Urban design has power. just ask TDOT and RiverCity company.
A few weeks ago, the latest entry in RiverCity’s Urban Design Challenge raised questions about the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s plan for widening US 27 through downtown. Elemi Architects’ proposal for revitalizing the Fourth Street corridor called for moving an entrance ramp closer to the highway to reclaim a block’s worth of land for an expansion of the Creative Discovery Museum. It also brought up concerns about a roundabout on MLK that would create a pedestrian barrier between the Westside and downtown and wondered if all those 60-foot retaining walls are really necessary.
The state highway agency responded by taking the widening project off the state’s project list.
Although that sounds like taking its marbles and going home, TDOT’s response is probably not as draconian or as permanent as it sounds. Construction on that section was not slated to begin until after the segment north of the river is completed in several years, so there’s plenty of time to get the project back on the list. And there are plenty of powerful believers in urban design who are working with TDOT to find common ground.
Although no one would comment on the record, Christian Rushing, an urban design consultant working with RiverCity on the Urban Design Challenge, would say, “I think there’s a great deal of optimism—both on our part and TDOT—that we can work together to find a solution that’s mutually beneficial.”
Modest proposals add up
For urban design to discombobulate a state department is probably one of the more extreme examples of its power. Most of its effects are cumulatively powerful but more subtle taken one at a time. So subtle, in fact, that there’s a significant danger, according to urbanists, that people who use and love downtown Chattanooga don’t understand how it got to be the way it is or what it takes to keep it viable. Some of the more modest recommendations of the Fourth Street plan show how urban design typically works.
One of the key issues the Elemi team had to confront was the way heavy vehicle traffic on a major East-West street like Fourth seems to push building entrances to quieter North-South streets like Market and Broad. The same phenomenon can be seen on MLK further south. The Read House was built with its front door on MLK facing what was then the Union Terminal station, where thousands of people arrived in Chattanooga. When the station closed and automobile traffic increased on MLK, the hotel’s primary entrance shifted to the quieter Broad Street.
Rather than follow that well-worn path of least resistance and plan new buildings that face Broad or Market, Elemi’s Fourth Street design envisions new buildings that face Fourth Street, with design features that actively engage the public realm.
The new plan envisions the John Ross Building, which has been bricked up for years, as an office building with the first floor opened up to create semi-public space in the manner of a Greek agora. Originally built for a car dealership, the first floor features 18-foot ceilings and could become an open air loggia along Fourth Street, similar to the partially covered walkway in Miller Plaza that connects Market and Cherry Streets along the built edge formed by the stage and commercial office buildings inside the park.
“At Miller Plaza, that’s accomplished very successfully because it’s fronting a park,” said Eric Myers of Elemi. “It can also be accomplished on the primary public edge. It can extend public realm into the building in a perceived way, even though it’s private space. The tall lower bay just screams for an open-air plaza, an outdoor dining opportunity. We went over the top with it and said, ‘Why can’t you just drive a food truck in there.’”