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.

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