Beware the Freixenet

Last night, my Twitter feed blew up. Apparently, everyone I follow has an Academy Awards fetish. The Oscars don't turn my crank, but now I know what my non-football-loving friends must think of me on Saturdays in the fall- fair play.

As fate would have it, I did attended the local level awards ceremony for the worlds largest advertising design competition. The Addy’s are sponsored by the American Advertising Federation and are structured so that the winners of local awards move through to regional judging, and the regional winners move along to national judging. My primary job at the show was to accompany D.Rushing, smile, be pleasant, and otherwise serve as eye candy (or something like that). I was also there as an interested observer since the website for the Design Studio Retrospective had been nominated for an award. The event was good fun, It’s always nice to be in a room full of creative people. I was, however, sorely disappointed to find that the inimitable Jim Kennedy did not emcee this year.

As it turns out, the Retrospective website won a silver Addy for digital. I am very appreciative for the hard work and effort that Neathawk, DuBuque & Packett put in to the design of the site. I also commend them for dealing with a tetchy, hands-on client. So, for this week’s post, I encourage you to go have another look at the Urban Design Studio Retrospective website...


(sorry, it's been a busy week)


Unfinished Business

At risk of sounding like a broken record, cities are like forests – there is no finished state, they grow and shrink, change, cycle and recycle. But for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s possible to finish a city- to achieve an ideal state or a state that is “good enough” for its citizenry. If you listen to some voices in the community, downtown Chattanooga has reached that point. On more than one occasion, I have heard or overheard people making the case that we’ve done everything we can downtown and now need to shift our focus to (fill in the blank with the name of an industrial park, suburb, region, etc).

Notwithstanding the fact that cities can never be finished, I still don’t buy the concept that downtown Chattanooga is “done”. That’s Hogwash. In fact, the best you could say in that regard is that we have started a lot of things.  Please consider the following items, and then see if you can say we’re finished with a straight face. Please note that this post is not an exhaustive list of opportunities and challenges, this is just what I came up with off the top of my head on a Saturday morning. Brighter minds than mine could probably double or triple this. In any event, I submit for your consideration, some of our unfinished business:

With the construction of the 21st Century Waterfront we’ve completed our triumphant return to the river, right? Wrong.

- The “town green” is almost always dead as a doornail. 

Part of the reason for this is the fact that parcel 3a never got built. Having an animated western edge would go a long way toward giving the green some scale while providing more opportunity for activity and engagement. That parking lot now contributes to the fact that…

- The waterfront peters out as it heads west.

The original plan for the waterfront called for vertical buildings along Riverfront Parkway and at the Marine Max site. Obviously, mixed-use buildings there would have inherent value by adding people and activity to the district. However, they also served as very important role as edges to the waterfront. The Marine Max site created one of two “dueling” anchors (opposite The Passage) that make the space in between them more viable, interesting and valuable. Without this western edge, the waterfront loses momentum as parks and buildings give way to parking lots, services areas, and awkward “park” and playground spaces. Unfortunately, the Spring Hill Suites built farther down on the riverfront do nothing to mitigate this, but they do highlight the fact that…

- A massive swath of the riverfront has not been addressed. 

The 21st Century Waterfront Plan called for improvements from Ross’s Landing extending west around the bend all the way to a proposed extension of MLKing (on both sides of the river). The land between Parkway and the River on the Westside represents a massive opportunity for the continuing evolution of our waterfront. Which brings us to the…


It is readily apparent to all that things aren’t ideal on the Westside. Despite that, any time the topic comes up a familiar list of excuses gets trotted out: “the time isn’t quite right for that”, “the scale of the issues is too big”, “it’s too isolated from the rest of downtown”, “it would require a massive amount of resources to make a difference”. Excuses aside, there is work be done there, because…

-Downtown is cloven by TDOT interventions.

It’s not a secret that in the 50’s, US-27 divided downtown and conquered the Westside. Well TDOT has now come back to finish the job. If we want to give our kids a chance at making the downtown whole again, then we have to fight for the highest and best level of connectivity and permeability across that damned road now. 27 and the Westside are inextricably linked, and this is partly because…

-The scale is suburban.

Everything on the Westside is large scaled: The Blue Cross Compound, the Jaycee towers, the Alstom site, the Aerisyn site, the car dealerships, the housing projects. There exists the opportunity to work within some of the larger-scaled elements to create a finer grain and to make the Westside a more animated and activated destination. But beyond attracting new residents and visitors, it needs to be done because…

-There is a disenfranchised population.

I struggled with how to characterize this headline sentence, and perhaps it’s not phrased exactly right. It is evident, however, that there are large residential areas in the Westside that have not shared in downtown prosperity in the same ways that other downtown neighborhoods have. The issues are complex, and efforts have been made in the past. That does not, however, mean that the issues and responsibilities are any less real now and in the future. Speaking of large residential areas…


What has happened in the Southside since the mid-90’s planning efforts by the likes of Calthorpe, McDonough and Dover Kohl is nothing short of amazing. The big thing that the Southside has going for it is that we have now created a functioning market- the private sector is now actively engaged (although there is still at least one big project that may need some help). On the other hand, there are still public realm issues, such as the fact that…

-The primary Southside gateway into town is crap.

Market from I-24 to Main is potentially one of the grand gateways into downtown. The quality of private development and public realm improvement in this stretch now, however, belies that importance. This is not the only gateway street that needs attention since…

-The 20th Street corridor is also crap.

20th is one of the few places where we have an excellent opportunity to connect the Southside with Westside. The quality of development and public realm in this stretch now, however, also belies that importance. 20th is another remnant of our industrial heritage. That particular former land use creates some quirky situations and means that…

-There are still gaps that need stitching. 

Another potential connection between Southside and Westside is West Main from Broad to Riverfront Parkway. This stretch has been largely unattended to. The great potential there is to use this corridor to connect with Finley Stadium and its associated developments.  The stadium has been a bit isolated, but could be a part of a larger animated district. Whereas that is an active use that’s looking for a district, elsewhere we have districts looking for activities...


In a sense MLK and UTC are like the Westside. In my time here, I have found that there are a few challenges that we always greet with the same tired (if not true) responses. For MLK, we always say that property owners have unreasonable expectations for property values, that politics will prevent substantial reinvestment, and that there are too many immovable, dead spatial elements to allow for critical mass. We always hear that UTC won’t engage with the downtown community, that the transient student population means it will always be dead, and that changes in administration make it difficult to sustain long-lasting relationships. The fact that we have excuses and reasons, however, does not mean that we don’t still have the responsibility to work to make things better. These places represent a large chunk of the downtown footprint, and there is plenty of work to be done within them, and to connect them to… 

The Rest of Downtown 

Other opportunities and challenges in the core are actually a bit more straightforward. In fact, this brief (and incomplete) bullet list should suffice:

-700 Block

-Corner of 4th and Broad

-Firestone lot (2nd, between Broad and Market)

-Corner of Market and MLKing

-Ross Hotel/patten Parkway

-Civic Forum lot

-The swath of land between 20th Street and I-24

-And lest we forget, there is also the equivalent of five full city blocks of unimproved property in one of the most desirable places in downtown  (The UNUM properties).

We have seen a great deal of focus on regional issues over the past few years. This type of thinking and work is prudent and necessary. One of the key arguments for beginning work in downtown Chattanooga 30 years ago was that the health of downtown has a direct bearing on the health of the region. Downtown also serves as a symbol, not just of the city, but of the region. If we consider trends for the future and the demographics that drive them, we see that core urban areas will be facing tremendous growth pressures. In that light, does it make sense shift our focus away from downtown and leave it to fend for itself? Now, more than ever and certainly into the future, a healthy region is dependent upon healthy urban cores.

Everyone who is involved in the building of the city will have their own personal finish line. Every building and space in the city will eventually have its own individual finish line. For the city, however, the race goes on. So while some may argue that we have reached the finish line, I will argue that we’ve made a good start.



I am treading a treacherous path this week- Please don’t send me any hate mail. Prerequisite knowledge for this post: a) Alabama and Auburn are most bitter rivals, b) I was born an Alabama football fan and continue to be to this day, and c) I went to grad school at Auburn and dearly love the place.

My wife, an Auburn grad, informed me this week that she’s headed down to spend the weekend with her old college roommate at this year’s A-Day game (Auburn’s annual spring football scrimmage). In truth, she informed me that she was going down for an alumni council meeting that happened to coincide with A-Day, but all I heard was football. A-day this year will be a bittersweet event for Auburn people. On one hand there is the promise of a brighter future under new coach Gus Malzahn. On the other hand, this is the very last opportunity to roll the trees at Toomer’s Corner.

If it's academics, I'm like...
If it's football, I'm like...
I have a vivid recollection of the night of September 20, 1997. I had just enrolled in graduate school at Auburn that fall, but on that weekend was back in Montgomery baby-sitting for a friend. I put the little one down early that night so that I could tune in to see #12 Auburn play #10 LSU in Baton Rouge. Auburn won an incredibly entertaining game with a last minute touchdown by Rusty Williams. When the child’s mother returned, I decided on a whim to drive the 45 minutes back to my apartment in Auburn rather than return to my folks’ house. It was about 2 a.m. when I arrived, and despite the win the town was asleep. It was then that I happened rather unexpectedly on one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Approaching Magnolia Avenue on College Street, I noticed a great, ethereal, fluttering white mass ahead in the darkness. I pulled the car over and got out for a walk around in what was a still, humid and warm night. The white mass that I saw from down the street turned out to be toilet paper…lots of toilet paper. There were prodigious amounts of TP everywhere: on the ground, on street signs, on gates leading to campus, on cars, and on traffic signal mast arms. The focus of the TP’ers, however, was on two 100-year-old oak trees. That was my first experience with the rolling of Toomer’s corner.

No matter what team you root for, you have to admit, this is cool.

The intersection of Magnolia and College is called Toomer’s corner, taking the name of Toomer’s Drugstore which occupies the northeast corner. The intersection is in many ways the heart of Auburn as it is the center of downtown and the place where the University meets the town. Toomer’s corner is where Auburn people congregate to celebrate community. Understanding the role that football plays in the life of the state and its citizens, one can imagine that the largest community celebrations are reserved for when Auburn wins a football game. On those occasions, thousands of fans make their way from Jordan-Hare Stadium to Toomer’s to celebrate with one another and to throw rolls of toilet paper into the trees. The bigger the game, the bigger the mass of paper.

I have a vivid recollection of the night of November 26, 2010. On that day my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide blew a seemingly insurmountable 24-point lead to lose to Auburn. I dearly love Auburn, but not on that day. I, however, did not take it as badly as others. After the game, and idiot Alabama “fan” named Harvey Updike drove from his home in Dadeville, AL down to Auburn. Mr. Updike arrived armed with a jug of Spike 80DF, an industrial strength tree poison, and proceeded to give the Toomer oaks a lethal dose 50 times more potent than required.  The trees are now dead and will be removed after the A-Day game. The university has plans to replace the trees with other elements (presumably they will be TP friendly).

The whole ordeal is incredibly stupid, depressing, and sad and it gives the state yet another black eye. There is a bright side, however, to how things went down.  If one accepts Neil Young’s* view that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”, and is sympathetic to The Who’s wish that “I hope I die before I get old”, then this is a near-perfect death. For a tree that is over a hundred years old, would it be better to be dismantled over a decade as your limbs die off, or go out in a blaze in glory? The fact that the tree met its demise at the hands of a moronic fan of an archrival means that it has been effectively martyred. The trees will now be an active part of the rivalry dialogue in a way that would not have otherwise happened if they merely succumbed to old age. So rather than depriving Auburn people of a symbol, Mr. Updyke has actually given them one that, although intangible, is more powerful and longer lasting.

I love to make the analogy of cities acting as forests, the life of the whole being informed by the cycles of single buildings and spaces. There are, however, differences. None of us has the ability to create life or prevent death. It is, however, entirely within our means to create and maintain buildings and spaces indefinitely- as long as we have the will. It has come to my attention that some otherwise reasonable people are clamoring for a certain historic former hotel to be demolished. The argument being that it doesn’t look good in its current state and that the peculiarities of the structure mean it may never make financial sense to fix the building.

Perhaps a "T.P. St. G" fundraiser? Or may not...

What are the Toomer’s oaks worth? If saving the trees was a matter of money, do you doubt that Auburn people (or Alabama people for that matter) would pay the costs? The trees, however, represent something beyond money- they represent the collective, shared history and memory of generations of Auburn people. We must consider the historic buildings in our community in the same light. The St. George hotel is more than just a building. The hotel is part of our collective memory, a reference to the era when Chattanooga became the “Dynamo of Dixie”, and a damn fine example of an urban building. Unfortunately, it’s current state offends the sensibilities of some new residents who aren’t prepared to consider the long-term picture and who demand a more antiseptic site immediately. While I will stop short of likening those who are actively seeking the destruction of a piece of our identity with Harvey Updike, I will argue the other side of the coin. It is the responsibility of those of us who care about things such as community and collective history to make our case. It is our responsibility to organize resources for things that are beyond price. The St. George presents a problem that can be solved by (but it’s value not quantified by) lucre- What is our history worth?

It is still possible to save one of these.

While it may be fitting for the trees in Auburn to go out with a bang, our historic buildings don’t have to. We have the ability and means to save our “Toomer’s oaks”. We simply have to muster our vision and will. I tried to rewrite Mr. Young’s song, but “It’s better to be resurrected, than to burn out, or to fade away” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

*Please no comments regarding the irony of an Alabamian quoting Neil Young. Turns out that “Southern man don’t need him ‘round anyhow” is a false statement when he can be used to make a point on the blog.


and then there were nine...

Last week I wrote about the new park in the Southside. I mentioned that despite the overall quality of the project, I didn’t much care for the pedestrian lights. During the week, I heard from a couple of you who happened to agree with me. So as you might expect, I paid a bit more attention to pedestrian lighting as I made my way around downtown this week. It’s amazing what you can see when you choose to look. In a sense what I saw wasn’t shocking, I knew we had some inconsistencies in our public realm. It was disconcerting, however, to see just how pervasive the inconsistencies were.

The Nine

Why It Matters
Before I offer my observations, perhaps it’s best to back up and review why our attention to the public realm- streetscape specifically- is important. The public realm refers to all of the freely accessible spaces in our city that are communally owned- this includes our streets, sidewalks, parks, plazas, rights-of-way, and open spaces. These communal spaces are owned by the citizenry and are available to all. Because every Chattanoogan is part owner of our communal property, that space is a representation of each of us individually and as a community. Therefore, how we treat the public realm is a direct reflection of our values and aspirations. The substance and style of our community assets reinforce our belief in ourselves and show the outside world what we're about.

Beyond the rather lofty concepts of community self-image and aspiration, there are a number of more tangible reasons why streetscape is important:

-Public Safety: Cracked and heaving sidewalks pose hazards for pedestrians and workers. Even and consistent lighting designed for pedestrians increases safety. (Lighting is a ripe topic for another post. I once wrote a lighting ordinance for then Councilman Littlefield that never got adopted, but I learned a lot during the process).

-Economic Development: We know that working together works. When private investments are reinforced with public commitment, the result is powerful. Public commitment to a safe, comfortable, accessible, and attractive public realm induces pedestrianism, which supports private investment. People like to visit attractive places, and an appealing public realm attracts visitors (and homers) and their dollars.

-Orientation: A consistent treatment of the public realm aids in orientation for both visitors and residents. A clear definition of public and private realms make the city more legible and experiences there more comfortable.

-Environment: Trees are great things, they provide shade for pedestrians, filter and detain stormwater, reduce CO2, produce oxygen, reduce the urban heat island effect, etc. etc. etc. Streetscape projects also provide the opportunity for green infrastructure elements (in our case, primarily stormwater separation and detention.)

A Brief History

The modern push for streetscape improvements in Chattanooga came in the early 90’s with the construction of the Aquarium. The well-chronicled decision to address the broader riverfront as opposed to the single site resulted in several blocks of streetscape- sidewalks with brick pavers, street trees, pedestrian lighting and textured cross-walks. The fixture of choice, what I refer to as the ball-in-cup, was designed specifically Chattanooga. The aesthetic of the fixture is distinctly Chattanoogan and (mercifully) lacks sentimentality. The down side is that the lamp is not shielded so the fixture contributes to light pollution and urban sky glow. The next two mayors continued a robust streetscape program that extended in concert with private investments and public works projects. During this “Golden Age” of Chattanooga streetscaping, a new fixture (I call it the UFO) was designed. The UFO is essentially a Ball-in-Cup that has been redesigned with a shield that addresses the light pollution issues. Over the past eight years, we have seen a precipitous decline in the level of public realm investment in downtown. During that time however, we have seen a number of new types of fixtures introduced- none of them shielded, each of them sentimental, and all of them could be found in any city in the country.

What I see when I look at our pedestrian lighting fixtures...

The Ball-in-cup
The Lost In Space
The (Expletive Deleted)

What’s up Now?

A cursory investigation (done during the blizzard of Saturday morning) shows that we currently have no fewer than nine (9) types of pedestrian lighting fixtures in our streetscape (this number balloons when you add those in use in public parks and plazas). This is not a good thing. Each unique luminaire requires us to maintain a different stock of maintenance and replacement parts. Most of the fixtures are not fully-shielded and thus contribute to light pollution. A number of the fixtures are dated, and appear to be using old and inefficient lamps (driving up our collective light bill). The inconsistent and inefficient patchwork of streetscape improvement doesn’t make sense, and I don’t think it reflects well on the community.

That said, the fact that we’ve paid attention to our public realm at all puts us light years ahead of a lot of communities. I also recognize that a wholesale change of pedestrian lights is a time consuming and expensive proposition. However, having a single pedestrian luminaire that can be upgraded over time as lamp technologies change is a worthy and achievable goal. You could probably convince me of the logic in having a few different types of fixtures that play different roles in different settings downtown. The current situation, however, is asinine.

* Pet Peeve: On more than one occasion I have run across a building owner or developer who has insisted that the streetscape around their project be redesigned to specifically relate to their building. While I appreciate the genuine concern for the quality of the city, that concept is a non-starter. One of the key principles of the public realm is that it belongs to everyone. Therefore the sidewalks in our city belong, as a whole, to us- not in piecemeal fashion to every adjacent property owner. It doesn’t take much to imagine what our city would look like if each property owner was responsible for independently designing and maintaining the streetscape in front their building.