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.

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