Sometimes the Best Man for a Job Isn't

And with that victory by “the red team”, all is right with the universe for at least the next year. At the beginning of each football season, I establish a set of measures or goals for the season in an effort to help me put things in perspective. This year’s list:

1. Beat the orange team

2. Beat the orange and blue team

3. Win the National Championship

4. Win the SEC Championship

5. Win the SEC West Division

6. Beat LSU

You read correctly- I would take win against UT over a national championship. Thankfully those two are not mutually exclusive (as we have proven three of the past four years). This year’s game, however, was a melancholy one, as the circle suspended our tradition of traveling to the game together. We’ll be back at it next year, and I’m sure we’ll make up for lost time.

As much as I hated to miss the game and my buddies, I was happy to be home.   I’ve been traveling too much lately. Work travel can be taxing, but the upside is that I occasionally get to do and see things that I otherwise would not. For instance, this week I got to see a lecture by Denise Scott Brown. For those of you who aren’t architects, Ms. Scott Brown is one of the most influential designers and educators of the last century. She is a post-modernist whose influence is equal parts practice and theory. (See how I was able to describe her without mentioning her husband Robert Venturi?)

The reality is that you can’t describe the work of Ms. Scott Brown or Mr. Venturi without acknowledging the role of the other. While they are indeed individuals, their work is inextricably linked. This fact led to controversy as Mr. Venturi was awarded the 1991 Pritzker Prize and Ms. Soctt Brown got nada. A group of women students at the Harvard GSD started a petition asking the Pritzker organization to consider retroactively making a joint award of the ’91 citation. Their request was denied. (This is a good intro to the story, with an update, and the latest.)

Ms. Scott Brown’s attitude is fantastic- hell with the Pritzker (my words, not hers), the better award is the acknowledgment of the design community and a renewed conversation about the role of women designers. What I observed as a student in the 90’s was documented in AIA statistics in 2011- the architecture profession is full of dudes. Only 15% of licensed architects are women. Of course, that ratio man:woman ratio was troubling to me for different reasons when I was a student, but it is no less troubling now.

I must say, I’m a bit out of my depth in discussing gender equity issues. To my discredit, it’s simply not a subject I’ve spent much time contemplating. I can observe, however that men and women designers often see things differently, and have different design sensibilities. The gender dynamic in collaborative design environments also affects the process. The country is roughly 50/50 women/men. This means that half of the users of our spaces are women, while only 15% of the people who are designing those spaces are women. It has always seemed to me that user groups of a space should be proportionately involved in the design process. We increasingly think in these terms when designing in racially or socioeconomically diverse environments, why should gender not be added to that mix as well?

I have been blessed over the last few years to work closely with strong women associates, clients and colleagues. This has no doubt been of great benefit to my work and professional development. Chattanooga as a community is blessed to have a very talented women in the design community, women in established leadership positions, and an emerging generation of civic minded and engaged women. I am of the opinion, however, that Chattanoogans of both genders would benefit from greater balance in the design process.


White Bread

Football Saturdays like the one just past are proof that God loves us. Save for my beloved ‘Bama, which managed to squeak out a 52-0 nail biter against the Razorbacks, every SEC game resulted in an upset*. Of course, I always hate to see Tennessee win, but that was a fun game to watch and I’m no big fan of Spurrier either.

Before football kicked off I had the pleasure of taking the early shift at the Camp House with a group of enlightened developers. I was one of a number of the usual suspects enlisted to tell the Chattanooga story at the National Town Builders Association fall roundtable. It was fun, but I’m not sure if my telling of the story was incredibly useful to the attendees other than as background for the others panelists. After all, our story is not the typical New Urbanist story of the private sector developing and implementing a vision. Ours is a story of citizen engagement, philanthropic leadership, and public/private partnership. After my presentation, a gentleman sidled up to ask a few questions that centered on the ability of the developer to do the right thing and make a profit. Apparently, in his sandbox there are public sector requirements that make turning a profit while doing the “right thing” a difficult proposition.

Over the past thirty years in Chattanooga, private developers, the non-profit community, and public agencies have done a strange dance. The majority of the time they each operate in their own spheres, but for the most interesting projects they have come together. The mixed bag of partnerships and outcomes, however, makes it very difficult to identify a single ideal model. I have always been of the opinion that the end game is to have a private market that builds the city. The role of public sector and non-profit should be to establish community vision, provide civic infrastructure, and to intervene in circumstances where the market is not functioning. This is, in essence, the model we have followed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it’s tough to say either way.

Take, for instance, my neighborhood of Jefferson Heights. This neighborhood is an excellent example of the process we have used to help revitalize neighborhoods. Land was assembled by the non-profit and philanthropic communities, local government made infrastructure improvements, the land was then made available (with caveats for density and design review) to the private sector for development. At face value, the story appears to be a success; the dozens of new home and families have breathed new life into what was once a desolate place. On the other hand, that success has come at the expense of what made the neighborhood unique to begin with, and long time residents of the neighborhood who have been forced out. I used to be able to tell our story with pride in the fact that we achieved the holy grail- revitalization without gentrification. I cannot, however, in good conscience tell that story any more.

I have found that I’m also having difficulty reconciling the model of how things are supposed to work, and how they actually work. Supposedly, during the early days of non-profit oversight and design review, the private sector goes through an educational process that leads to an understanding of good design that will be put into practice in all of their future work. That hasn’t really happened here. In fact, one can stand in Jefferson Heights Park and immediately identify which of the phases had non-profit design support and which phases were left to the devices of the developer. The early phases comprise houses of quality construction that are well scaled and articulated, that sit on sites on that are right-sized and well configured. The newest neighborhood interventions are a bit cumbersome and are on lots that are poorly configured. They appear to me as awkward, adolescent kids in ill-fitting suits. On top of that, they had no third-party review, so construction quality is questionable- many of the new homes have second floor porches that have already rotted out only two years into their existenceTo add insult to injury, the newest homes are located on sites that once housed low-income residents and a long-time local business. I suppose some would see that as a sign of progress. I, on the other hand, am not so excited about it. The neighborhood was once a quirky, unique place with a variety of design styles, and an equally unique mix of neighborhood characters. It’s now white bread (and not the outstanding Neidlov’s sandwich bread, I’m talking white Wonder Bread). Notwithstanding our proximity to the core, we are essentially a sub-urb. Urbanism lite.

The philosophical quandary for me is that while I’m definitely a free market proponent, it is very apparent that the non-profit/public sector model far outperformed the private sector developer(s) in this case. The other quandary is whether or not it’s possible to find another quirky, diverse, urban neighborhood in Chattanooga that fronts a 2-acre park.

*I suppose technically the Mizzou win was not an upset- but their win over a traditional power felt like it.


Excuses, Excuses

Last week was a whirlwind of activity, and a fun one at that. Of course, the big happening was the City Center Charrette. Once again, the community did itself proud by turning out big numbers for a visioning process. Our visiting sub-consultants were amazed at the turnout. I ended the week with a trip to Auburn for an alumni council meeting- a man can show no greater love for his school than to drive through Atlanta traffic...during rush hour...twice...in one day...on a Friday. of course, I always feel a tinge of guilt in working with the University while maintaining my lifelong allegiance to Alabama football. That is a treacherous psychological balance to maintain, yet I have made peace with it.

All of this is once again an excuse for why I haven't written a full post this week (as I do not have a dog, and all of my grandparents are dead, I am running out of excuses). I will leave you then with a few links to the happenings of the week, in case you missed them.


P.S. - while I greatly appreciate the coverage of the local news outlets, none of the reporters bothered to ask who I work for. Don't believe everything you read...


For Shame

By the time you read this, it will be the morning after our City Center Charrette. I hope it went well and that I didn't accidentally swear during the presentation. Due to my preparation for the charrette, and in honor of the government shut-down I'm suspending all non-essential activities- including this week's blog.

While I have not selected a topic to write about, I do have a daydream share. As you probably know, it appears that we have rolled over on US27 and are ready to allow TDOT to do its worst. When the battle is lost and you can't get over it, what does one do?