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....

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