Give it up for Mr. Randy Watson...

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with the editor of an alternative weekly in Atlanta. He’s in the process of writing an article concerning Chattanooga and how we’ve worked to prevent brain drain. He talked to a number of folks while he was here (no doubt all smarter than me), and I’m excited to see what they had say about the topic. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for you, you don’t have to wait to hear what I had to say…

When I first moved to Chattanooga, the city’s turnaround was well underway. In fact, it was at a point where the Design Studio was already hosting groups of visitors from other cities who wanted to learn how we did it. Our usual suspects addressed these groups and explained various aspects of our work: economic development, sustainability, infrastructure provision, the role of the public realm, the role of public input and the importance of partnership. As I sat in those meetings listening to my heroes tell their stories, however, I was stuck with one compelling consistency. Virtually everyone mentioned that the driving factor of all of work was to create a place that our young people would return to. This is one of those instances where a very complex set of issues can be boiled to a simple statement that everyone “gets”. Not everyone understands (or cares to understand) the somewhat esoteric urban design concepts we employed, but everyone understands the concept of creating places where people want to live.

“We want to create a place that our young people will return to.”

The statement implies that there is opportunity. Whether a young person is graduating from some level of school or simply making their way into the adult world, they all look for their chance. Healthy communities find a way to provide a range of opportunities for young people to support themselves, chase their dreams, and make their mark on the world. Where those opportunities don’t exist, young people leave in search of places that provide them. Heartbreakingly, for some leaving isn’t an option and the choices those young people have to make are desperate indeed. The promise of our simple statement is that the community will dedicate itself to creating opportunities for ALL of our young people.

The statement implies authenticity. For the last half of the twentieth century, sub-urban development thrust American cities into homogeny. The mall, highway, and chain stores of a sub-urb in one city are virtually indistinguishable from those of another. This is a direct result of the chain store philosophy that design supports brand, not place. When you hear me tilt against the Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebees of our downtown, this is the heart of the matter. Yes, there are issues with architecture, aesthetics and density, but the killer is a lack of authenticity. Those buildings say nothing about downtown Chattanooga, they contribute nothing to the unique character of our city, there is nothing special about them on any level. What we have seen recently, especially among young people, is an overwhelming preference for authentic places. Back in the day, we understood this and did a fantastic job of maintaining our identity despite the temptation of a quick buck. How easy would it have been to sell every corner near the aquarium to McDonald’s, Dollar General, or 7-11? What would have become of us had that happened? The promise of our simple statement is that we are dedicated to the notion that our city is Our City.

The statement highlights the familial relationships that are the foundation of community. Taken literally and personally, this panders to the heartstrings- we all love our children. I would love for Spence and Stern to leave Chattanooga and have fantastic experiences and adventures across the globe. I also want them to come back so I can be with them and (I can’t believe I’m writing this) my grandchildren. From a broader perspective, whether they are biologically related to us or not, I believe that children are our future. Pop culture references notwithstanding, the long-term sustainability of the community depends on the young people of the community growing and taking up the mantle of those that came before. The promise of the simple statement is that we value family and community and understand that they are key to the long-term viability of the city.

For as much as I have played up the importance of the “the statement”, in practice you could strip the children portion and it would still ring true. We have endeavored to create that people will return to- whether they be our children or not. We attract people because we are authentic and have nurtured our unique qualities. People come here because there is a range of opportunities for people who want to make their mark on the community and on the world. Young people come here because their contributions to the community are valued. We can talk all day about the billions of dollars invested, the design awards, and our advanced infrastructure, but the truest metric of what the community has accomplished is the number of people who are proud to call Chattanooga home. 


The Other S-Curve

Did we enjoy the weather last week? I certainly did. Having been out of town for the first round, it was nice to be home for the most recent snow days. Is it tough to get anything done when the boys are out of school? Yes, but while work comes and goes, the joy of pegging small children with snowballs is forever. (On an unrelated note: Dear baby Jesus, please forgive me for considering pegging other people’s children when those bastard neighborhood kids knocked down my finely crafted snowmen.)

Jefferson Heights Park was the perfect stage for a couple of days of snow. The park is my home and a place that I have written about several times before. It was two acres of snowball fights, sledding and snowmen for the two-dozen kids who live on the park (and no, I don’t really think they’re bastards). As well used as the park is, it could handle more. Because of the boundary constraints of Jefferson Heights (railroads, industry, big roads), the park is oversized for the neighborhood. The reality is that a) the park was never really “sized” according to open space standards, and b) later plans assumed that the park would serve a larger area than it does in practice.

The area that we now enjoy as a park was originally the site of an elementary school. Jefferson Street School was built in 1911, and in its heyday enrollment peaked at 406 students. By 1960, when student numbers dropped to less than half that it was designated as an all-black school and renamed the William J. Davenport school. The school was shuttered in 1971, the building was eventually razed, and the site designated a city park. The City probably figured that calling it a park and mowing the grass was far cheaper than maintaining an aging building. From a planning perspective, the site as a park was essentially an afterthought.

Fast forward a couple of decades to the mid-90s and the community had turned some its focus to the neighborhoods immediately south of Main Street. In all of those plans, Cowart Place (Rustville), Fort Negley, and Jefferson Heights were tied together by a strong 17th Street linkage. Main and 17th are the only two streets that run all the way through the three neighborhoods, but 17th is more neighborhood scaled and pedestrian friendly than Main. This linkage was designed to be a corridor for the neighborhood to access resources such as the stadium, the elementary school and Jefferson Heights Park. Unfortunately, a decision was made that compromised the viability of that concept.

The 1996 Dover Kohl Plan
(It's true, planning for the neighborhood started before 2005.)
17th Street in a simple and compelling diagram.
An axis between two major green spaces that serves as
an organizational framework for three neighborhoods.

The 17th street neighborhood connector got off to a great start when CNE did the Cowart Place townhouses. That momentum was carried on when we did the 17th Street streetscape and water tower project. The segment of 17th from Broad to Market is top-notch neighborhood streetscape. The plan was to carry that level of quality through Fort Negley and Jefferson Heights to the park. The corridor through Fort Negley proved to a bit more problematic as the right-of-way was constrained by stone walls on ether side of the street- while this was inconvenient, it is possible to design around that. The real problem came at the intersection with Rossville Avenue.

Rossville at 17th is the one intersection along this corridor where 17th takes a bit of a jog. In the early 2000’s there was an opportunity to make a simple maneuver to push the corridor through and create a cohesive order that would benefit adjacent property owners and the community as a whole. This opportunity was shit upon, disregarded by the chicken plant and the traffic engineers. The extension of 17th through a small portion of the Chicken Plant land on the west, and through a small portion of an industrial property on the east would have reinforced the notion of the corridor and improved value for all parties involved. Mind you, this wasn’t easy- there were negotiations to make and land to buy. In the grand scheme of things, however, a group of reasonable adults with the greater good of the community as a common goal should have been able to broker a deal with wins for everyone. That didn’t happen. What happened was that the Chicken plant didn’t want to play, and the traffic engineers proposed a band-aid of a “solution” that worked for them (read: the car). The silly little “S” curve is hopelessly out of place and undermines the integrity of the corridor.

17th & Rossville. What should have been.
17th & Rossville. When good plans go bad.

Since that missed opportunity, all three neighborhoods have grown explosively. The compelling and worthy concept of the 17th Street corridor is arguably more valid now than it ever has been. The connection of three vibrant neighborhoods to Finley Stadium, Battle Academy, Water Tower Park, Fort Negley Park, and Jefferson Heights Park should speak for itself. As fate would have it, the adjacent industrial site is on the market, I have heard that the chicken plant is trying to play nice with its new neighbors, and the people in charge of designing our roads are more enlightened than in the past. Unfortunately, I doubt anyone in a position to resurrect the concept is particularly fired up to do so.

This was the solution that the engineers came up with...seriously.
The most expensive section of streetscape
along the corridor is also the worst.

Unfortunately, this is once again merely a symptom of the bigger problem. For every incomplete 17th Street project, there are a dozen other great ideas for projects that have been compromised or forgotten about. One of the beauties of an (essentially) independent design entity was that there was long-term institutional memory for plans, thoughts and ideas. The Design Studio didn’t turn over every four years and its focus on good design didn’t change with the priorities of different political administrations. Good ideas were nurtured and gestated until the time was ripe for implementation. We’re now in a position where we start from scratch every four years. That is my biggest lament for what the community has lost.


Spread the Love

Depression is setting in with the end of the American football season. The last bright glimmer was National Signing Day*. A day on which Alabama signed its fourth #1 recruiting class in a row. Unfortunately, we now face a seven month wait to see them take the field again. Not sure what to do with myself in the meantime. I guess I’ll go work or something. I am, however, a firm believer in the old saying that if you love what you do, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. So I've got that going for me...which is nice.

Speaking of love, I'm taking a Valentine's week break (or weak break as the case may be). I will, however,  leave you with a couple of things to set the mood: Valentine's Day cards for planners, and perhaps the best episode of Mister Glasses (the sequence that starts at 3:48 and pays off at 4:30 slays me).

Have a great week and spread some love.

*Along with another great year for Alabama, this recruiting season reintroduced us to an old friend. You may recall that I shared a moment during the 2012 recruiting season, when Landon Collins’ mom received my inaugural Casey Anthony Mother of the Year Award for raining on her son’s big moment. This year, another of her sons announced, and she handled it much better. I must say that I feel for the poor woman. For Love's sake, can’t we get one of her kids to go play for The Hat? (just not Landon)


Did I Miss Anything?

I was out of town last week. Did I miss anything?

I heard there was a bit of snow or something like that. While I missed the brunt of the storm, I did not escape unscathed. For one, I had to endure a couple of day’s worth of jokes about the ineptitude of Southerners in the snow. (My limp rebuttal was we were ill prepared since snow in the South is as rare as a BCS title is up north). My attempt to return home to The C was then impacted by the aftermath of the storm. The trip from DSM to CHA typically takes about five hours- this one started with a 6am flight (that was eventually cancelled), and ended at 11pm when my head finally hit the pillow. I have no complaints though- I was warm, had access to food, and most importantly, a variety of airport bars.

As an aside, I think there is a special place in hell reserved for the person who decided to co-mingle domestic and international flights on the same concourse. I'm just a simple businessman trying to make his way home and was forced to run a gauntlet of gates heading to such places as Rome, Amsterdam and London. This is patently unfair, and undeniably cruel. I was one overpriced Maker’s Mark and a missing passport away from waking up in Barcelona the next day.

I’ve since read a couple of pieces that trace last week’s dysfunction to our development patterns. They are, of course, right on the money. The gist is that the southern auto-dependent, sub-urban development patterns,  were the cause of stranded motorists, parents not being bale to reach their kids, and scores of unplanned upon overnight stays at the Home Depot. Always one to pile on, I offer my thoughts.

part of the problem was that employers and schools called the day off at the same time, resulting in massive numbers of people on the same treacherous roads at the same time. Truth be told, no street system can deal with that type of situation perfectly, but some are better than others. The road systems throughout our country are predominantly hierarchical. This is the typical suburban system you know: local roads feed collectors that feed arterials that feed freeways. Traffic engineers love the model, and in truth, it’s difficult to envision a system that can handle long-distance automobile traffic any better. The trouble with that system is that if one of the elements fails, then all of the elements of the hierarchy below it fail as well. The system does not allow much room for choice or alternate decisions- the route from A to B is often pretty well fixed.  Last week, we saw what happens to a hierarchical system when key elements fail.

The classic traffic engineer's diagram.
I wonder how many people stuck on the freeway in Atlanta

last week felt that their movement and speed was increased.

The alternative to a hierarchical system can be found in a grid network. In this system, the streets are more or less equal, and property in the area is more or less equally served. Individual users have multiple choices for how to get from A to B and can react to any congestion they find in the system. The problem is that it doesn’t scale well- the system is suited physically and financially to denser situations such as a downtown.

In any event, and in either system, the root of the problem is monoculture. If everyone is doing the same thing at the same time, there are bound to be problems. In every other facet of life this is something we grasp easily. We “don’t put all of our eggs in the same basket”, financial advisors tell us to diversify our portfolios, and we understand that “variety is the spice of life”. When we have diversity, we are less subject to catastrophic outcomes when various elements of systems break the wrong way.

The point is not to abolish the sub-urbs or outlaw the car. The object is to remove the very real barriers to choice. Not everyone wants to live in the ‘burbs on an acre and drive a big car – but some do. Not everyone wants to live in a loft downtown and bike to work- but some do. One of our challenges is that the current system subsidizes certain lifestyles and provides barriers to others. Our goal should be to level the playing field and allow people to make choices that suit their philosophy and budget. If living in the ‘burbs makes the most sense for you and your family, great- but know that there are costs associated with extending infrastructure and extensive auto usage. If you want to live downtown, excellent- there are inherent cost efficiencies in inhabiting a smaller footprint and traveling shorter distances. The good news is that across the country, people are returning to downtown in droves. The better news is that those people will likely outlive (and eventually outvote) those wed to the doomed policies of the past.