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June 14, 2012

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How does the face of downtown Chattanooga change? A developer proposes a building, or maybe a mayor proposes a multi-hundred million-dollar waterfront makeover, then regulators, funders, architects and construction crews do their stuff, and voila ... right? Not exactly.

When the 21st Century Waterfront plan reshaped Chattanooga during former Mayor Bob Corker’s term, the master plan may have been created by Hargreaves and Associates, but “Every single one of those elements had been studied by students in one form or another over the previous 15 years,” according to Blythe Bailey, an urban designer for River Street Architects.

He’s not suggesting that the national consulting firm cribbed from the students’ work. He’s talking about a well-established but little known aspect of Chattanooga’s downtown renaissance. Student designers were a key element of the old Urban Design Studio, which guided Chattanooga’s urban revitalization under the leadership of Stroud Watson until Mayor Ron Littlefield began dismantling it in 2005.

“When the Design Studio stopped having students in about 2002 or 2003, that was a pause in what had been a pretty continual presence of architecture students being in Chattanooga since the early 1980s,” said Bailey, who was one of those students when he studied architecture at UT. He now leads the Urban Design Forum, which rebooted that program of putting design students to work on Chattanooga’s most critical urban design projects. The forum was begun by architect John Coddington, who carried on Watson’s work as a River City Company employee.

“The forum is intended to elevate the dialog about urban design in the community so when we have the opportunity to do things well, we seize those opportunities, we’re as prepared as possible to do things the right way. It includes citizen education, as well as linkage with student work,” said Bailey.

Last week, a group of 10 students from Auburn University’s Master of Landscape Architecture program presented the designs they had developed over the last few months for the upcoming Riverwalk extension south from the central business district toward Lookout Mountain. The students looked for opportunities to go beyond the Riverwalk path itself to create park areas nearby.

Their ideas include:

• Build a park-like food court around existing restaurants that connects the Riverwalk to Broad Street and uses a water feature to treat storm water before it flows into the river.

• Reclaim the old Scholze Tanner site (between the Southern Saddlery complex and the river) with a new development, meadows and rain garden that provide green infrastructure, and terracing to connect the area to Broad Street.

• Re-purpose a large mound (formerly an industrial landfill) by creating a terraced park and a dramatic V-shaped cut facing the river as well as a hotel on top.

• Where Alstom has already granted permission for the Riverwalk to pass through its property, build a steel grid structure that gives dramatic views of the river and the Alstom facility as well as providing needed separation between the Riverwalk and ongoing industrial activity.

Beginning with regional and local GIS mapping and site research, the students attempted to let design ideas emerge from the site itself. Some of them even made their own maps of things that can’t be found on GIS maps, like where views are, how the wind blows, and bird habitats.

“Their designs came out of understanding the site in its broader context. They found something in each site, rather than bringing something of their own to it,” said Jacqueline Margetts, an Auburn landscape architecture professor.

A few weeks ago in April, two other Auburn student groups presented architectural designs for industrial heritage centers on Manufacturers Road and the former U.S. Pipe site. “The best solutions ended up combining a museum and an incubator for craftsmanship and creative industry,” said Bailey.

The value of student work, according to Bailey, does not depend on whether any particular idea is adopted as part of an official plan or taken on by a developer. Rather than considering any existing or likely plans for a site, their assignment is to dream: “Forget about what it will be, and think about what it should be.”

“There are a number of things that we have done with our downtown that are a reflection of student work,” Bailey said. “It’s not just empty academic hypotheses. It can turn into real life catalysts. Students are the ones that think of things the rest of us don’t think about because we’ve got our eye on the thing that we’ve got to do next.”

It’s really the same kind of speculative urban design work that River City Company’s Urban Design Challenge is doing, except with students instead of professionals, he said. “It opens up the arteries of the imaginative community process, makes it more likely that opportunities will be seized.”

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June 14, 2012

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