9.30.2013

Up Next...

By now, you have probably heard that the City Center Plan process is in full swing. Don’t you dare miss the charrette we are having on October 7th at 5:30pm at Bessie Smith Hall. My mind is always on downtown Chattanooga, but this process has me laser-focused. The district is a bit of a strange bird.

I was chatting with a friend about the standard visioning technique of having participants look some period of time into the future and describe what their ideal conditions for a place are. This technique is very effective in places where examples of transformative change have occurred over a similar period of time in the past. For example, if we were to look at the Riverfront, we might ask a group to look ten years into the future with the follow up of “think big- just look at the $120 million worth of projects that have occurred in that past ten-year time frame.” This then begs the question, when was the last transformative project in the City Center? The best answer is 1988.

There is a strong argument that the renaissance of the city started with the reestablishment of a heart. This came several years before the aquarium, before Ross’s Land Park and Plaza, before the return to the Southside, two decades before the Germans, and long before the gig was a twinkle in any geek’s eye. The Miller Plaza project is important for a number of reasons, and involves more detail than I am now willing to delve into (but you can go here and here for more info if you’re curious). It is enough to say that the quality of the design work drew national attention and accolades, the process of building the project was one of the first of many examples of community cooperation, collaboration and partnership, and it served as a real and tangible rallying point for a city that had a substantial civic inferiority complex (if anything, we suffer from the opposite now). As important as the project is, at twenty-eight years ago it is the most recent (only?) truly transformative project in the area, while other parts of downtown have each had two or three such projects since then.

That said, perhaps its not fair to judge the judge the district solely on the basis of big projects. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more projects popped into mind. The $26 million EPB building and accompanying 500-car structure was completed in 2006; the $7 million Market Center building was completed in 2001; the poorly designed $2 million 1st Volunteer Bank building was built in 2002; the $3 million Central Block building was completed in 2003; The Loveman’s renovation was started in 2001; The $5 million+ 300 Building was done in 2012; the $20 million Liberty Tower renovation opened up this spring; and perhaps most importantly Burn’s Tobacconist moved into a newly renovated space earlier this year. This is by no means a comprehensive list of investments in the area, but it is a good indication that while we might be pushing thirty years on transformative projects, there has still been plenty of action and investment in the interim.

The district, however, clearly has issues. When Blue made their move to the cloister on the hill, they left a gaping maw of vacant office space in the district. The last I heard, we are pushing around 28% office vacancy. “Ideal” vacancy rates change with time and market conditions, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re not where we need to be right now. We see a number of potential projects in the area that are hamstrung by a lack of parking. It is generally acknowledged that the area is “dead” after office hours. There is the perception that the area is unsafe- this reinforced by the rise of aggressive panhandling. And as always, transportation issues abound including: the odious wound to be inflicted by US-27, a dearth of alternative transportation facilities, and a number of incongruous facilities (think about why Broad Street, which dead ends, needs three lanes of traffic in each direction. In downtown, nothing outside of I-24 has that many lanes- including US-27).

All of this sets the stage for the process our community has become famous for. I’m beside myself to see what the community planning process will create and even more excited to see us then move from plan to action. So, with apologies to the Bard of Avon, I will say: Get thee to Bessie Smith Hall, woulds’t thou be a breeder of transformative ideas?

9.23.2013

And in Local News...

This past week the local media treated us to a veritable cornucopia of urban design related stories. I must pile on...

A couple of weeks ago the city started the process of having the Delta Queen moved from its mooring in front of Coolidge Park. This was a good and long overdue move. On Tuesday, however, we found that the city has made some form of concession that would allow it stay. C’mon man. That morning I great misfortune of having the dial settle on talk radio. The two gentlemen hosting the show were doing their job (i.e. inciting the masses to rise up against the great injustice of the city). I heard comments that made my ears bleed. Here are mine: a) The boat is a private use on what should be a very public place. One of the basic tenets of the community’s work for the past 30 years is that the river is a community asset and public access to the water should trump private concerns; b) Apparently the market doesn’t think the floating hotel is a viable concept. If it was a wildly successful business they wouldn’t be dealing with folks in Cincy to sell it. Beside that, why does the public have to shoulder the burden of a private enterprise?;  c) The boat would be better served paddling up and down a river than being permanently moored (at what point does a vessel that does not sail cease to become a boat and become something that merely floats?); and d) The boat has nothing to do with Chattanooga. It’s not even Southern- it was designed and built to operate in California.

My take: I think we should throw a party to celebrate the history of the Southern Belle, say bon voyage, and wish it well in its future endeavors elsewhere.

The Pulse just published a piece regarding the Southside storage units that I wrote about a few weeks ago. I think the article and those quoted in it have it mostly right. I will say again, however, that advocating for design review at every turn is not the right answer. At one point our community had the ability to establish vision and engage in collaborative dialogue in a way that achieved win/win situations. Design guidelines are more about subjugating the developer to the will of a watered-down set of standards. It is prescription- there is no dialogue, there is no collaboration, there is no working together to make a project better. I have no idea whether or not the storage unit project will be an asset to the community. We shall, however, find out soon, it’s out of the ground.

My take: The storage unit is a symptom, not the problem.

The Mission project at Main and Market is back. It appears that this time it is for real. 60 housing units and 10,000sf of retail should help Main Street get over the hump. This may be the only place in Chattanooga where someone could live, work, walk kids to school, have a beer, and go grocery shopping within a 1.5-block radius. That’s urbanism my friends. I know some folks are bit uptight due to the developer’s design track record, but considering that Elemi is the architect and RCC maintains a level of design control, I’m not too worried. In fact, I have heard that said developer is doing a really good on several current projects.

My take: Just what we need and I’m sure it will be a great project.

On the other hand, there is this. I can’t figure it out- it’s clearly bad, the community is up in arms, there appeared to be a way to get it fixed, but it actually got worse. Their comment that this is somehow based on historic Victorian-era housing in the neighborhood is silly. First, Victorian houses weren’t 4 stories tall and a block long. Secondly, none of those houses incorporated each and every color available at the store.

My take: I’ll be frank... it’s turrible.

It appears that we are getting another round of riverfront housing in the form of 270 units on the downtown side of the river from Cameron Harbor down to MLKing. I haven’t seen any design work for the project, so I can’t really offer a critique. By my calculations, however, they're looking over 20 dwellings per acre, which is not bad. From a design standpoint, I suppose it could go one of two ways. This could end up being the fulfillment of the 21st Century Waterfront Plan that called for mixed-use (but primarily residential) development in the area that stressed the public nature of the river’s edge. On the other hand, the article indicates that single-family homes will be located closest to the water. If this layout privatizes the waters edge then the community loses. There was a quote from the developer about extending the riverwalk through his property- this is good, but hopefully they will be mindful of the “river” in “riverwalk”.

My take: Without having seen it, I can’t say. I suspect that my opinion will be largely influenced by how they handle to river’s edge.

Last, but certainly not least is the announcement of River City Company’s Center City Plan. This is of particular interest to me, as yours truly is riding herd for the consultant team. I am very excited about the team, the process and the product. Please make sure you come out to the charrette on October 7th (5:30 at Bessie Smith), and give your thoughts on the future of the center of downtown.

My take: Stay tuned!

9.16.2013

Everyone's a Winner

What a nice weekend. The youngest had his first rec league soccer game, and we traveled with the oldest for his select tournament. All told they had 7 goals in 3 games, but more importantly both worked their socks off. Technology helped avert a massive tragedy at one of the events. I was tempted to give the one-finger salute to the guy that scheduled one of our games to coincide with the ‘Bama/TAMU kickoff. No such unpleasantness was necessary, however,  thanks to the CBS Sports mobile app (which I wholehearted endorse). I don’t know quite what to think about the ‘Bama game. Part of me thinks that we were clearly the better team; the other part thinks we snuck away with the biscuit. In any event, a road win against a nationally ranked SEC team is no mean feat.  When my boys play hard and ‘Bama wins, the weather is milder, the air is fresher, the toilet paper is softer, and life just seems a little sweeter. 

Goal of the Weekend #1a- Cracking free kick from outside the box,
over the wall and into the top corner.
video 
Goal of the Weekend #1b- Craftily shredding the defense.

The only drama of the weekend was the result of a Sunday morning board game. As I was having my coffee and preparing to write this piece, I heard the unmistakable sounds of two brothers fighting. As you might expect, they came to me to adjudicate the conflict. I delivered a fantastic (if I may say so myself) fatherly soliloquy on “the game”. I told them that one of the reasons I love for them to play unsupervised games and sports is that it teaches life lessons about how to get along with other people. In this case, while the apparent goal of each of the boys was to win (which pits them against each other), the broader underlying goal is to play the game and have fun (which is a common goal). So I made the case that they ultimately have a common goal and it is in both of their interests to work together to achieve that peacefully.

Since I was on a roll, I moved on to the importance of being able to win or lose with class and dignity (admittedly, this is one I’m still working on myself). My point was that in sports, games, and life there are winners and losers. Sometime you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you draw. It was then that the little one piped up and said “In my school, everybody wins”. My first impulse was to respond, “Well, your school is full of shit”. Of course I didn’t actually say that, but I did explain that in “real life” there is such a thing as losing. Sometimes losing matters and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you can control it, sometimes you can’t. You can, however, control how you respond to those situations and how you move on from them. I didn’t get the impression that they were totally convinced. In this case, however, experience is the best teacher and as long they keep playing it will eventually sink in.

In looking at the blank page, trying to figure out what to write this week, I couldn’t shake our little Team Rushing pow-wow. It occurs to me that from an urban design perspective Chattanooga is an excellent example of how “the game” is played. If you look at major projects in the community over the past thirty years, it becomes clear that the game has been played in two ways. The first is the traditional model of winner/loser and the second we will call WTW.

The winner/loser model was primarily practiced in 8 of the last 9 years. In this model, two opposing “teams” are created and they fight it out until one emerges victorious by vanquishing their foe. Battles are fierce, and when complete there is a winner and there is loser. The results of this model are projects that are often one-dimensional or controversial because they represent the interests of one constituency as opposed to the broader community. (I was going to list the projects and the players, but I’ve decided not to pick those scabs.) Suffice it to say that this model is inferior because the projects tend to benefit only certain constituencies, and the playing of the game strains relationships and pushes the community into isolated philosophical camps.

Our other game model, the WTW, is fundamentally different. One of Chattanooga’s greats is fond of saying that “working together works”. He’s dead right. Our great successes have come not when pitting ourselves against one another, but in recognizing our common interests. When considering the overall picture for a community, picking sides and duking it out until there is a winner and loser is the lowest form of the game. The biggest benefit is derived when the players recognize their common goals and are smart enough work for those ahead of selfish, singular concerns. In this model, we get projects that benefit a large segment of the community, everybody gets to win, and the capacity for the community to accomplish greater projects grows and is reinforced with each successive process. 

Upon further reflection, while the little one’s school might be full of shit, maybe it’s not that full of it. While there are times when the community just needs a win (like this, and this), we have been a shining example that the game can played in a different way.

9.02.2013

The Light Fight

Good, but not great. The boys in crimson looked a bit rusty on Saturday night but still managed to win 35-10. They left us with reasons for both optimism and concern for the remainder of the year. I suppose it’s not realistic to think we can beat down everyone as we did Notre Dame in last season’s national championship. Speaking of the Golden Domers, this story gave me a chuckle. Maybe that was their problem last year, they came to figth instead of fight. The past is just that however, so here’s to looking forward and to this season’s inexorable march toward another title.

I confess that I enjoy watching a good fight. Perhaps more accurately, I enjoy watching arguments (I don’t care for physical violence, so I’m not so into MMA and the like). I found a pretty good one on the Chattanoogan recently. In an editorial, former city councilperson Deborah Scott, called out the city’s new streetlight provider (Global Green Lighting) both for the way they won the contract, and for failing to deliver what they promised. A few days later, Don Lepard of Global Green made his rebuttal (although it was more of a reply as none of Ms. Scott’s concerns were rebutted). Instead of addressing her concerns about product and performance, he invited her to the plant to see the forty jobs they created. I found it curious that he would say “She will see a manufacturing facility that has received no public money from the state or federal government”, when he once told the TFP that concerning the federal stimulus package "I saw that there was $3.2 billion in energy conservation and retrofit. So ... I decided that I would get into the lighting business." He may be technically correct in that government did not directly fund his facility, but it appears that the reason his business exists is government money. There is nothing wrong with providing services to governments and non-profits (I do it), but I thought that comment was disingenuous at best.

The flabbergasting thing about this little fight is that in all of the related press there has been no mention of what should be the single most important factor in the conversation. When all is said and done, the reason cities have lighting is to increase visibility in the public realm. They have talked about a wide range of issues from jobs, to disaster preparedness, to crime response, to energy savings, to remote control technology, to light brightness. While each of those things is important in their own right, the most basic function the lights to provide for quality light distribution. I’m amazed that the community can go through a several year process that costs as much as $26 million without asking the fundamental question of whether or not this tool will adequately accomplish the primary task. 

The closest we got to that was a quote from Mr. Lepard that the new lights are brighter than the old lights, even when dimmed 50%. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how light works. Brighter does not mean better. As I observed in a previous post, “The human eye is a wondrous, marvelous thing. But like anything, it has strengths and it has weaknesses. Its strength is that it can detect subtle nuance in very low lighting conditions. Think about what you can see when you wake up in the middle of the night and walk through the house. The reason you can see well in that case is that the eye is very good at adapting to low levels of light as long as the level of light is consistent. The weakness of the eye is that it does not do well with high contrast- a phenomenon we call glare. Think now about what happens when you open the fridge or someone turns a flashlight in your dark house- your eye adjusts to the brightest object and your ability to see other things in the room is severely degraded. With this understanding, the goal of exterior lighting should be to create even lighting, not necessarily bright lighting. In fact, bright lighting can actually impair visibility.” When we install very bright lights, we create very dark shadows. When we install very bright lights we create uncomfortable conditions. When we install very bright lights, we betray the very reason we install lights in the first place- to increase visibility.

In this unretouched photo, you can see the bright "glare bombs"
and resulting dark shadows on Market Street. Also note
the light pollution from the non-shielded fixtures.
An excellent example of how not to do pedestrian lighting.

Beyond the primary focus of increasing visibility, there are  a number of other factors that go into creating a good lighting system. Reducing light pollution, minimizing light trespass, and mitigating glare are all important. None of these issues are addressed with the new fixtures. It is worth noting that while the new street lights are full cut-off fixtures (used to reduce light pollution), they have been improperly installed at an angle which defeats their purpose.

If even TDOT can get it right, why can't we?

It has become very clear that when considering the ultimate goal, the new lighting program is an abject failure (at least it will only cost us $26 million). The reality is that everyone officially involved in this conversation has lost the plot. The sex appeal of technology and potential cost-savings trumped the primary goal of quality lighting. The city is worse off, and on top of that, we had to foot the bill. Unfortunately, the architects of this deal cared more about lucre than lighting, and it is the city that suffers.