Urban design was the rock star last Thursday at Track 29, as River City Company’s yearlong Urban Design Challenge came to a grand finale, with a juried winner and an audience choice award.
Three jurors representing a who’s who of urban design in Tennessee unanimously gave the grand prize to Elemi Architect’s plan for Fourth Street, which included a call to modify the state’s plan for U.S. 27.
“The Fourth Street project did some things I would consider unique,” said Scott Wall, director of the UT School of Architecture. He is also an alumnus of Chattanooga’s famed Urban Design Studio, having worked there as a student intern in 1983.
“Challenging TDOT to revaluate how they were going to remake the on and off ramps—and with substantive recommendations—was really a powerful move,” Wall continued. “It challenged the assumption that government does this kind of thing without thought. I think TDOT recognized the value of that.”
“I always get frustrated with highways like this coming into your city. So often, a highway exit is not thought of as a city entrance. The place is not the freeway. We are the place, the freeway is the utility supporting the city,” said Cheryl Morgan, head of the Auburn University Design Studio, which has sent architecture, landscape architecture and urban design students to work in Chattanooga. Recently, those students worked under the auspices of the Urban Design Forum, which has continued the Design Studio’s work of bringing young designers to bear on Chattanooga’s urban design issues.
“They made a damn good movie,” said Henry Turley of the winning team’s film presentation. Turley is a Memphis developer who has been involved with some of Memphis’s iconic urban design projects, including the Harbor Town community on Mud Island. “I think if you’re trying to promote public discussion you want to do it in a vernacular that people understand.”
“I just walk away with a sense of reverence about it, the quality of work for the whole year-long process,” said Eric Myers, the leader of the Elemi team. “I can’t help but feel honored to be chosen by those three people. They’re my heroes in urban design.”
The audience choice award —voted on by an enthusiastic crowd at the grand finale last week—went to the plan for the area around Main and Broad Streets. This plan drew headlines when it was first presented for proposing to move the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant out of the Southside.
“Moving the chicken plant is not the linchpin of the project. That could happen sooner, later or never and the plan could still be implemented,” said Craig Kronenberg, of Hefferlin Kronenberg Architects, which created the plan with Artech and Barge Waggoner Sumner and Cannon.
The plan also envisions a new UTC basketball arena next to Finley Stadium and several blocks of new housing and commercial development on and around the current chicken plant.
According to Kronenberg, one of the key aspects of the plan is restoring connections across Broad Street, which is currently a barrier between two parts of the neighborhood because the numbered streets that should cross Broad Street are interrupted by large developments, like the chicken plant.
“Imagine if Broad, Market, Chestnut and Carter were blocked at MLK, what would happen to the downtown,” Kronenberg said. “That’s analogous to what happens at Broad with 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th Streets. Only 17th goes through, but it’s really a service alley for the chicken plant. You wouldn’t walk your dog there.”
One of the misunderstood aspects of the six Urban Design Challenge plans presented over the last 12 months is that they are visionary plans, not development blueprints. River City Company’s assignment to the design teams was to dream big, to help Chattanoogans think about what could happen in six key downtown locations. By design, the process is about brainstorming and conversation.
Parts of the final Broad and Main vision were reshaped during the planning process to include two parcels whose developers came forward and asked the planners for input. “We represented in the plan what is intended to be built,” Kronenberg said.
Similarly, along Fourth Street, the next six months could see announcements on two key properties: the John Ross Building between Market and Broad and the property River City Company owns next to the Majestic Cinema, according to Eric Myers.
These possibilities show the subtle give and take between blue-sky planning and dollars-and-cents development. When a visionary plan is announced, the obvious conclusion is that someone is about to build or trying to persuade someone to build. The truth is more subtle. Sometimes a good plan brings money to the table that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Ultimately, that’s what the Urban Design Challenge is all about. And it seems to be working.