10.29.2012

I'm a lover, not a writer.

In order to create, there must be a dynamic force, and what force is more potent than love?
Igor Stravinsky

The summer is now officially, officially over. Last Thursday was the final day of the Retrospective exhibition and I cleared the space out on Friday. A couple of melancholy days to be sure, but all good things must come to an end. The process wore me out, so I’ll drop a personal observation now and get back at it next week. 

It only took 24 hours (including time for a shark) to break down the exhibition. A space that took months of deliberate, diligent and thoughtful work to create was gone in less than a day. It did not escape my notice that there was symmetry between this and the way that the Design Studio met its demise. Over the course of more than two decades the Studio evolved and grew, and was nurtured and cared for by a robust cadre of community partners. The decades of partnership and cooperation embodied in the studio were also undone in 24 hours. Creating something and building order from chaos is difficult and requires love. Destroying something and becoming an agent of entropy is easy and can be done with ambivalence.

One of my earliest childhood memories came during a car ride in the rain. As I recall, I was sitting in the front seat- likely without a seatbelt (and certainly without the Kevlar car seat with crash-resistant roll bar, like the kids these days). During a journey I became fixated on the rhythm of the windshield wipers. As the wipers swept up, the right wiper would leave a vertical rivulet of water on the windscreen. As the wipers swept back down, the left wiper swept away the line that the other had just created. In my young mind, I considered the thin line of water to be art that one of the wipers had created. It upset me that the other wiper would come along to destroy it. As silly as it seems it caused me some sadness to see that one of the wipers was constantly trying to create while the other wiper constantly destroyed. I suppose that was an early observation that in nature we find things that create and things that destroy.

Fortunately, it appears that Chattanooga has developed a reservoir of creators. We have architects, chefs, graphic designers, artists, writers, filmmakers, geeks and craftsmen all getting down for the 423. There are still haterz (in the parlance of our times), but they seem to have been relegated to the sidelines for the time being. Let us learn our lesson, support each other, and build creative enterprises in ways that will withstand the whims of those with a taste for destruction. Until next week, my friends, keep spreading the love.

10.22.2012

In Jagermeister Veritas

“Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”


-Ernest Hemingway

(Warning: Mom, some of the dance links contain salty language, please beware)

The fact that this post was written and uploaded by the usual Monday deadline is a minor miracle. This past weekend was the third Saturday in October, and you know what that means. I am one of four brothers (from other mothers) that have a standing tradition of traveling to this particular game. This year, however, we expanded The Circle to assemble an all-star cast of C.Rushing cronies and made a weekend of it in Knoxville. It was great to get together with a group of folks for whom I have an affinity, who have the capacity to put up with me, and who have a propensity to have fun. A weekend of Homeric proportions, it was. The Old City will never be the same after I unleashed epic versions of the wobble, the cupid shuffle, the cha cha slide and a stone-cold Dougie.  All of this, of course, was an excellent warm up for a day of friendly banter and a football game that ended the way it should have (Roll Tide). At dinner Friday night, however, our conversation turned to politics (I know, that shocked me as well). But rather than actually engage in that conversation, I bought some time by asking my friends to tune in to the blog for my views on politics and how it relates to urban design (I then swiftly changed the subject). Here, then, is my attempt to pay heed to Hemingway’s excellent advice:

It's a pants off! (though not literally, Roll Tide)

I can’t stomach the current state of American politics. The very idea of turning on the tv, or perusing a website to listen to the talking heads makes my ears bleed. Every four years it gets worse. I don’t really have much of a social life (except for The Circle), and the ability to keep up with acquaintances via Facebook is a decent surrogate. I am, however, amazed at some of the stuff I see posted by friends that I normally consider to be sane and rational people. The way the process unfolds is nothing less than a circus. How can this possibly pass as a way for sane, adult citizens to conduct the process of self-governance?  It’s as if people have lost any semblance of intelligence in an effort to paint the other guy as a villain. An example from each side: “you didn’t build that” and “binders of women”. Taken in full context, a reasonable person should be able to get the gist of what the candidate is saying. Yet, people insist on insulting our collective intelligence (if there is such a thing), by taking these statements out of context and suggesting that there is some nefarious subtext. Do small business people actually think they built all the roads, infrastructure and markets that gave them a game to play in? Of course not. In that sense, you didn’t “build that”- get over it. Do people think that Mitt should have used some other instrument to hold on to his paperwork? Perhaps he should have had ladies delivered to him in a TrapperKeeper (nah, but I think that’s what Clinton used).

Every four years we are faced with the illusion of a choice. There is very little real difference between the parties, as they essentially serve the same masters (not us, by the way).  We have a cumbersome system that is susceptible to partisan squabbling and that makes it virtually impossible to address “real issues”. This inertia is a great thing when everything is right with the world- it’s hard for some nutcase to come in and mess things up. However, when we are faced with problems, the inertia creates an environment that thwarts nimble and creative solutions to real problems. The bigger our government gets, the worse the problem becomes.

Sadly, a disproportionate amount of
The Circle support UT.
(identities hidden to protect the guilty)

Ok, now for the urban design connection. If this blog was boiled down to a single theme, it would probably have to do with contextual sensitivity. Every site, every street, every project has a set of unique conditions that a successful design will respond to. One of the glaring deficiencies of Modernism is that it offered too many one-size-fits-all solutions (yes, I understand juxtaposition with the landscape, but follow me on this one). With other elements of urbanism- our food systems and transportation systems- the forward thinkers are proposing the devolution of these massive monocultures to localized solutions to local problems. So it makes perfect sense to me that a massive federal government is less able to efficiently provide services and solutions than the state and local governments are. I’ve written time and again about how I lean right, but the truth is, I’m pretty moderate (yes, moderation is not one of my long suits, but for some reason it applies in politics). In this case, however, I fall in with the Republicans on the concept of delegating more powers to local governments.

Before you flood my inbox with hate mail, please note that I fully recognize that we Republicans are a confused lot as well. We’re as much about private property rights as we are about reducing the size and reach of government. Those two things seem complementary, but in the realm of American urbanism they are unfortunately at odds. Enmeshed in the property rights argument is the paranoid Tea Party concern over Agenda 21 and the possibility that the U.N. might take our sub-urbs away. The fact is that the sub-urbs are the embodiment of Big Government imposing its will. Through decades of the subsidization of infrastructure, gasoline, and the administration of zoning and subdivision regulations, the government has dictated to the market what can and will be built. If our massive infrastructure was not subsidized and if consumers actually paid the true market cost for gasoline, sub-urbs would not exist in their current form. So here is our confused position- we love free, unfettered markets, we love sub-urbs, we hate Big Government, and we hate subsidy- yet there they are, all in bed together. I believe that people should have the opportunity to choose how and where they want to live- but they should have to pay the true market cost of those decisions. The costs of highways and roads should be passed along to those who use them- not put on Spence and Stern’s tab in the form of deficit. Gasoline should be priced at what it costs to deliver- currently about $15 a gallon. Since we wouldn’t be paying taxes to deliver those services, we would have more money/flexibility to make our decisions. At that point, the choice is yours- if you can afford to live in the ‘burbs and want to, have at it. As it relates to community development, I have a problem with using our tax dollars to subsidize other people’s bad lifestyle choices.

So there you have it, the fulfillment of an promise made on a night out: C.Rushing on politics. As imperfect as our process is, I suppose it beats strange women, lying in ponds distributing swords as a basis for a system of government. I have learned my lesson and will keep my mouth shut. If you happen to see me out and about, please don’t bring this up in conversation. I really don’t want to write about it again (for at least four years).

10.15.2012

I gets buckets...

I love sports- playing sports, watching sports, talking about sports. In this space, I've written about my love of futbol.  As an Alabamian, football is in my blood (that blood runs Crimson I might add). Baseball has a place in my heart, and endurance sports have a piece of my soul (more on that later this year). But the sport that has had the greatest impact on my life is basketball. From the age of 14 until the age of 20 basketball was everything. Life revolved around the sport, life was the sport. Many of my greatest relationships were forged on the hardwood, the sport kept me occupied and out of trouble in high school, and my quest to walk-on at a D-I school led me to the great life experiences I had in New Mexico.

When I was in high school, I was constantly searching for high-level games. I played four to five hours after school every day, and at least that much on weekend days. My search for runs eventually led me to the "A-Rack"*- an asphalt patch of a basketball court in one the city’s housing projects. The Victor Tulane Court housing project was named after a prominent African-American Montgomery businessman from the early twentieth century. The 300-unit project had a reputation for being a tough place, and the basketball runs lived up to that reputation. That, however, was what I was in search of– “big boy” basketball. I don’t remember how I was introduced to that game or by who, but as I recall, I fit in pretty early. The fact that I was a white guy that could dunk made me a novelty and provided some level of credibility. From ’88 to ’91 I was an A-Rack fixture- for no other reason than the best basketball in the city was being played there and I wanted to be a part of it.

The A-Rack

As a sixteen year old, I did not have an overt interest in urbanism. At the time I suspected I would end up in advertising as a graphic designer. In hindsight, however, my visits to Tulane Court proved to be my first real exposure to the concept of housing density. I had a difficult time appreciating the density, however, because the overwhelming impression of the place was one of highly concentrated economic poverty. The second impression was that despite (or perhaps because of) the economic conditions, the community had a very robust social structure. The density issue had a very  practical application in this case. In my neighborhood the process of corralling ten people and heading to a basketball court was a Herculean task- at Tulane Court, all we had to do was knock on a few doors and walk across the street to get a game. While I had a sub-conscious appreciation for the benefits of density, I had a very conscious understanding of the detrimental effects of poorly executed density.

Tulane Court

History has shown that the low-income housing projects of the urban renewal era were unmitigated failures. Part of that failure was in design- anonymous units were designed in anonymous blocks.  Designers often provided prodigious amounts of open space for the residents, but in the effort to make them space for  everyone, they became no one’s space. The result of those designs was buildings that exacerbated existing problems and open spaces that were effectively no-mans land. Beyond the failure of design, the bigger picture problems were created by the concentration of low-income households.

I have, on a few occasions, participated in charrettes dealing with the redevelopment of government housing projects. In typical charrette fashion, citizens were involved in envisioning the future of the neighborhoods. The residents, having been exposed to (poorly executed) density, almost always favor sub-urban schemes for redevelopment. Can’t say I blame them. The American Dream of a plot of land with a house and front and back yards is something that is ingrained into all of our psyches. Without an understanding that there are other, better alternatives to circa-1950 sub-urbs, we have established a default answer to “what is your vision for a better living environment?” The problem is, as the "haves" have discovered, sub-urban design does not produce healthy living environments. Is anyone better off if poorly designed communities are replaced with poorly designed communities?

If we are to become a truly great city, the community has to provide healthy and sustainable living conditions for all of its citizens.  This process obviously entails more than urban design solutions. We've been down the road of design-only solutions and have seen the results. The community faces a daunting task- but it is not unlike what was faced downtown. The citizenry didn't comprehend the concepts of urbanism in the early eighties. Had you asked anyone about a vision for downtown development then, you would have likely received responses for sub-urban types of development- because that was perceived as good, and no one knew of a better alternative. It took several decades of community education and participation to establish a vocabulary that allowed us to develop a core that is authentic and that aspires to fulfill the promise of a healthy urban environment. 

Much has been said and written about Chattanooga Venture, Vision 2000 and similar processes. Those efforts brought together a certain cross-section of the community to identify problems and enumerate strategies to address them. Is there any doubt that a similar, robust process to address our current problems could be equally successful?  If a viable concept for empowering disadvantaged communities was developed, I'm certain that it would attract capital for implementation. That's where the Chattanooga way comes in- involving everyone who has a stake (which is everyone in the community by the way) in the creation of ideas to tackle the problem.


As for Tulane Court, it appears that in the last few years it has been redeveloped (presumably as a Hope VI project) and renamed the Plaza at Centennial Hill (despite the fact that there is no plaza). The redesign of the site has resulted in a project that looks an awful lot like a suburban apartment complex.  In my estimation it appears that none of the design issues have been fixed- the development seems to be anonymous blocks of housing (they’ve just been given the veneer of sub-urban homes) oriented around an anonymous open space (it’s a nice size, but poorly designed). Of course, the bigger issue is the economic composition of the development. As far as I can tell, the MHA is making efforts to create a mixed-income community, and I hope they can pull it off. The A-rack appears to have survived the razing of Tulane Court, and part of me wants to return and run court one more time- old man style (after all, I get buckets and I can still dunk). If I go, I’ll let you know how it turns out.


video
Let the record show that aged 40, I can still dunk.

*I don’t know for certain if it’s the “A-Rack” or the “A-Rec”, nor do I know what it stands for. There were a number of colorfully named basketball courts in the city- my next favorite run after the A-Rack was “The Band-Aid”. The Band-Aid was the outdoor court facility at Alabama State University- so named because after any given game you would likely require one.

10.08.2012

There are more important things...

I have an uncanny ability for developing great ideas that require tremendous amounts of work but result in little or no pay. And…I’ve come up with another one! The problem is that time usually devoted to blogging will be split working on this new project. The blog may suffer for a few weeks, so please cut me a bit of slack and I will reward your patience with some cool concepts that will hopefully be thought-provoking and insightful.

If the guiding principles for good urban design had to be distilled into one word, I think that word would be context. Context is everything in the consideration of the built environment.  Good designers take cues from the context of the existing built environment, the historic context of the site, the context of natural systems and social context of anything they design. This post doesn’t have much to do with urban design. It does, however, have plenty to do with the city. Today, I will consider my profession in context and put urban design issues in perspective.

Urban design is about quality of life. How we build and inhabit our cities has a great impact on issues of health and well-being and our buildings provide the fundamental human need of shelter. If we are honest, however, urban design is not a matter of life and death. When I complain about Noodles or Buffalo Wild Wings or P-word, those are valid concerns within the context of how important it is to build healthy, sustainable communities. In the big scheme of things, however, those complaints are insignificant.

Ya’ll know that I love Chattanooga. I am a choir-member, cheerleader and one who spends his time spreading the Gospel of the Scenic City to clients across the country. We have a lot of fantastic things going on right now– great stuff at VW and the spin-offs it created, the Gig service and the possibilities it represents, the promise of a new election, and all of the cool things working downtown. It’s a fine time to be white in Chattanooga.

Unfortunately, for a large number of our neighbors, times are a bit tougher. It seems that every time I go to Chattanooga.com, I am greeted with another story of someone murdered or shot. Every one of those who are killed is someone’s son or daughter and may be someone’s mother or father. To borrow from the late, great Robin Harris, it seems that we are in a place where the quality of life is going up, but the chance of life is going down. It always upsets me when I see an article about a Chattanoogan being murdered in cold blood followed by an article about a new opening up or who was lucky enough to win the Disney on Ice tickets.  I guess I have a hard time focusing on the community’s good life when we apparently can’t provide for the basic health, safety and welfare of all of our citizens.

We have young people in our city who routinely murder one another over nonsense, but it seems the community only wants to talk about who is being mean to horses or where the door of a new grocery store should be located. When it comes to inaction, I am as guilty as the next guy. It’s easy to write about problems, it’s quite another to get out in the community and try to fix them. We love to talk about the Chattanooga way- bringing diverse stakeholders together to work in a spirit of cooperation and collaboration to solve a problem. The promise of that process is that it extends to every corner of the community- a promise that I daresay has not been fulfilled to this point.


We face a number of complex issues, and frankly I’m not sure what the urban design community can do to help. Chattanooga is not unique in facing these difficulties. We are, however, a special place in that we have figured out ways to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems in the past.

10.01.2012

Publix Service Announcement

Someone I love and respect recently told me that I never admit when I’m wrong. She may be right, but I guess we won’t find until I’m wrong. In that context, I apologize for phoning it in last week- I’m sorry, I just didn’t feel much like writing.

I offer another apology this week. I have a number of friends that are up in arms concerning the new P-word slated for North Chattanooga. I’m sorry, but I just can’t get fired up about this one. I fully understand why people are upset- the design of the building is completely sub urban and out of context for the site. The way the process has been handled is shady and the arguments for support miss the point. I think we can all agree that a grocery store in that location is a fine thing. I think we can all also agree that the community has spent a tremendous amount of time and effort into crafting plans and guidelines that will protect the fragile level of urbanity on North Market Street. Unfortunately, the Achilles heel of design guidelines has been laid bare (again).

I write all the time about why design guidelines are more or less worthless in places that don’t commit fully (like Seaside, Colonial Williamsburg, etc.) The first issue is that the guidelines themselves get watered down in the adoption process- the result is that they are primarily useful in stopping bad things, but basically worthless in encouraging good design. That’s not ideal, but I suppose there is some utility in that, were it not for the second issue. That issue is that the people who are charged with administering the guidelines are far too often willing to bow to political (or other) pressures to approve projects that violate the standards (that are watered down to begin with). This unfortunate reality has played out twice in North Chattanooga in the last seven years.

In 2005 the design review committee that administers the C-7 district violated the spirit and letter of the guidelines to allow a poorly designed Walgreen’s to be constructed on the old Town & Country Site. The intersection of Cherokee/Frazier and Market/North Market is the epicenter of the North Shore, the 100% corner. If the guidelines did nothing else, they should have protected the integrity of the core of the district. The design for Walgreen’s was not consistent with the community’s vision for what North Shore should be, but the committee voted to allow the development to proceed (If you are curious to see how that vote went down, click here).

The P-word approval was written in the stars. I hate to break it to you friends, but the battle for the soul of the North Shore was lost in 2005.  If the design review committee voted to allow a sub-urban scheme on the most important corner of the district then, why on earth would they consider enforcing more urban standards on a lot in a less urban place now? As Harry Austin pointed out, we had elected officials “running interference like a hulking bodyguard”- a technique taken straight from the Walgreen’s playbook. Were you na├»ve enough to think that the current coterie of decision makers would do anything other than kiss the P-word* ring as they waltzed through the approval process?

Despite all the dodgy circumstances surrounding the whole affair, I’m ambivalent about the P-word. Perhaps, I feel that way because this one was a forgone conclusion from day one- design guidelines be damned. Or maybe it’s because the urbanity of North Market was a tenuous condition even before Walgreen’s. One could make the argument that North Market is now a sub urban place. The overwhelming majority of buildings along that stretch are one story, most of the parking lots have Market St. frontage, building entrances are not primarily located on Market St, and there is not a single block with a continuous building frontage, and the most happening development is a prototypical sub urban strip center. (Don’t shoot the messenger).

Please understand – I do not support the design of the Publix- it’s pretty bad and the arguments that support it have naught to do with urbanism. My point is that the battle was lost some time ago and that this loss isn’t nearly as important at the Walgreen’s defeat. I am also pointing out the inherent flaw in the design guideline paradigm (yeah, I said paradigm, what of it?)- that if those in charge of administering the guidelines are not principled, then the whole shebang is worthless. On the bright side, having a grocery store in that location is a good thing – especially for the residents of Hill City who don’t have the means to shop at Whole Foods. Just make sure to keep the keep these events in your memory bank for the day when a sub urban development is proposed in violation of the forthcoming downtown design guidelines.

*The developers are being coy and refuse to say the word Publix – instead opting for saying “P-word”. In related news, I’m proud of myself for not using “p-word” in a juvenile way.