis, Q’doba, Sing It or Wing It, Raw, Country Life, Greyfriar’s, and Top It Off, are all located where they are because of the success of Jack’s. Regardless of whether or not those places appeal to you, the fact that they exist, serve us and our visitors, employ Chattanoogans and contribute to the tax base is impressive. What is also impressive is that with the notable exceptions of Applebee’s and Chili’s, the chains in the preceding list each followed Jack’s example and located in renovated existing structures.

Photo by Stephen Greenfield

Mid-block development parcels come with an inherent set of difficulties. Businesses like to be located on corners – this increases the visibility of the business, improves access to light, creates greater frontage for signage and marketing, provides more flexibility in locating entrances and makes delivery and service easier. Mid-block spaces have difficulties in dealing with the inverse of those characteristics. This is part of the challenge in redevelopment in urban places- there are typically more interior block parcels than there are corner lots. What Jack’s did was to take a mid-block parcel in and its place create four corner spaces. I do not typically advocate razing existing buildings to create more corners, but in this case it made sense. An existing building (that was not compatible in size or scale with the rest of the block) was condemned. The developers took the opportunity to create a development that addressed the aperture without creating a “snaggletooth” gap in the block (as someone else did on the other side of Market Street). 

An anecdotal way of quantifying the energy of the place is the “jaywalking quotient”. I am in no way endorsing jay-walking, but by observing the practice one can draw some interesting conclusions. Both Broad and Market are fairly wide streets, and for that reason jaywalking there is hazardous. The folks who are engaging in that practice really want to get somewhere. Based on personal observations, those two blocks are far and away the most jaywalked streets in all of Chattanooga.

Photo by Stephen Greenfield

I could go on about the positive things that Jacks does from an urbanistic standpoint: its impact on pedestrian and vehicular circulation, the example it sets for how to provide service and delivery in tight urban spaces, and that fact that it even includes a parking structure. I am, however, running a bit long and my opinion has been expressed. 

It is a credit to the impact and presence of Jack’s Alley that it is included on a list of overrated places. The Alley is not an “attraction” in the same sense that other tourist venues are. It was not designed as an entertainment complex – it is a downtown mixed-use development that occupies less than one-third of a city block. The fact is that the Alley has been so successful and its impact so broad that people want to try to elevate it to another category and make inapt comparisons. Jack’s Alley is many things: a place for locals to work, a parking structure, a place to eat, a place to meet, a landmark to aid in orientation, and a place for guests to visit.  It is not, however, an attraction in the way that Sir Goony’s, Rock City, or the Aquarium are. The Alley is part of the urban fabric, and what the rest of downtown should aspire to be. From my perspective, Jacks Alley is not overrated- it’s undervalued. If you can’t see that, you don’t know Jack’s.


Bad Fences... Part II

Here I am, 40,000 feet, sat next the inimitable Mr. Watson, on our way back to Iowa. Those of you who are Facebook friends and/or Twitter followers (@crushing1) know that a 30-minute delay in Chattanooga today meant missing our connection in Hell Hartsfield International by 4 minutes. Naturally, this leads to a six-hour wait for the next flight. This is the kind of stuff that gets on my nerves (that, and the bastards nice folks in the front of the plane sipping sparkling wine from crystal flutes whilst the potent potable back here is brown liquor in a Dixie cup). I am, however, sat in the exit row, so it’s not all bad.

Where were we? Ah yes, fences. Apparently, I’ve hit a nerve. Several of you have emailed me asking that I highlight a fence that you love to hate. Top voter-getter: the “Osama Bin Laden Compound” fence on Barton Avenue. I understand that particular fence has issues with execution, but at least there is agreement amongst the neighbors that fences are appropriate along that stretch of road. While I am sorely tempted to go through town and create a top ten list of bad fences, I will refrain.

I implied last week that once upon a time, people’s actions were heavily influenced by their need and desire to place community needs on par with their own. In other words, peer pressure, if not the desire to make a positive impact helped guide decisions making. That led me to have a funny mental image of neighbors acting as aggrieved union members, erecting massive banners on the sidewalks in front of neighbors with bad fences: “Shame on the Johnsons” (sponsored by the Jefferson Heights Local #69).

Judging by your response, it is apparent that identifying bad fences is not really a problem. Most of your comments identified the specific elements (if not the underlying concepts) that made each fence “bad” (or at least less neighborly). What, then, makes a good fence? That can be answered on a number of levels including construction quality, location, style, and function. Good fences address all of those physical concerns. Despite the fact that a fence is a physical thing, its greater impact is from a psychological perspective.

A fence is a powerful symbol. In addition to their function, they speak to us overtly and subconsciously. Some fences are territorial (this is my land dammit), others that warn (achtung dammit), and some beg for your attention (look at me dammit!!). Clearly, not all fences are offensive, and not every fence is intended to give the finger to the neighborhood. It seems, however, that we have lost the understanding that a fence is more than just a utilitarian thing- it is a nuanced interface between landowners and the community. It takes skill to create a fence that makes a positive contribution the community, but it can be done. I’m not talking about creating something that is acceptable or non-offensive, I’m talking about a fence that improves upon the built environment. It seems that the fences that accomplish this are in one way or another reinforcing a sequence of psychological spaces.

The intimacy gradient is a concept from A Pattern Language. In the book, the pattern is used to describe the ideal sequencing of spaces in a house. The general concept is one that can be found across the globe in a variety of scales and contexts. Alexander notes that spaces in a house should be sequenced in a way that respect their degrees of privacy. The gist is that there are some rooms where guests and visitors feel comfortable (the living room) and others where interaction would be awkward (the bedroom). The gradient applies to commercial places we visit as well– there are public “front of house” spaces and private “back of house” spaces.

Good fences help provide definition to the privacy gradient of the public realm. Fences can provide a cue in shift from places that are purely public (the street and sidewalk), from places that are semi-public and private. Though Tea Partiers everywhere will bristle at the thought, the front yard is a semi-public place. Front yards, and indeed the facades of houses, are part of the visual landscape and, as such, frame the public realm. How those spaces are treated impacts not only the property owner, but the community at large.

Violating socials norms in the public realm projects the image that the individual does not value the institution of community, and as such the action does harm to both the individual and the group…

I could continue, but you get the point. Plus, the Cap’n has asked that all electronic devices be stowed. Ordinarily, this would get edited, but I’m so not writing on Super Bowl Sunday. I’ll Holler at ya’ll next week and try to do better.