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.

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