November 15, 2012

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To P, or not to P ... was absolutely not the question.

Last week the North Shore Design Review Committee voted to let a big box development for an unnamed national grocery store chain on North Market Street go forward with an array of cosmetic and slightly more than cosmetic modifications.

At some point during the last few months of controversy, it was leaked—a cynic might say strategically—that the store’s name is confidential, but it might begin with a P and end with an X. For a while, genuine grown-ups were calling it “the P store,” but most people finally gave up and called it what everyone assumes it is: Publix.

Full disclosure: I’ve been embedded with a small group of concerned citizens that opposed the project, but not the presumed Publix. So yes, I am a partisan for good urban design and this is activist journalism.

There were many urban design issues at stake—closing a street, sacrificing an entire city block for a suburban “parking ocean,” planning for tractor-trailers to make deliveries via Frazier Avenue and residential side streets, allowing a single-use big box store rather than continuing the mixed use character of the district, and more. But these were entirely overshadowed because the developer and city officials had successfully positioned the issue as a false choice between saying “yes” to “the P store” or driving away the North Shore’s long-sought affordable grocery store.

“The dispute should never have been about ‘Publix, yes or no,’” according to urban planner Jenny Shugart. “Nowhere in the North Shore Design Review Guidelines or the C-7 zoning ordinance does it state that everyone will follow the law except those whose name and/or tenants are arbitrarily deemed to be acceptable to the powers that be.”

Urban design is not about picking tenants. It’s about guiding the physical development of the city to benefit current and future residents.

“Much of Chattanooga’s resurgence has been based on collaboration. The Publix development on North Market had been in the works for two years, but it was pretty much a secret until mid-summer,” Jim Johnson, a business owner who lives in North Chattanooga, said. A representative of the landowners told him after one hearing that they had intentionally kept the project quiet “so the neighbors wouldn’t get upset.”

“Just imagine if the mayor had used Publix to leverage and encourage other development,” Johnson said. “Not only would it have benefitted the community, but Publix would likely have gained from more people making the North Shore a shopping and walking destination and the landowners probably could have received more for their property. It could have been win-win-win, and even last week’s winners could have done better.”

For more than 30 years, urban design has played a key role in bringing downtown back from being a largely abandoned place to being the heart of the city. The Tennessee Aquarium, for example, didn’t work its magic in a vacuum. The structure itself and private development on surrounding blocks were guided by urban design principles. That’s been the pattern time after time, in Ross’s Landing, North Chattanooga and the Southside. But in recent years, it seems we have forgotten the lessons of our own past.


November 15, 2012

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