Smells Like Civic Spirit

Back in my undergraduate days at UNM I was a big Nirvana fan. I wasn’t a massive, travel-the-country-to-see-them fan, but I really enjoyed the music. When Cobain died in ’94, I was distraught and proceeded to play their catalogue back to back to back for some time. After a period of weeks, a fraternity brother paused in my doorway and said “Let him die, bro”, then moved along. That is to illustrate that sometimes when I feel strongly about something, I have a hard time letting it go. This week, I’m having a hard time moving on from the Urban Design Challenge.

As you may know, last week the sun set on the Urban Design Challenge. More than 450 of us showed up for the Grand Finale (Four – Fif - Tee!). It is quite clear that the community has a massive appetite for issues of urbanism and design. There is a part of me that wants to move on to new pastures and write about some other concepts I’ve been toying with. The blog, however, is about urban design in Chattanooga and the UDC is the biggest news in that universe since Stroud got the sack. 

The Challenge has been my primary focus for over a year. The process has been the most interesting and fulfilling public process I’ve ever had the good fortune of being associated with. I’ve been trying evaluate my feelings about the past year, and if I had to distill my emotions and describe them in a word, it would be pride. This pride, however, is unrelated to self. For this week’s blog, I offer you a list of things and people I’m proud of.

I’m proud of Kim White and River City Company. Their job is economic development- to develop property and to attract investment in downtown. It is not their responsibility to convene and facilitate the community conversation on urban design. To her eternal credit, Kim recognized that no one else was taking responsibility for this vitally important task and she tackled it with style and aplomb. 

I’m proud of our philanthropic community. The Lyndhurst, Benwood, and Maclellan Foundations were equal partners in making the UDC possible. I’m proud of the fact that our foundations embrace collaborative efforts, and that they each had the vision to make a significant investment in an untested and impermanent process.

I’m proud of Ann Coulter. From initial concept until the lights went down on Thursday, she worked tirelessly. Her instincts and insights were, without fail, spot-on throughout the process.

I’m proud of the Dynamic Density team. They only had about five weeks to pull together their project, they had arguably the most difficult site, and they produced a thoroughly professional response. Their work set a high bar for each of the remaining teams.

I’m proud of the Big Gig. Facing the challenges of time and the “blank slate”, they created a project that had the rare quality of being imaginative and artful while retaining the feel of a project that one could easily visualize being built.

I’m proud of Method E5. On a deceptively difficult site they produced a multifaceted, multilayered plan that was respectful of the past while projecting a vision of the future that is aspirational, inclusive and artistic.

I’m proud of Elemi+. Given the choice of taking the wide and easy road or navigating the narrow path, they put their marbles on the table and took a stand on principle. Beyond the sensationalism of the TDOT drama there is a nuanced and thoughtful concept for improving our most auspicious gateway into downtown.

I’m proud of the whole Idea Channel crew. By redefining the problem and being ever mindful of the fact that small, incremental interventions can lead to real change, they deftly presented a vision that is both visionary and attainable.

I’m proud of the HKA/Artech/BWSC team. When we received the letters of interest, I was blown away that two of the highest profile firms in town would partner. The high-level work that the team produced is a sterling example of that famous Chattanooga maxim: “working together works”.

I’m proud of the community. What other city in the South (or country for that matter) could consistently draw 200+ people for a series of urban design presentations?  Four-Fif-Tee for the finale, and we didn’t even have to use free beer to do it. Remarkable. Chattanooga is a special place with a special spirit that is shared by special people. If we could only get a decent Chinese takeout downtown we would be perfect.

I’m proud of the entire process. I was fortunate to be able to spend some time with each of the jurors during their couple of days here. It was incredibly gratifying to hear them gush about the high level of work the teams produced. These are people who are not easily impressed, but without exception they expressed admiration for what the community has accomplished. As with the vast majority of the good work done here over the past thirty years, the Urban Design Challenge owes its success to partnership and collaboration.

The toughest part of the process for me has been to answer the oft-asked question of “what’s next?”. I have to admit I’m not exactly sure- I’m not sure anyone is. I am confident that something will come out the Urban Design Challenge, but even if nothing else transpires, the community is better off for having gone through in the process. I will do my level best to move on next week and write about something else- but I’m not sure I’m willing to let it die, bro.



Ahhh, deep breath. An amazing and grueling summer sets this weekend with the boys imminent return to school. This has been arguably the most hectic 3-month period in my life (in a virtual dead heat with the fall of 2002). Here are some highlights of the past few months: I traveled to Iowa twice, Florida twice, and Montgomery three times, my grandmother died, my wife had surgery and a subsequent July 4th trip to the emergency room (she’s back to normal now), I had an endoscopy, I finished design and drawings for a house in North Chattanooga, I pulled together the Design Studio Retrospective, my wife bought a new car when I wasn’t looking, I took the family on vacation, and last week I whisked boys away for our first trip to The Lost Sea in Sweetwater, TN. Over the course of the summer, however, most of my attention has been devoted to the Urban Design Challenge.

Some of us were more excited than others.

In the spring of 2011 in celebration of their 25th year in business and on the heels of projects that shall not be named, River City Company endeavored to undertake a public process to re-energize the community conversation about downtown. When we were brought on to help craft this yearlong “something” there was no way of knowing the impact that the process would have. I had a gut feeling that there was pent up demand for a community discourse on urban design issues- the first couple of months of this blog hinted at that. If you would have told me then, however, that we would get more than 200 people at each of the presentations I doubt I would have believed it.

If the goal of the Urban Design Challenge was to re-energize the conversation regarding urbanism and design, then the process can only be considered an overwhelming success. Hundreds, if not thousand of people have participated in the process- in the flesh. The in-person, on-site nature of the UDC was not an accident, it was very much by design. The decision was made that a robust and energetic conversation could best be established by convening those concerned in the same place to socialize with one another and to have the shared experiences of each of the presentations. There is no doubt that digital augmentation of real-world events is a powerful tool that is here to stay. It is my firm belief, however, that people putting forth the effort to attend an event with others who have made a similar commitment creates stronger bonds. Indeed, the defining characteristic of the UDC was the almost palpable level of energy and excitement at each of the presentations- these were no mere public meetings.

(Massive shout out to Brad Shelton at Accendo Studio for his
great photography through the UDC Process)

Beyond that, the Challenge was designed to propose visions and spark conversation, not necessarily to impact real-world projects. The process, however, has done just that. The most obvious example of real-world influence is the US-27 project. Who knows how that will eventually play out, but the fact that a small band of architects and interested citizens can influence an $80 million State transportation project is nothing short of amazing. Beyond that, word on the street is that UDC proposals have influenced potential developments at 700 Block, the Haney Block, The John Ross Building, the chicken plant and Patten Parkway. Of course, only time will tell what impact the UDC work will have on the city, but my hunch is that we’ll look back at this as a watershed moment as it relates to how we build the city.

Frankly, I have been jealous throughout the process. My friends and colleagues got the opportunity to put teams together and perform the work of the challenge, while I was stuck holding a microphone. While not being able to perform the work was difficult, it has been great fun to serve as a liaison with each of the teams and get to see the behind the scenes work from each of the teams. Without exception, the teams produced top shelf work. It is truly remarkable to see what these teams of architects produced. They were given BLANK SLATES and rather to go the stereotypical route of creating signature architectural statements, every team produced a work of urban design that focused on the public realm. The work is a credit to our professional community.

The Urban Design Challenge is the most fun and fulfilling public project I’ve had a chance to be associated with. By any metric, River City Company’s Urban Design Challenge has been an unqualified success. If you’ve made it out to any of the presentations, you know of what I speak. If you’ve missed them, you can catch up on content at http://www.urbandesignchallenge.com. We all have one last event to attend- The Grand Finale. Thursday night at 5:30 at Track 29 our thirteen-month odyssey comes to a close. I greatly anticipate the week’s festivities, however, I will be gutted to see it end.


Napoleon Complex

Well friends, I’ve been a bad, bad blogger and let another week pass. You find me this week at Seagrove Beach on a much-needed vacation. It is a great joy to bring my family back to the place I vacationed when I was but a young C.Rush. Although it is great fun for me, I suspect that the boys are tired of hearing me describe the battlefield of the Great Bottle Rocket Battle of 19 and '82, and are weary of listening to the story of the time I busted ass on the diving board, knocked myself out and my dad had to save me from drowning (which, I suppose, is to his credit).

Long-time readers of the blog will recognize this as the time of year that I typically get off on a Seaside/New Urbanist tangent.  Well, here we go again. The last few months I've been having an internal debate about ideal ways of creating density. Of course, there is no right or wrong answer to the question and the answer ultimately depends on context, but it's been fun to think about. 

Underlying the question is the fundamental recognition of the importance of density. I write often about the fact that density is part of the DNA of downtown and a fundamental condition for the functioning of a healthy city core. Accommodating more people and activity on any given square foot of land downtown means that land elsewhere can be given over to farmland, recreation or conservation. People and activity in close proximity also make pedestrianism a viable option. Walking, of course being the most preferable means of human transportation- it requires no machine storage (parking lots, bike racks, etc), no fossil fuel consumption, and minimal land for circulation (no roads, airports, train stations, etc). Walking, of course, has its limitations, but the denser a place is with essential activities of life, the more sense it makes.

The question concerns the best way to establish density- on one end of the spectrum is the modernist notion of the tower in a park, on the other end is a district of multiple structures of (more or less) uniform height.

The tower is an obvious way to establish density from a dwelling unit per acre standpoint- a small footprint is established, then units are stacked atop one another until the laws of physics or finance intervene. I’ve been enamored with this concept from the first time I saw Mies’ and Corbu’s drawings in architecture school- beautiful, simple, awe-inspiring buildings where people could live, work and be entertained. The footprint of the towers was small (in Corbu’s case miniscule due to his use of pilotis), which meant that the natural landscape around the tower could remain virtually untouched. This was a profound and beautiful response to the often-appalling conditions of the inner city after the industrial revolution.

Another attempt at making a city more sanitary and liveable was undertaken in Paris. The Second Empire reforms of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann were aimed at modernizing what was still, in essence, a medieval city. Among the myriad initiatives were improvements in infrastructure and public space and implementation of the straight, wide(r), streets that city is known for, and a building height limit of about 60 feet. There are a thousand different aspects of that work that could be analyzed, but for the purposes of this post, let’s leave it at building height restriction. I find it quite remarkable that a city of millions can be built with a 60’ height limit- and that the same is on the short list of the greatest cities in human history.

So, you might ask, what the hell has this to do with Seaside? Let me go mix another tequila and I’ll make the connection after the jump...


Not a tower.

From where I sit, I can look off to the east and see several towers- primarily residential, but with some mixed-use components. Off to the west I can discern the silhouettes of the Seaside pavilions. Both of these places are dense, however, they achieve this density in markedly different ways. The towers...are towers, while Seaside is a clustered village of similarly-scaled buildings of 2-4 stories. Having driven past the towers in the past, they look like nice and well-maintained, but do not look a likely candidate for shopping, dining, or people-watching. Seaside, on the other hand, is well known for its exuberant street-life. Perhaps this is not a fair comparison, since I’ve cherry-picked the examples from my beach chair. The example does, however, underscore a point that Ricard Florida toyed with a couple of weeks ago (on Christian-mas, no less). That point is that density can be a dual edged sword. Density, if properly executed, will result in rich and rewarding built environments that contribute mightily to quality of life and economic development. Density, if not properly executed, results in vapid, monotonous developments whose only benefit over the sub-urb is that it uses less land.

In my estimation, the ideal height for development in our downtown is about four stories.  This uniform, moderate height would provide a more fertile ground for social interaction,  increase opportunity for broad economic development, increase land value and result in more efficient buildings. If I were to advocate for design guidelines (which I do not), I would set a height limit at five stories. Less than five stories is too onerous and more than five negates the advantages outlined above. I think the next step for downtown is to generate the type of across the board density that would make more retail development feasible (I'm not talking boutique shoe stores for the tourists, I'm talking convenience store, theater, grocery store, laundry, bodega, restaurant, bar- all of the little things that make it possible to live, work and play in the city). The towers we have are fine, they serve a purpose for our city and I hope they do well. The city has other needs, however, that can be met in other ways. I'm not sure that I'm any closer to figuring our which of the philosophical alternatives I prefer for increasing density, but in our current situation, it seems that the city would benefit from a general and uniform densification.

Sincerest apologies for the ramble, but the Florida sun has addled my meager brain, and as you know I’m a bit out of practice. I’m back in the saddle now and with any luck the weekly routine is hereby reestablished.


Back at it

Friends, I offer my sincerest apologies for missing the past couple of weeks. I tried to try to keep it rolling, but had a couple of projects that conspired to steal my writing time. Things are settling down a bit, so I’m back at it. For the record, I’m bailing on the Pink Floyd tribute, for now (if you have a serious problem with that let me know and I’ll reconsider).

As you may know, the big project I’ve been working is the Design Studio Retrospective. (If you don't know, now you know, know, know, know). The Retrospective takes a look back at more than 20 years of urban design and visioning for downtown Chattanooga. Over the spring and summer of this year, I canvassed the community and reached out to studio alums to assemble as much of the work that the studio produced as possible. The primary product of that effort is an online archive. The secondary product is an exhibition of outstanding examples of the work that is being put on display in my favorite building. The exhibition follows the work of the Studio as it progressed from general downtown structure studies to work on some of Chattanooga’s most beloved places. The exhibition also features an interactive connection to the complete archive of work. The website is now live and can be found at www.chattanoogastudio.com. If you're not from 'round here, be sure to go to the "retrospective" page and download the ibook for you iphone or ipad- it's almost good as being there. If you are from here, you can still download it, but you have no reason for not actually being there.

One of the things that Stroud taught was that all of our work should “respect the past, reinforce the present and predict a future. By its nature a retrospective is a look back at something that happened in the past- I had that part covered. One of the things I struggled with during the process was how to make a retrospective relevant to the present and pertinent to the future. I really believe that what has been put together is more than simply a history project.

If we consider the present in regard to urbanism and design in our community, the big deal going is River City Company’s Urban Design Challenge. The overwhelming support of and participation in the process is evidence that the community values civic dialogue on issues of urbanism and design. It seems to me that the retrospective could be considered a 20 year long urban Design Challenge with hundreds of team members and all of downtown as the site. Chattanooga has been incredibly fortunate to have had an influx of young (and not so young) creative and engaged transplants over the past decade or so. Due to the ignoble demise of the Studio, many of our new neighbors have no clue about the high level of work that was necessary to create the city that we enjoy today. In those regards, the retrospective has relevance in the present.

A couple of concepts stood out during my research, and I hope that these are things that come across to those visiting the exhibition. The first is that downtown didn’t just happen. When we go to nightfall and have a great time, enjoy a stroll around the riverfront, enjoy a meal in an outdoor space, or go home to our neighborhoods in the Southside, it’s easy to take those things for granted. The reality is that virtually everything we enjoy downtown- especially as it relates to the public realm- is the result of years of planning, sketching, design, debate, and hard work. Great places (especially in America) are the result of careful thought, design and planning.

The other thing that stood out has to do with time. The big maneuvers in downtown: Miller Plaza, Ross’s Landing, the Southside, and the river’s edge, all took at least a decade from the initial concept until completion. (That’s fast, by the way). The issue with that timing is that it cycles very differently from political cycles, funding cycles, and often community attention spans. I think the exhibition highlights the importance of having “something” that is a stable long-term steward of community vision. This “something” has to be a place of common ground, and a place where ideas have time and space to gestate. Without this function, the city develops in an ad hoc, piecemeal way that shortchanges greater possibilities. By highlighting these considerations and interjecting them into the civic dialogue, the retrospective projects a future.

The Retrospective will be open until late October and will be open to the public from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday-Thursday. As mentioned earlier, it can be found in the Citipark building at 831 Chestnut Street. Invite a friend, come out and have a look, and make sure you find me and say hey.