Bridge View - 4th Street CorridorBridge View - 4th Street Corridor
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.’”
The corridor design also envisions a six-floor boutique hotel facing Fourth Street next to the Majestic Cinema. Similar to the Ross Building, but not quite as dramatic, the hotel would feature a recessed ground floor that brings the public realm into the building and allows outdoor seating where there isn’t enough sidewalk space for it.
Urbanism can capture real estate demand
“The biggest thing those two parcels need to do is reorient to Fourth Street,” said Myers. “The buildings need to respond to Fourth and not pick sides, either Broad or Market. If you can do that, you’ve captured the real estate demand that Fourth provides. I think it’s our highest-traffic street morning and night. I don’t think you can turn your back on that. It’s one of the reasons why major chain businesses come into that area. They want traffic count. I think there’s going to be incredible demand.”
RiverCity Company, which owns the land next to the Majestic, is already preparing to issue a request for proposals to develop a hotel on the site. And a new Hampton Inn and Suites, completed in 2011 at Chestnut and Fourth, fits right into Elemi’s vision. “It’s pretty amazing how much that project has improved the corridor,” said Myers.
These methods of directed redevelopment—along with infrastructure investments from the city, like sidewalk and parking improvements and median plantings—are the kind of “urban design intervention” that has been going on for decades in Chattanooga.
Urban design is about bringing a number of different elements together—streets, sidewalks, open space, commercial buildings, residential buildings, office buildings—rather than considering them in isolation, according to Rushing. “Urban design is putting all of those things together to make each one better, to make the whole more than sum of its parts.”
For the last 60 or 70 years in this country, we’ve built our cities by specializing and putting everything in silos, he adds, building all those pieces in isolation. “Before that, we spent thousands of years as a people building cities where all those things go together, and they depend on one another and they create a richness and a texture you can’t get in a place that’s built on a monoculture.”
Urbanism revived downtown Chattanooga
Designing and coordinating all these myriad details is what made downtown Chattanooga a great place again after decades of disinvestment and decline.
“In Chattanooga in the 1980s, we made very conscious decisions about the future health of downtown,” according to Rushing. “The two broad strokes that were made were to re-establish a center, the heart of the city, and to return to the place of our birth, which is the river.”
In accomplishing those two things, a number of principles were embraced: downtown is for everybody; downtown should be a diverse and welcoming place; the city is for people, so decisions should be geared toward them, not just the infrastructure that is intended to support them; downtown should be a place where people live (“That was a very foreign concept in 1980s, because at that point the white flight to the suburbs had occurred and no one lived downtown,” said Rushing.); every downtown project should to be done at a high level of quality, in a way that was lasting and permanent.
The most important principle, according to Rushing, was that nothing downtown would ever be considered in isolation. Every project would be seen in the larger context. Nowhere can that be seen more clearly in how Miller Plaza was created. Now known and loved as the location of the Nightfall festival, Miller Plaza was one of the first urban design interventions in downtown Chattanooga. And it began as a set of urban design guidelines.
“When Miller Plaza was designed, they designed the plaza and five blocks around it in every direction,” said Rushing. “The concept that all our sites are connected in a number of ways to adjacent buildings, to the district and to the city as a whole is very important.”
Miller Plaza: A psychological maneuver
The most important thing about Miller Plaza is not necessarily the architecture or the plan or buildings, said Rushing. “It was more a psychological maneuver in the minds of the community to understand where our heart was, where the center of downtown was.”
It was a long process. First, there were several years of student architectural projects that considered the surrounding district and developed a number of concepts for it. When the city planned to create a grassy park similar to Miller Park, Stroud Watson, director of the Urban Design Studio, suggested another direction.
“Stroud said that’s the wrong way to go about it. We already have the green grass, what we need is a great plaza: hardscape that has activity, that’s energizing, that adds a different set of elements that we don’t have in Miller Park,” according to Rushing. “And beyond that, he said what will make that plaza successful is not necessarily what’s going on there, but the quality of public realm that is around it. At the time, that was an unheard of concept—that the sidewalks and the streetscape were as important, if not more so, than the buildings.”
Eventually, RiverCity Company developed Miller Plaza, which it still owns and operates as a public park. Before the plaza was built, consultants were hired to write design guidelines along with the Design Studio. Then, five architectural firms were hired to create five hypothetical building proposals that followed the guidelines, which were exhibited publicly. “The purpose was to show that guidelines don’t result in cookie-cutter architecture, that you could get a wide variety of styles of buildings with same set of guidelines,” said Rushing.
Downtown didn’t just happen
RiverCity’s Urban Design Challenge—both as a whole and individual projects—is doing something very similar to the Miller Plaza district guidelines, according to Rushing.
“One of the things I think that some people don’t realize is that downtown didn’t just happen,” said Rushing. “All of the things we now take for granted—like the Aquarium, the Aquarium plaza, Miller Plaza, the Riverwalk, all the redevelopment in the Southside, the Chattanoogan—none of those just started off as a project one day. Each of them had dozens of student projects or professional consultant projects or city staff projects. Each was looked at and designed on and mulled over and considered and reconsidered and vetted long before any real projects came along. All the research and design and consideration are ultimately what led to the high quality of what we have now.”
More than 20 years later, the Miller Plaza guidelines are still shaping development – EPB’s 2007 headquarters building looks remarkably like a hypothetical design from 1986. And the urbanism-inspired discussions with TDOT are nothing new.
According to Elemi’s Eric Myers, the entire process—controversy and all—shows how holistic urban design can be, when the city’s past, present and future are viewed as a complete system.
“In Chattanooga, people have been getting that for 20 years, from student visions to professional work,” said Myers. “They don’t all have to get built or effect change in a dramatic way. They’re meant to posit ideas that filter out and affect people who do what they do every day, whether it be owning a hotel or designing and building a transportation system. Our community gets it. There are so many leaders in our community that get it. They’ve experienced it first hand, either as a business owner or a local elected official.”
The next Urban Design Challenge—looking at the Vine Street corridor, between Georgia Avenue and UTC—is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 15, at Christ Central Church on Vine Street.