4.30.2012

The day the pig's feet died

Most of ya’ll know that one of the inspirations for this space is Jim Kunstler’s kick-ass blog. For those of you who don’t know, Jim wrote every planner's favorite book “The Geography of Nowhere” (even though he is not a planner). Over the course of the last several years, the thrust of his writing has shifted from land-use planning to peak oil to the impending implosion of the global financial system (and most global systems for that matter).  Each of those topics has at least a tangential connection to urban design, so I don’t begrudge his shifts. A few weeks ago, however, he wrote a couple of installments on health care and medication. I was bummed because I enjoy reading him, but have zero interest in that particular topic.

I was reminded of those posts last week when I had my own little visit to the doctor’s office. I feel great, I look great, and my blood pressure and heart rate are both “excellent”. However, my cholesterol was through the roof (as I suspected would be the case). Over the last several months I have neglected my workout regimen and bought/ate half of a delicious pig from our friends at Burns Best Farm. The sad fact is that I don’t eat well in the winter.  I’m lukewarm about the prospect of eating fruits and vegetables shipped in from halfway around the globe, and without local produce I tend to gravitate to proteins (meat and cheese) and carbs (bread and pasta). Had my labs been taken during the summer when the fruits and vegetables from the CSA were around, the numbers may have been different. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending my flawed approach, just explaining it. I have not actively worked on keeping my cholesterol down and I have no one to blame but myself.

He was born and raised locally,
we named him Al, and he was delicious.

I’ve been seeing my current doctor for a about a year. To be frank, this person is not my first choice.  However, she is in-network and the doctor I want to see has a waiting list (I’ve been waiting for more than a year). In any event, the doctor explained the cholesterol number then announced that she was putting me on Lipitor. There was no question of lifestyle, no discussion about changing my exercise routine, no mention of trying to get the number down by changing dietary habit. I respect my doctor, and I understand that she has spent a lot of time in school and in practice to develop her philosophy on treatment. However, aged 39, I’m not ready go on a statin and subject myself to headache, difficulty sleeping, flushing of the skin, muscle aches and tenderness, drowsiness/ weakness, dizziness, nausea and/or vomiting, abdominal cramping and/or pain, bloating and/or gas, diarrhea, constipation, and rash without at least making an effort to address the problem through means I can control.  Fuck. That. More importantly, I fully believe that the quality of one's life is more important than its duration.

So long duck liver pate in aspic.

The fact that I’m no longer bullet-proof is starting to sink in. Whereas, at one time it was no big deal to immediately jump into playing sports cold, I now have to warm up, warm down and get sore two days later. In my more athletic days, my dietary decisions were based on what allowed me perform on a day to day basis. Those decisions were not necessarily geared toward long-term health. I now find myself in a spot where I have to work and exert effort in order to be healthy. I suppose I could continue to live the same way, take a pill and deal with the side effects. Those side effects, however, would impact my quality of life far more than fixing the root problem- in this case exercising more and consuming the right things. From here on out, if I want to be healthy I will have to work on it.  In many respects, having a healthy city follows the same rules.

Goodbye Rolled Pig's Head, you will be missed.

Downtown didn’t just happen. The Miller Plaza district, the Riverfront, Coolidge Park, the Riverwalk, the Southside, The Aquarium and its Plaza; these places didn’t just spring up. These places are the result of years of work by hundreds of students, dozens of professionals, multiple public agencies, and thousand of citizens (not to mention the decades of work by previous generations in establishing the city). Unfortunately, our country has been conditioned to think like my doctor. We look for the pill with the full understanding that there are side effects, but with the mindset of dealing with them later (with another pill). We have quit trying to deal with the root issues of problems because it is hard work.

Beer and Cigars, I'm gonna miss....wait, who am I kidding.
Remember what I said about quality of life?

I thought about the parallels between my current problem and an ongoing issue for many cities. My doctor has diagnosed a problem (high cholesterol), and as treatment can choose to treat the symptom (with a pill) or work hard to attack the cause (changes in diet and exercise). A city identifies what they see is a problem (traffic congestion), and as treatment can choose to address the supply side (by adding lanes and facilities) or work hard to address the demand side (organize the city in a way that puts life’s daily tasks in closer proximity to one another). Taking the pill may lower my cholesterol, but it puts me at risk for a host of other maladies. Adding lanes may reduce traffic for an instant (not for long, however, due to induced and diverted traffic), but the side effects of that decision are debilitating. We are already unable to maintain the burden of our massive infrastructure, yet we build more. The more roads we build, the worse our quality of life is- we lose man hours stuck in a car, we lose potentially productive land, and we lose civic identity. Rebuilding our cities and reassessing our transportation philosophies will be hard work. Kunstler suggests that resource shortages will force this work upon us whether we want to undertake it or not. Whether forced or voluntary, hard work is the only thing that will make us healthy in the long term.

4.23.2012

The world is my oyster

This week you find me on the North Shore in the Quality Tire waiting room experiencing a solid case of the Mondays. I woke this morning feeling a bit sore (having picked weeds and planted yesterday). I hopped in the shower to find that I was out of shower gel- the only logical thing to do was use Denise’s product. Smelling of some flower or other I rolled downstairs to find the boys…being boys. After shoveling the remainder of their breakfast in their precious little mouths, we made our way into the car and down the street. The thud, thud, thudding was instantly recognizable- flat tire. Quick u-turn, back down the street, transfer the boys to D’s car and off to school. Two blocks into our journey I realized that my lovely wife’s gas tank had negative gas in it. Yes, negative- no gas, running on fumes. A quick detour to the finest Kanku’s we could locate remedied the situation (being the petty man that I am, I put $1.87 worth of gas in the tank. Yes, I know that’s terrible). I dropped the little angels off, made it home, gave D a kiss for the day and returned to the task a hand. The rest of the episode went like this: scraped the shit out of my knuckles during the tire changing process, encountered a lug nut that was seemingly epoxied tight, put the spare on backward, had to redo the entire process, then drove at 20 mph to the North Shore to see my tire folks. A tremendous pain in the ass, to be sure. The bright side, however, is that all of that shit happened and I am now in a comfortable waiting room chair, all before 8:55am- the rest of the day is my oyster. Onward…

Update: upon my return home from the tire store, I realized that I lost a check. Said check had been inadvertently discarded and was found in the garbage in, amongst other things, a few dozen shucked oyster shells. I bullshit you not.

I was all set to write about US-27 and the remarkable occurrences we’ve seen over the week. I’m still in the process of digesting what has happened and trying to figure out what it really means (I think I have a pretty good idea, but time will tell).  I will write about that soon, but in the meantime, I’ll share a bit of my weekend.

I was asked to participate in a Sunday morning panel for the Mid-south Sculpture Alliance. Yes, my thoughts exactly, things must be pretty spare in the sculpture world if they’re asking me to be on a panel. But seriously, it was a very good session. The session was called Contemporary Focus: Creating the Future. My fellow panelists were two architects: Tom Bartoo (a local), and a young man from Baltimore whose name escapes me (nice guy, full beard).  We were asked, in essence, to weigh in on with our thoughts on the future of public art and its role in city building.

 Our session started started the session with screening of this video. The moderator of the session was really fired up about it, and I can see how she was inspired. What those folks are doing is fine, it’s really cool stuff. Taking the lead of the video, our conversation inevitably turned to the concept of integrating “art” and infrastructure.  I use quotes because it is my belief that when we ask art to do something, it’s not really art anymore, it has become design.

I am a fervent believer in design.  I think that everything we build, especially as it relates to the public realm, should not only serve a purpose, but do so in a way that contributes to the visual quality of place. For instance, when I was at the design studio, a great deal of time and effort was spent designing things such as pedestrian lighting and water towers. The raison d’ĂȘtre of infrastructure elements is to “do something”, in those cases providing illumination and storing water. If these elements are designed well, they accomplish their primary mission in a way that also contributes to the visual quality of their environment. We took the concept a step further to create elements that not only served their purpose and looked good, but did so in a way that was unique to Chattanooga. Sure, it might be simpler to buy these things off the rack like every other city does, but the marginal cost of design and fractional increase in price were more than offset by the quality of the final product. This is a good thing, and a concept that the city embraced for some time. Designing infrastructure in a way that is visually pleasing and that reinforces our uniqueness is great- but it is not art, it is good design.

Art is another concept altogether. By incorporating public art into our city, and incorporating it into our infrastructure projects we are making a statement about what we as a community value. The point that I argued during the panel discussion was that art need not have to “do something” to have value. In fact, in its truest sense, art needs no justification at all to exist. The only justification has to come from the community. At one point, the city agreed to put 1% of the cost of their projects into connected public art projects (I don’t know if this is still the case or not). I think that’s a good step toward the creation of a public realm that expresses the value of the community and is something that creates a benefit for all citizens. Art for its own sake is the hallmark of communities that embrace quality of life as a valid public enterprise. These are the communities that will win the competition for the creative class, tourism, and outside investment.

Of course, there is a vocal segment of the population that detests any public expenditure on anything public art. On some level, that concern is understandable. Economics are important. Quality of life, however, is important as well. I want to live in a city that is more than an assembly of low-bid, generic elements cobbled together as fiscal-year budgets allow. It is a question of investment and future return. Should we eat our kernels of seed corn because it’s in hand, or should we plant it in order to harvest several ears in the future?

4.16.2012

Lessons Learned (lookin' out my front door)

Well kids, C.Rushing has been (in the parlance of our time) all up in the sauce these days. A number of remarkable things are afoot. I have nothing to share, however, for fear of the jinx. Suffice it to say that this should be a kick ass summer. Don't worry, I'll keep you posted, you won't miss a thing. The problem I am faced with is that the topics I want to write about aren't yet ripe, and a fresh new topic has not presented itself. For that reason, I have resolved to look outside and write about the first thing I see…


In the Spring of 2009, a local green building advocacy group sponsored a competition for the design and construction of a pavilion for Jefferson Heights Park. The park just happens to be 10 yards away from my house, so clearly this competition got my attention. As I have noted before, our neighborhood has experienced a rebirth with dozens of new homes and hundreds of new residents over the past decade or so. At the heart of our neighborhood is a 2-acre park. The current park is the former site of the Davenport Elementary School that was razed the year before my birth. The design competition was to be the final piece of a larger park renovation that included a new playground, seating areas, walking trails, and community gardens. (From a critical standpoint, the park design is indolent. It is an assemblage of elements rather than an integrated whole. It also lacks any reference or acknowledgement of the surrounding context. From a practical standpoint, 99% of park patrons are happy to have a new playground with green grass and could give a flip about consonance and dissonance in public space design. I am the 1%, but I digress.)

One interesting thing about the competition process was that it followed the Chattanooga model of cooperation and collaboration. Several departments of City and County, and a local green building advocacy group partnered to fund and facilitate the project. I am grateful to each of those entities for their effort and the investment they made in our neighborhood. I was also excited about the prospect of people working together, just like the old days. The competition provided for an $80,000 construction budget, and set forth a number of prerequisites such as a stage, a plaza, and some “green” building elements including composting toilets. The competition sponsor served as the client during construction, they then gifted the building over to the City after construction was complete. Construction started in October of ’09 and was complete in February of ’10.

video

From the standpoint of getting something built, the project was a success. While there is much to be said for that, every time I look at the pavilion I see wasted opportunity. It is true that many hands make light work, and partnerships allow a broad range of expertise, experience and resource to be brought to bear. The potential pitfall of partnership, however, is that each entity has a range of needs, desires and expectations that have to be accommodated. The partnerships that Chattanooga became famous for were successful because work was done on the front end to ensure that the process and product would meet the needs of each partner. In the pavilion project, it appears that some of that front end work was not thoroughly conducted. This fault manifest itself in a series of mandates in the construction process that were never discussed during design. While this happened on more than one occasion, I will revert to potty-talk for the prime example.

The competition organizers required that composting toilets be included in all designs. Of course, composting toilets require bathrooms in which to be located, and due to the size and nature of this facility the City required that there be two such rooms of there were to be any. The consequence of that requirement was that roughly 45% of the total project budget was driven by the requirement for composting toilets. That wouldn’t necessarily be an awful thing if we saw some benefit from the investment (i.e. people making use of the facility, compost being used in the community gardens, or an example for education). Composting toilets require almost daily maintenance, and no provision was made within the partnership to perform that maintenance. After the pavilion was opened, the City locked the bathrooms and I wager that nary a single person ever copped a squat on those kick-ass Envirolet FlushSmart VF350s. Some time later, the City returned, removed the composting units, and installed standard toilets. Note that the difference between composting and standard toilets is not the issue. The issue is that if the partners did a better job on the front end, the thousands of dollars that were wasted on unused composting toilets could have been put to more productive use in the rest of the project.

Turns out, this shit was not needed (pun intended).

In hindsight, it is clear that some early meetings between the parties commissioning the construction of the building and the parties responsible for its maintenance would have resulted in a more efficient program, more focused design responses, and less waste. (Of course, as handsome as he is, the designer is not faultless either- he could have done a better job of trying to bridge the communication chasm on the front end.) Despite my whinging about lost opportunities, I am truly grateful to all of the people who dedicated their time, effort and resources to make my neighborhood a better place.

To be fair: From a practical standpoint the pavilion is an adequate piece of work that the neighborhood will (hopefully) enjoy for years to come.  From a critical standpoint the pavilion is another example of "good enough" beating out "excellent" as a standard, and I never hang out there. 

4.09.2012

My kingdom for a parking space...

A'ight kids, here's the deal. I warned you last week that due to the Noel Gallagher concert and an Easter trip to The Gump that I would not post today. However, I have been gifted an hour to make an observation.

It is now 6:30 pm on Monday. I was due to meet my wife, boys, in-laws, brother-in-law, and his wife and children at the Boathouse for dinner (I know, it's not my favorite either, but it's local and that's not the point anyway). I was running a bit late and arrived to a place where there was no parking. I'm talking NO parking. All of the parking spots in the Boathouse/VFW/Riverwalk lots (both sides of Riverfront Parkway) were taken. By diners? No. By people taking advantage of the weather and our fantastic Riverwalk.

I'm sure there is something for me to bitch about in regard to not being able to get in to eat with my family. However, I will celebrate the fact that our community values our shared public space. That capital expenditure has more than justified itself. Now, if we could just eliminate the massive number of cars from that equation.....

Oh, the concert was great. If me and my homies ever start a band, this will be an album cover...

Yes, I brought the faux-hawk out of retirement

4.02.2012

Another one bites the dust...

There were no winners in last week's competition. Hell, there were no entries in last week's competition. It appears that either you lot are lazy or I was right about the intersections. Perhaps next time I will either choose an easier challenge or increase the value of the prize. Keep your eyes peeled for the next one.

If I am perfectly honest with myself (and you), this blog is a selfish exercise. If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say it's 60% for me and 40% for you. The writing process is my pressure release valve, a tool to understand the city better, my contribution to the community dialogue about urban issues, and a vehicle to talk about Alabama football. The blog's greatest value to me is the element of self-discovery.  The writing process has, on more than one occasion, caused me to challenge my philosophies and positions. This week is one of those occasions.

In case you forgot....Touch that thang 4!
 A few weeks ago I wrote about the demolition of the back portion of the St. George. The demolition is complete. The front building stands alone, waiting for the man or woman that will put her back to use or put her out of her misery. As historic preservation goes, the case for saving the St. George is self-evident: It's a handsome building, of a certain age, in a visible location. If the means and technique to preserve our old friend have proven to be elusive, the fact that it should it be preserved can be easily grasped by anyone. Unfortunately, not all preservation cases are so straightforward.

Will she or won't she?

Before we press on, allow me to first say that I'm not a hardcore preservationist. In fact, my interest in the topic is really only an extension of a consideration of the long term disposition of the city. As I once mentioned, my favorite metaphor for the city came from Stroud: "Cities, like forests are in a constant state of renewal. While forests recycle in rhythm with natural laws, the city is recycled by the collective will & conscience of its citizens". The city was here before any of us were, and it will be here long after we are gone (unless the Mayans were right). It is our job to be stewards of what we have inherited, and to try to leave something better for the generations that are to come. So it is for us, as it was for past generations, to decide what we value and to act accordingly. 

In the fifties and sixties the community valued personal mobility (for a segment of the population) and (untested) modern approaches to city building. Inner city freeways throughout the country displaced entire neighborhoods in the drive to get people into and out of downtown as rapidly as possible.  History has been a harsh judge of the unintended consequences of those decisions. We are now left to clean up the messes of those philosophies. Cities around the country, and indeed the globe, have begun the arduous task of removing or otherwise mitigating these dinosaurs. 

There is an architecture that accompanies that mindset, it is (unsurprisingly) called Modernism. The link between the architectures of mid-century urban freeways and mid-century buildings can be seen very clearly in our community. The prime example can be found around the community topic du jour, US-27 (and other Westside traffic interventions). In downtown, on the city side of 27, we have a fair representation of the historic architecture that witnesses the development and growth of our city. On the Westside (and some adjacent parcels on the city side) we see a "alien" architecture that has replaced the historic structures that were razed. Consider the row of buildings on Carter between MLKing and Main, the Golden Gateway properties, or the buildings that front Riverfront Parkway. You find there the expression of the sub-urban mindset of mid-century modern design- all of the buildings are objects in space unto themselves, they are all set back from the street, most feature parking prominently, and they are all single story.

Some of the Mid-Century Mods on Carter St.
(or any first ring suburb)

Those modernist buildings are just as bad (if not more so due to sheer number) than Applebee's and Buffalo Wild Wings. They do the same things that destroy the DNA of downtown- they are not dense, they do not contribute to the public realm, and their visual expression is generic rather than being unique to our community. My personal dilemma is that I love Modern buildings and find them beautiful. The other dilemma is that through the sheer passage of time, they have become an ingrained portion of the urban fabric. The modern buildings that were modern in the 50's are now 60 years old and qualify as being "historic" by American preservation standards.

The architecture of Riverfront Parkway.
(or any first ring suburb)


The modernist preservation dilemma hit home for me last week as I was cruising along Cherokee. The former Regions Bank branch has been put to the track hoe. I loved that building. It was a guilty pleasure for sure, as it was a one-story, drive thru bank with a parking lot. To it's urbanistic credit however, it did address the street and corner. I suppose I was most seduced by materiality- smoothly polished rose stone, white marble, and quality brick work. The quality of natural light in the interior was also very nice. Having seen what's been happening on Cherokee and understanding the players involved, I have been under no illusion that anything other demolition was in the cards. Seeing it actually happen, however, made me sad. That a noble building, built of fine materials, into which serious thought and attention was put, would be razed for the purpose of providing parking for a generic EIFS apartment building somehow seems wrong.

That's a shame.
(But I suppose if I get nostalgic, I can just drive to the 'burbs)


That is the larger question I'm grappling with. What is better for the city: a handsome historic structure with questionable urbanistic qualities, or a good urbanistic project with questionable execution? If you were forced to pick, would you have a beautiful city that doesn't work or a functioning urban core devoid of soul? Of course this is a false question, but understanding the issues at the core can help us when considering the real-world applications.

Be warned that I'll likely take next week off- down to ATL to see Noel.