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 naïve 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.