Chattanooga Design Studio does for downtown what CoLab does for startups
One of our newest startups is actually a reboot of one of the oldest players in the urban design ecosystem.
The Chattanooga Design Studio was re-established in 2015 after an eight-year absence and moved into a storefront office on Cherry Street in July. It works to guide downtown’s urban design somewhat like the Company Lab and the Enterprise Center shape the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
According to the Studio’s executive director, Christian Rushing, it advocates for excellent urban design and consults with all stakeholders as an independent, non-governmental player. The new studio is funded by the Lyndhurst, Benwood and Footprint foundations and has two additional employees.
“We play a number of roles,” Rushing says. “One is to consult with the various players who have a hand in building the city—developers, designers, regulators, politicians, community groups—to see if we can add value to their projects in whatever way they measure value.
“For the developer, they will certainly value time and money—and for those who think triple bottom line— there is also environmental and social value. Designers value advocacy with clients and regulatory groups and oftentimes in conceptual matters. The community will value the things that strengthen their neighborhood. The politician will value tax revenue increases, and not being torn between developers and unhappy constituents.
Another role, he adds, is to generate vision for the future of downtown: “Working with the community to establish new ideas in forgotten or underused parts of downtown will help spark our civic conversation on issues of design and urbanism, as well as perhaps spark ideas for actual development in the future.”
The first incarnation of Chattanooga’s Design Studio operated from 1980 to 2007. It was led by Stroud Watson, a highly respected architect and urban designer whose international reputation did not save him from being fired by Mayor Ron Littlefield soon after he took office, an apparent gift to developers who felt their rights were being trampled because they were being held to high standards of urban design. (I should add that these are my opinions, not those of Christian Rushing. I’ve been watching urban design in Chattanooga and drawing my own conclusions since 1996.)
The new Studio is constituted as a purely advisory body. The original Studio began that way but eventually was given some regulatory powers by the City.
“It was the governmental connection that led to the former Studio’s demise and that prevented that studio from having a more open dialogue with the development community, because they were seen as part of the regulatory process,” Rushing says. “Not having regulatory authority is actually a good thing for our studio. We’re able to have more frank and open conversations with all stakeholders.”
The new Studio does not seek primary design responsibility for projects.
“We don’t want to compete with the private sector for work,” Rushing says. “I think a studio has more credibility and can be more effective if it acts and is perceived as acting as an independent entity that works on behalf of the broader community.”
The Studio is working on several projects that Rushing can’t discuss because of confidentiality requests by clients. Projects that he can discuss include an inventory of the pedestrian experience of the public realm downtown, to be followed by ideas for improvement; transportation improvements on ML King Boulevard; and potential development scenarios for the Mapp Building on ML King.
He says the Studio faces a completely different set of issues that it did when it was established in 1980.
“In 1980 one of the questions was ‘How do we attract people to a vacant downtown to live, work and play?’” he says. “Now the question is ‘Now that people are here, how do we want our downtown to grow? How do we take our many disparate visions for what downtown living could be and come up with a community consensus vision for the future?’”
The Chattanooga Design Studio holds an Urban Design forum at 5:30 p.m. every fourth Wednesday with a speaker and an opportunity for a civic conversation about urbanism and design. For location and speaker, visit chattanoogastudio.com.
Rich Bailey is a professional writer, editor and (sometimes) PR consultant. He led a project to create Chattanooga’s first civic website in 1995 before even owning a modem. Now he covers Chattanooga technology for The Pulse and blogs about it at CircleChattanooga.com