Do you care about the city’s downtown livability? Your voice matters.
Last month, Chattanooga’s long-awaited Innovation District was unveiled.
The city-county Enterprise Center, reorganized last spring to lead the creation of the Innovation District, has drawn a circle around 140 acres of downtown centered roughly around Miller Plaza.
That territory encompasses a sizable chunk of the city’s growing startup ecosystem, including the two private venture incubators Lamp Post Group and Swiftwing Ventures, the Public Library (whose 4th Floor maker space has become an innovation hub in its own right) and the Society of Work coworking space.
The district is anchored by the 10-story Edney Building at the north end of Warehouse Row. TVA is selling the Edney to the city, which will in turn sell it to a private developer who will redevelop it into the hub of a new type of magnet intended to attract more of the tech companies and startups that have begun proliferating downtown in the last few years.
CoLab will relocate to the Edney, holding all its many startup-related events there, including Gig Tank, and plans to offer short-term leases to young startups.
The idea is to concentrate companies, housing and amenities in one livable area and watch the sparks of innovation fly. The concept is not new, but the idea of a defined innovation district is, and Chattanooga’s is touted as the first to be created by a mid-size city.
Boston’s innovation district is one of the oldest and most successful, claiming credit for 200 companies and 5,000 jobs created since 2010. Precisely how Chattanooga’s Innovation District will do something similar is so far undefined, but news accounts included the creation of a task force to determine whether additional elements, like tax incentives, will be made available to attract new businesses.
Boston’s has grown primarily by promotion, with companies attracted by proximity to other startups and by low rents, though rents are now rising as the district becomes popular. (You can get more info at innovationdistrict.org)
To me, the story here is “startup ecosystem design meets urban design.” The wave of tech and startup growth of the last four or five years was preceded and enabled by 30 years of cutting-edge urban design. As the startup wave accelerates, the young tech/creative talent those companies need is both attracted to places like our downtown and helps sustain and grow those places by demanding more of the same—more housing at varied price points. More shops, restaurants, bars, music venues. Safer, more walkable, bikeable streets.More “there.” Everything urban design works to grow for the whole community.
Boston’s innovation district has been criticized for bad urban design. With Chattanooga’s version of the idea situated in or near the heart of a walkable downtown, it’s hard to imagine that being a problem. Then again, the results of good urban design are nearly always far more appreciated than what it took to create them.
Chattanooga’s reimagined downtown is as well loved as it is well used. But how many people enjoying downtown 2.0 know its reboot was guided by urban design principles and visionary leadership? Or that the previous mayor, in his first months in office, fired Stroud Watson (the visionary urban designer who did more than anyone to guide the relaunch of downtown Chattanooga), gutted Watson’s Urban Design Studio and turned city government away from participating in urban design?
(What’s that you say? That’s crazy, like Apple firing Steve Jobs? Oh, wait, they did. And we know what happened when they brought him back.)
Urban design has slowly been making a comeback, starting with the Urban Design Challenge, River City Company’s high-visibility competition in 2011 and 2012 to create urban visions for some of the downtown spots most in need of retooling. That revival is accelerating with the Chattanooga Form-Based Code initiative (the first city-sponsored urban design initiative in nearly a decade) and signs that a new incarnation of the Urban Design Studio is nearing a rollout. Both are being led by former students of Stroud Watson.
Here’s the pitch.
On Mar. 7-12, everyone who cares about Chattanooga’s startups and startup ecosystem—coders, designers, founders, venture capitalists, consultants, mentors, interested onlookers—needs to participate in the week-long open design workshop to create a form-based code that will guide future development of five downtown neighborhoods, including most of the Innovation District.(Info: CHA-FBC.com)
This is a public design charrette, in which planners will work in open sessions and solicit input from the public while they begin drafting a replacement for outdated zoning codes that actually make it difficult for new development to fit the template of a livable, vibrant downtown.
Kind of like a hackathon for the code that gives the city its physical form. This livable downtown didn’t just happen. So if you like it—join the effort to keep it going.