Lack of urban design input raises eyebrows
"People are really concerned," says Heidi Hefferlin, partner with Hefferlin+Kronenberg Architects and president of the Southside Neighborhood Association. "A third or half of our members said 'We want to talk to our council people. How does this happen? Why are designs and planning not being implemented in our neighborhood after all this development?'"
Like any good overnight success story, the Southside's comeback has deep roots. Much of the revitalization of Main Street and surrounding residential neighborhoods came to fruition during—but largely in spite of—the 2005-2013 Littlefield administration. Former mayor Ron Littlefield curtailed the Southside housing strategy of Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise soon after he dumped Stroud Watson, the urban design visionary most responsible for guiding Chattanooga's downtown renaissance over the preceding 20-plus years, and dismantled the Urban Design Studio Watson had led.
Answers to that "why" question begin with the fact that much of the Southside is still zoned for manufacturing, which not only allows virtually anything to be built, but also makes it difficult to build new structures that match the urban fabric around them. Hefferlin and her partner and husband, architect Craig Kronenberg, are speaking with city council members and city planners about updating the Southside's zoning and about instituting design review for the district.
"Everybody realizes it needs to be addressed," says Hefferlin, "but they said 'You as a neighborhood need to stand up and say this is an issue. Otherwise it's not a priority.'"
Speaking to Hefferlin and Kronenberg—as well as a quick and unscientific survey of several other urban design professionals—it seems clear that the problem is the building's urban design, not the storage business.
Urban design uses the design of individual structures to shape the shared "public realm" between buildings, and its effects can be felt throughout downtown Chattanooga.
Hefferlin and Kronenberg listed urban design principles they think should be guiding Southside development: build to the street edge, animate buildings with windows and public functions, keep eyes on the street by allowing people inside the buildings to see out, encourage density of development, provide pedestrian-friendly landscaped streets, create shared parking for more than one building, encourage a mix of uses, plan for the thoughtful inclusion of services, encourage excellence in design, and integrate low-income housing.
"The problem is the storage building doesn't do any of this," says Kronenberg.
Suppose you're a developer of storage buildings. You know how to provide a service people want to buy, and you know how to buy a piece of land and build a building that enables that service. Why should you care what effect your building has on a city's public realm? And how would you know that there are people who care about these things if all the city requires you to do is meet the relatively simple requirements of a decades-old zoning classification?
"The real issue is we have a neighborhood that has evolved, but the zoning and building codes have not kept up with it," added Hefferlin. "They designed in a vacuum. They met the zoning, and nobody ever stopped to say anything."
Then there's that long gone Urban Design Studio, the one that used to review proposed developments and help bring developers and the community together.
"Had this happened eight years ago, the building permit would not have been issued until there was at least a preliminary discussion at the Design Studio before the developer had spent any money," according to Bob McNutt, a neighborhood revitalization consultant who spent many years working on Southside housing.
"These types of design conversations happen only in a place like the Urban Design Studio," says Eric Myers of Elemi Architects, who worked with Stroud Watson at the Design Studio. "They’re only understood by drawing, collaborating and sharing. This project could be infinitely better if we had not lost that special place."
"This is a prime example of a project that would have benefited from a facilitated conversation between the developer and the community," adds urban designer Christian Rushing, another Design Studio alum who mounted a retrospective of its history last year. "Maybe there's a way to do storage units that has some form of animated retail component that fronts one of the primary streets. The purpose of those conversations is not to have a winner and a loser. The developer gets a better project and the community gets new development."
"We want to encourage development," says Hefferlin. "The thing that's missing is a design review process. People are reacting to the fact that it's just something that could have happened in any other town. It's not respectful of our neighborhood."
Maybe it's not too late for this storage building to make a contribution to the Southside's public realm. Or, with construction under way, maybe nothing can be done now and its contribution will be to join Chattanooga's growing list of urban design mistakes—think Buffalo Wild Wings, Publix, Walgreen's—that are making more people shake their heads and say, "This has got to stop."