3.26.2012

Intersection Disaffection

This week I'm being critical and offering a challenge. The winner(s) shall receive a prize. Details are at the end.

I had a difficult time deciding what to write about this week. I didn’t really want to write about 27 again and nothing else leapt to mind. I settled on another in the “My Favorite” series. To this point I’ve done a favorite building and favorite block. So what’s next? Why not a favorite intersection? Sorting through my mental map of good intersections, I couldn’t come up with one that stood out- all of the potential candidates had hair on them. Since my mind was failing me, I decided to consult the map. What I found was surprising indeed. My mind had not failed me- all of our intersections have something wrong with them. There is no great intersection in downtown.

The traffic engineers will take exception to that comment. They will roll out some adt’s, turning movement stats, signal timing info, assess the sight triangle and tell us that most of our intersections are just fine. While traffic is a consideration, it is only one of a number of factors that contribute to the overall quality of an intersection. So, as usual, we will look beyond purely automobile-related concerns.

The primary criteria that I’m using to assess the quality of downtown intersections are: 
the presence of  development on the corners, buildings that define the public realm, a mixture of uses that encourage 18-hour activity, the quality of the pedestrian environment, and the pedestrian friendliness of the street crossings. The next cut of consideration includes: the amount of human activity and elements that add to the “ambiance” of the place- street furniture, plantings, unique architecture/uses, etc.

The intersection of two paths creates a place, a focus, a singular point in space. Historically, the intersections of paths (primarily trade routes) led to the establishment of posts that later developed into towns and cities.  The preferred form of the American downtown, the grid, by its nature embraces the importance of the intersection. You could say that it embodies our democratic and capitalistic nature. A corner position is a privileged location- it allows for maximum visibility of the site, improves access to light, creates greater frontage for signage and marketing, provides more flexibility in locating entrances and makes delivery and service easier. So as much as we focus on the quality of the street and street edge, we should be giving equal or greater focus to the quality of how our streets intersect.

I don’t have enough space to give a full analysis of each intersection downtown, but here are some notes on a fair few... (All of the comments below are made in the context of how each element helps or hinders the intersection- don’t get your knickers in a twist if you don’t agree)

Market Street Intersections:

Main- This site has potential, but it has a vacant (for now) corner and the building that the Hair Lounge occupies does not live up to the promise of it's site.

King/13th- Boasts the best restaurants in the city and some housing, but also has a number of parking lots.

1tth- A parking lot, a sterile “plaza”, and a blank building face undo the potential of Patten Tower and Pickle Barrel.

MLKing- This is one of the most important intersections in our town. A parking lot, a weak interface with the Park, and less than ideal quality of the pedestrian crossings are undermining the potential.

8th – Close, but no cigar. The form is just about there, the street crossings are fine, and there is nice tree canopy. However, from a use and activity standpoint, it lacks: all 9-5, mostly banks.

7th- See 8th.

4th- Very important intersection. From an activity standpoint it’s great (with the exception of the northwest corner). The pedestrian crossings aren’t great. The killer is the scale of the corner buildings. For as long as they exist, the single story buildings destroy any sense of comfortable scale. Each of those corners probably need 3-story buildings- even the 2-story Hair of the Dog is a bit short.

2nd – The two parking lots on the west kill it. it is fairly animated and has decent form on the east.

Frazier/Cherokee – Arguably the most important intersection on the North Shore. Could have been great, but Walgreen’s shit the bed.

Broad Street intersections:

Main – You could argue that this intersection comprises four parking lots. No scale.

13th – One good corner, but two parking lots and an impermeable building corner don’t contribute.

Houston – Stroud’s is ok, but the Urban Dam may be the worst building in all of downtown (yes, worse than Buffalo Wild Wings, Chili’s or Applebee’s)

11th- Snooze, no activity. One parking lot, one bad “plaza” and two 9-5 uses.

MLKing- The intersection has most of the elements, the scale is ok (Krystal Building is not great), nice tree canopy, decent pedestrian crossing. The missing element is activity- only one of the corners (Read House) really supports pedestrian activity beyond 9-5.

8th- Not bad, the corners are developed and there is a decent pedestrian quality. However, the uses only go 9-5 and don’t have the energy to forge an intersection identity. One of the problems with Broad St intersections is that Broad Street is …broad. The closer the corners are, the easier it is to create a sense of place, the farther apart, the greater the challenge…as evidenced here.

7th – Good form, no activity.

4th – Another of the most important intersections in the city: one parking lot, one good building, one parking lot/dumpster area, one loading dock. The city deserves better.

3rd- South side of the intersection is nice. On the north- one Surface lot, one impermeable parking structure.

2nd- 1 really good corner. Three parking lots.

Miscellaneous Intersections of Note:


Chestnut & 2nd- Three of four ain’t bad- but I wouldn’t say it's good.

Chestnut & 3rd- Three of four corners turn their backs (or are indifferent) to the intersection.

Chestnut & 4th- Traffic really kills the pedestrian environment, and thereby the intersection. The parking lot, and office building don’t help.

Chestnut & MLKing – North side is good. The one-story City CafĂ© Diner does not help.

Courthouse Square- Potential, but the gas station and “Plaza” of UNUM kill it.

Manufacturers and Cherokee- A nice intersection, fairly well scaled- but the BDC doesn't animate the corner, and the undeveloped parcel is a wildcard.

Tremont and Frazier – great potential, but the SE corner is underdeveloped and the building on the north east needs to open to the intersection.

Main and Williams- has some potential- I guess it depends on what happens with Clyde’s and the  parking lot.

So here is the challenge: If you can make the argument that we have a single great intersection in downtown, I'll buy you a drink and post your argument. Have at it….

3.19.2012

Madness, Indeed.

March Madness. For some reason, I just wasn’t feeling it this year. Perhaps it was because I missed all the games Thursday, perhaps it's the fact that Alabama got bounced in the first round,  perhaps because the Lobos lost in a game that I couldn’t stay awake for, perhaps it’s because I couldn’t find where the hell Tru TV is. Shame really, because the first two rounds are always my favorite. Moving swiftly on…

I was happy to give up a Thursday night of hoops to be a part of another fantastic Urban Design Challenge. The Elemi+ team offered a vision for the Fourth Street corridor and its interface with a newly-designed US-27. Being one of the facilitators of the process, I am neutral concerning how the teams stack up against one another. I will, however, observe that the teams are doing incredibly well against time- each team has two more months to work than the team before. These eight extra weeks allow for more time to think the problem through and provide time to develop increasingly sophisticated graphics. The extra time also allows the teams to engage the community and institutions in their process.

As a part of their process, the teams have done extensive research into the sites, their histories, and current and future plans. As a courtesy, each of the teams has met property owners and stakeholders to vet ideas and concepts well in advance of presenting them in a public forum. The City and TDOT were well aware of what the team was going to present on Thursday night. Surprise, surprise, Thursday morning the City and TDOT unveiled their plan for US-27 on the front page of the newspaper. If you think that the timing of that release is a coincidence, I have some highway-front property I’d like to sell you. The day after the pan was unveiled, TDOT put out another story feigning surprise that the community was unhappy with their product, claiming that both the City and River City were happy with the plans. I am skeptical about TDOT’s claims that they were not aware of River City Company’s concerns. Despite my suspicions, I am not a River City employee, so it’s not my place to comment on their conversations. (FYI: in the days since I wrote that, the TFP has released a couple of opinions,  here and  here.)

What is not difficult to believe is that certain constituencies within the City fully support the design. The same folk that complained about the McCallie/MLKing two-way conversion, fought the pedestrian improvements to Fourth Street (Broad to Georgia), and fought the improvements to Riverfront Parkway are the ones who most rabidly support the US-27 work. I could go back through and pull the quotes to prove it, but “I told you so” isn’t moving the conversation forward. Lets just say that there is a camp who still holds onto the belief that traffic concerns trump all. It is the mindset that brought urban renewal to our downtowns, sub-urban sprawl in the hinterlands, and has created an overextended infrastructure that we can’t afford to pay for. It is a failed philosophy that is being reversed all across the country. The prevailing movement in American downtowns is to remove or limit the impact of massive downtown highway facilities- remnants of a failed era. The list of places that have moved past a 1960’s mindset to address urban highways is long and distinguished: Seattle, Milwaukee, CHATTANOOGA, New Haven, Syracuse, Providence, Baltimore, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Louisville, San Francisco, New York, to name but a few.

They propose something like this...but with taller walls.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a piece concerning this subject. The main thrust of the piece was that we have a history of identifying our problems and fixing them. The original US-27 was an unmitigated disaster. The fact that the state wants to revisit the facility is a fantastic opportunity to set things right. However, not only are we not fixing the problem, we are making it worse! The reason it is worse is because of a fundamental difference in philosophy of what we are doing: are we making the city better, or are we making the road better?

Read anything that the authors of the plan have to say about the project. You will notice that there is no mention of people, no mention of quality of life, no mention of economic development, no mention of community- only talk of traffic. That is not surprising, because they exist in a culture that is only concerned with cars and trucks- it is not considered their job to think about anything else. Consider the comments- they are not concerned with Chattanoogans, they are concerned with getting people through our downtown as swiftly as possible.

Example of the disconnect: Massive Retaining walls. In an effort to finish the job of cleaving our downtown in two, the plan calls for more than two dozen retaining walls, some upwards of 70’ tall. Of course, TDOT has only released plans, not elevations, so the general public won’t recognize this until it's too late.  Says a TDOT rep: "We're willing to work with them to turn those into almost art if we need to and enhance them to get the textures and feel for the downtown area." Yes, you read correctly, their response to mitigating the impact of 70-foot tall barriers in the center of our downtown is to use textured concrete. To say that this is out of touch with how one builds a healthy community is an understatement.

Can I interest you in some TDOT "almost art"?
 
Example of the disconnect: Traffic Circle
. The downside of roundabouts is the fact that they are notoriously unfriendly to pedestrians. The MLKing corridor is one of the precious few opportunities to reconnect Westside with the rest of downtown- the roundabout kills that possibility.  That said, the traffic circle could be a reasonable compromise if it could be used to eliminate any of the frontage roads or ramps. The circle can handle a lot of capacity and the land reclaimed by losing the ramps can be put back on the tax rolls and returned to productive economic use for the city. In the current TDOT plan however, we get none of the potential benefit of the traffic circle and all of the negative impact. What benefit do we get from the current configuration? Their response: "It's a landmark, really." A landmark. A landmark to traffic engineers? The shocking thing is that they actually wanted to build two!

From a pure economic standpoint, this is a lose/lose situation for our city. The majority of the economic benefit of the current plan goes to the road building contractors. Some of that trickles down to the men that will work in the construction process, some of those will be Chattanoogans. After our taxes pay for the construction of the facility, we will continue to pay taxes for its maintenance. In forty years, our children’s taxes will be used for the removal of the facility when they decide to reconnect the then booming Westside community with the rest of our downtown. However, If some of the land that is dedicated to the language of the sub-urb (sweeping curves, traffic circles, cloverleafs, etc) were returned to the community as developable land, everyone wins- TDOT has prime surplus property to sell, the community has land on which to build new structures (creating construction jobs), new businesses can locate (engaging in economic activity and providing jobs), and the land is returned to the tax rolls (increasing revenue for the city).

It was said in the TFP article that “regardless of what the final plan looks like, it's better than the current road”. I’m sorry friends, it can be worse…it can be much worse. Our renaissance was built, in part, on the premise that all of our interventions have to be built to the highest standard of quality. Can you imagine the project leaders of projects such as the Aquarium, Miller Plaza, the Riverwalk, Coolidge Park, or the Riverfront saying “Eh, no matter what we do, it’ll be better than what was there.”? Thankfully, that was not the case and those men rose to the occasion- hopefully, the leaders of today will do the same.

This came out mere seconds before my post. I think this is good news. Now, if we can just get them focus on the bigger design flaws....

3.12.2012

I Predict A Riot

The big news of the weekend was Jack White playing Track 29. That’s a bit of a coup for the venue and the city, and apparently a good time was had by all. I like Jack well enough, but not enough to try to get tickets (which were nigh upon impossible to find, I have heard). I was all set to eschew the music scene and spend the weekend at home with D and the boys- a little work, a little play. That was until Saturday morning when the newly-licensed landscape architect L.Rushing, invited me to the ATL to see Kaiser Chiefs. (Not familar? See this, this, and this)

Small world: while at the show I ran into fellow Chattanoogan G.Cruze...yes, the G.Cruze

The fact that I am an Anglophile is no secret. I am defenseless against English music- they play it, I love it. Aside from hip-hop artists, all of my favorite bands are English: Oasis, The Beatles, Stone Roses, Radiohead, The Stones, New Order (to name a few). While KCs are not one of my Favorite Bands of All Time, they are English and I couldn’t turn down the offer. The only problem with accepting the invitation is that travel time to and from Atlanta ate up all of my writing time (that, and a most inconveniently scheduled time change). But rather than leave yall hanging for a week, I’ll do my best to write on the fly and try to make urban design connections to the trip.

I could have spent those four hours in the car thinking about a suitable subject for the blog. Unfortunately, my mind was mush, and I succumbed to the desire to roll the windows down, crank the (English) tunes up and think through some of my more pressing design issues. I considered writing about Atlanta vis a vis urban design issues, but that’s an awful lot to bite off. Additionally, that city is a $#!+hole, and I'm not in the mood to deal with their problems. That leaves elements of the show as potential topics. I have identified two for this post – the title of the Kaiser Chiefs latest album and my observation of how the band operated.

The big deal about the KC’s latest album is its distribution format. Instead of crafting an album with a set number of songs in a specific order, they let the user “create” the album. The user could go to their website, select 10 songs from a pool of twenty, organize them as they see fit, select some cover art and thereby create their own bespoke version of the album. (This is a fun video which caricatures the process) A novel concept indeed, but I’m not 100% down with it. I understand that it is a form of interactive art that need not be constrained by tradition. However, I can’t shake the sense that they have abdicated their responsibility to make the tough decisions that artistic enterprises require. But this is neither here nor there. The title of the album is “The Future is Medieval”. I don’t know much about the political philosophies of the band, but I can’t imagine they were thinking of land use and urbanism when they created the title. However, they may well be on to something.

The concept that American land use patterns (and the way society operates) is unsustainable is the main theme of Kunstler’s fantastic blog. Our current land use system (and society) is built on the fundamental concept of a cheap and plentiful supply of oil. Oil is so utterly and completely ingrained in everything that we do, that the system can’t exist without it being BOTH cheap and plentiful. The dream of running the system on renewables is just that. While part of a worthy pursuit of a broader strategy, those alternatives can’t be produced in the awesome quantities and scales required to keep this thing afloat. Chasing down that rabbit hole also misses the point- why should we be trying to perpetuate a broken system? We are doing our best to sustain the unsustainable and squandering precious resources in that pursuit. The solution does not lie in finding more complex fixes to prop up a bad system. The solution is to scale down and localize our activities. We’re already seeing a society that is open to the concept- primarily in the realms of clothiers, and locally grown and harvested food. We are headed back in that direction (willingly and organized or otherwise) and our land use patterns will more closely resemble the patterns that have served humanity for all but the past 60 years of our existence. So, in a sense, our future may indeed be medieval.

video 
I'm way too old for this...


The other thing that struck me at the show was how the band performed. Not in the sense of how well they played, but simply how they played. A few weeks ago I wrote about members of a band and members of the community being similar in that they combine their talents in the creation of a product that is greater than the sum of the parts. As I was watching the band perform, it was clear that each of the five musicians were off doing their own thing. Rarely did they look at each other, much less communicate in any other way than through their music. Yet, each of the musicians knew their role, their part in the larger plan, and executed accordingly. Did they walk into a room and instantly know all of the songs, how to play them and what the other band members will be doing? Of course not. Those conditions are created through a plan, and hours upon hours of hard work, practice and rehearsals. The same holds true for the city. Do any of us come to our stations in the community with all of the answers?  Of course not. The building of the city is an ongoing “song”. We “practice” and “rehearse” through our collective dialogue and ongoing civic conversations about what we as a city aspire to be.

A rather obvious example of community dialogue is River City Company’s Urban Design Challenge. Speaking of the Challenge, the next presentation is this Thursday night the 15th, 5:30pm at the Majestic Theater. It is your responsibility as a member of the band to come out and support the collective conversation. (and if you see me, please say hey!)

3.05.2012

Good & Turrible

Well friends, I'm kicking off something new this week.  I submit the first installment of “Good & Turrible”- two images from downtown Chattanooga- one good, one turrible. (ACHTUNG, pop culture references: here and here) Long time readers will note that this marks a slight departure from my policy of trying to focus primarily on positive, happy observations. It has occurred to me that a) I was kidding myself about always being positive (see any of the posts about BWW), and b) critique serves an invaluable role in the dialogue process. I suppose I should slightly modify my stance on critique. From this point on, I will critique elements of the city that I feel warrant critique. In doing so I will strive to be honest, fair and avoid mean-spirited comments. The purpose of critique is not to ridicule, but to highlight things that warrant discussion. Only through a frank and honest assessment of what has been in the past past, can we project we what want to be in the future. Be forewarned, that this is not the  archetypical version of Good & Turrible.  The typical installment will focus more on elements than concepts. For instance, "this is a good fence" vs. "this is a bad fence" rather than "this is a good philosophy" vs. "this is a bad idea". For this installment, however, I will straddle the line between element and concept. Here goes...

Good

The historic Central Block building had fallen into disrepair over the years. An aggressive campaign was undertaken and the building was rehabilitated and reinhabited. Of course, the story is more complex and interesting and than that. For the purposes of this post, however, it is enough to know that people and institutions in the community came together to preserve a part of our history and the city is better for having this portion of our legacy and inheritance in active use.

Turrible

The state of the St. George Hotel is shocking. I am amazed that with all of the investment and good work that has been done in the Southside that the Hotel and adjacent properties are in the condition they are. The Terminal Building of the Choo-Choo, one of the grand structures in our city and one of the biggest tourists draws, is set across from the biggest eye-sore in all of downtown (except for arguably BWW). I am not naive- I understand that the St. George has serious issues that make its redevelopment problematic. I also realize that it has shifted hands a time or two, and it is the owner's prerogative to do with their property as they will.  Apparently, the back portion of the building has been condemned- this will come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the "structural tree" that had become part of the southwest corner of the building.  Although, this a necessary step for any of the myriad development schemes that have been proposed throughout the years, my heart sank a bit when I saw the track hoes.

Regardless of the back story, this whole episode is pretty weak. Have we forgotten who we are are? We're Chattanooga. We're famous for working together to pull off nigh-impossible projects. We have a philanthropic community that rallies around tough causes. Having more than a passing familiarity with the property, its opportunities, its constraints, its importance to the district, and its importance as part of our shared heritage, I am baffled that we have not been able to make something work. For heaven's sake look across the street. The building that the brew pub now inhabits was in dire condition and had a number of development constraints as well. It's now one of the most popular destinations in the Southside.

I know that the redevelopment and restoration of legacy buildings is a tough game. I just think it's a shame that we haven't been able to figure this one out.

On an unrelated note, I will also award the Casey Anthony Honorary Turrible Mom of the Year Award to this lady.