Chattanooga Crossroads

After completing an ambitious waterfront initiative the city recently changed leadership, raising the question: Is this the end of 20 years of urban enlightenment?

Stephen Culp, a 1997 graduate of Stanford Law School, left Palo Alto to return to his boyhood home of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and launch an Internet-based company called Smart Furniture. Michael Kull left the inarguably hip city of San Francisco for Chattanooga and, once settled, started an alternative newsweekly called the Pulse that would push an urban agenda. And Ann Coulter, a senior planner at various agencies in Chattanooga, ran for mayor last spring in an effort to lead the redesign of her city in a way that a politician could more effectively than a professional planner.

Culp, Kull, and Coulter are just a few of the many people who have helped to transform Chattanooga, once a dirty industrial city, into a budding icon of urbanism—a kind of Portland of the South—with well-defined streets and an emerging high-tech economy. All three made leaps—rational in some sense but also romantic—to pursue “the dream of urbanism,” a longing for a city where people live, work, and congregate on public streets. Even when unsuccessful, these leaps have been indispensable in creating a new Chattanooga.

When I visited Chattanooga ten years ago I saw a place remaking itself along clear design guidelines. Since then the city has continued along that same path, climbing a hill toward an urban vision, reviving its streets, buildings, waterfront, and relationship with the larger region. The latest step was a series of waterfront and downtown improvements carried out in a three-year time frame by activist mayor Bob Corker, who is using his success with this project as a platform to run for U.S. Senate.

But will the dream continue? Unfortunately not everyone shares it. In April Coulter lost her bid for mayor, defeated by a candidate who specifically ran against downtown development. Since taking office, mayor Ron Littlefield has essentially disbanded the influential design office that spearheaded many of the city’s projects, and he has stopped other center city efforts. “After twenty years of positive change we had an election, and the candidate who won actually went on an antiurban design kick,” says architect Stroud Watson, who led the Planning and Design Studio since its founding in 1981 until Littlefield dismissed him after the election. “He’s saying we don’t need to tell people how to do things. I wish it were true. I wish there were an understood vocabulary about how to build a community, but there isn’t. The best we can do is to hold on to our values and assume the city will see where to go in another four years. Right now power is being put into the hands of people who want to just build things and make money.”

The election results in Chattanooga occurred as the country was battling over the sanctity of property rights and whether anything recognizable as “planning” should be permitted. The events here are one skirmish in an overall contest of how cities, regions, and states should grow, and who gets to decide. An urban planner who has worked on downtown development in the past, Mayor Littlefield does not come across as a strident antiurbanist. “In elections things get distilled down and cast in one light or another,” Littlefield says as he sits behind his desk in the old city hall building. “I talked about spreading the appearance of prosperity we have achieved downtown to the rest of the city. We have done a tremendous amount downtown, and we need to turn our attention to the neighborhoods and try to accomplish the same thing.”

Old-money in the city—with fortunes growing out of Coca-Cola, the New York Times Company, and various hard industries like steel and chemicals—spearheaded much of Chattanooga’s rebirth. Their generosity periodically generates resentment about “the rich folk up on the hills who run things.” In the last election that group largely backed Coulter, who was far better financed than Littlefield. “In Chattanooga the power structure has been a positive influence,” Littlefield says. “Some people thought the last election was the power structure versus everyone else. But if that’s the case, they should see that the power structure does not determine elections. There is a balance of power. They have wealth. They can use that money for the good of the community, and that is usually the case. But people cannot sit back and say the wealthy and powerful will control everything anyway. Regular people have the responsibility and possibility of being involved in the further development of Chattanooga.”

Littlefield’s election and his actions since have put an ambiguous note to the completion of the 21st Century Waterfront Projects. The $120 million program bundled together a spacious new waterfront park, boat docks, and an amphitheater; a $30 million addition to the popular Tennessee Aquarium; a $20 million addition to the Hunter Museum of American Art, which sits up on a bluff; downsizing the waterfront highway behind the park from five lanes to two; building a glass bridge over the highway to the museum; turning a vacant industrial parcel on the north side of the river into a large new park; constructing a 160-foot pier out into the river with seven 40-foot light masts designed by the New York artist James Carpenter; working with developers to build mid-rise waterfront condominiums; and creating the Passage, a piece of public art commemorating the Cherokee’s roots here. The city raised more than half the money through a hotel/motel tax increase and the rest by tapping into the city’s philanthropic community.

The Planning and Design Studio and the River City Company, a nonprofit development agency, led the waterfront process, which meant not only creating models and working with AutoCAD, but holding charrettes with community groups and negotiating with state bureaucracies. To shrink the highway, for example, then mayor Corker persuaded fellow Republican governor Don Sundquist to give the city the state highway because the Tennessee Department of Transportation certainly wasn’t interested in spending money to reduce the capacity of a highway. The surgery was only partially successful. Some leftover spaces had to be turned into parking, and parts of the highway are still disruptive. Tearing it down completely would have been better.

“We wanted to keep the traffic coming in,” says Gavin McMillan, the principal designer on the project with the Cambridge, Massachusetts, office of Hargreaves Associates, which was hired to lead the planning process. He says their team had the option of tearing the highway down completely, but in the end decided to shrink it, installing two new exits so that traffic could filter out into the city’s grid. One of the project’s main aims was to kick-start private development, McMillan says, and this has already happened with several sets of mid-rise waterfront condominiums going up behind the highway and park. Randall Stout, architect of the new addition to the Hunter Museum, also designed a slender bridge of blue glass that crosses the roaring highway to the museum. The Holmberg Pedestrian Bridge is named after Ruth and William Holmberg; Ruth is a generous local philanthropist, former publisher of the Chattanooga Times, and granddaughter of Adolph Ochs, the nineteenth-century patriarch of the New York Times family.

Once you cross the bridge you arrive at the Hunter Museum, with its new entrance and addition. Stout worked for Frank Gehry for seven years, and the addition looks like something the latter could have designed. Clad in oxidized zinc, the addition is all curves and lopsided forms, and looks striking from a distance; inside it has a warmth and subtlety aided by the warm blond wood that meets up with cooler metal and glass. Accustomed to New York price tags—such as the $858 million spent on the new Museum of Modern Art—I was amazed that a mere $20 million could construct such an impressive building.

Many of the city’s recent initiatives are small scale, such as turning one-way streets back into two-way streets. Like other American cities, Chattanooga changed many of its streets into one-way thoroughfares in an effort to accommodate more automobile traffic. This helps move more cars, but it also renders cities less pedestrian friendly by increasing the speed and volume of traffic, and making bus service less convenient for passengers, who must often walk farther to ride in the right direction. Jane Jacobs noted in 1961 that every time New York converted one of its avenues to one way bus ridership dropped.

Other local changes were about suffusing Chattanooga’s public and private sectors with an urban design vocabulary. “How do you create a language that doesn’t fall back on your grandmother’s knickers yet doesn’t put a Titan rocket on the corner?” Watson says. “Part of the challenge to the designer is getting the public and political leadership to set up conditions for civic life. For example, we worked to introduce pedestrian lights on streets at a proper scale, to introduce a quality paving pattern to enhance the civic pride, and to introduce landscaping to enhance the natural beauty of the valley.”

This challenge frequently involved finding new ways to do old things. The city’s older buildings, for example, are largely brick and limestone, and Watson says he wanted current developers to match that quality and permanence to some extent. But limestone is now prohibitively expensive, he says, and brick is too costly for upper floors. Developers were encouraged to use brick on the first few floors and then lighter materials like glass or steel above. Of course, another option would be to allow them to use a broader range of materials, requiring setbacks and heights but not mandating style. As someone who loves contemporary architecture as well as traditional streets, I find it disappointing to realize how retro the dream of urbanism often is. The dreamers are chasing a vision of the city that existed in the 1920s, with streetcars, walkable streets, and fewer automobiles, while at the same time seeking to accommodate high-speed Internet access and high-tech businesses. There is nothing wrong with that, but planners should work to distinguish between a realistic respect for old forms and a nostalgic yearning for an idealized past. Sometimes, however, it’s possible to get the best of both worlds. In the 1920s Chattanooga’s waterfront was a working one, filled with rail yards, factories, and ships. It is now being transformed into a postmodern amenity to complement the turbocharged antique that the center city is becoming. That seems like a good choice.

Overall the Chattanooga redesign—call it version 2.0—has been successful aesthetically and commercially. Helped by a federal zoning designation that gives businesses tax breaks, downtown is filling up with small higher-tech businesses that are occupying old buildings, many of them once abandoned. These companies often represent newer versions of industries that once dominated here. A young company called Tricycle, for example, “manufactures” virtual carpet samples that allow designers to forego wasteful and ungainly physical samples. The region around Chattanooga has long been a center for the manufacturing of carpet, and manufacturing virtual samples is an evolution of that.

Will the city continue along the urban path? Littlefield’s election may be an example of a community pausing before attempting another round of evolution. Most people I talked to were proud of their revived downtown, even if they lived in distant suburbs and had mixed feelings about the city’s transformation from a solid working-class city to an emerging high-tech and tourism center. Still I found pockets of resentment of the type that Littlefield tapped into to win the election. “I don’t like the way this city’s going at all,” says Gary Scasbrick, sitting beside me at the counter of Porkers BBQ on Market Street wearing a green T-shirt that reveals well-muscled arms and is tucked into belted blue jeans. He criticizes the new waterfront projects as a waste of money and says the city should put more effort into industrial development. “I worked twenty-nine-and-one-half years at the DuPont factory before taking early retirement, and I think other people ought to have that opportunity—to work at one place for a long time.”

There were clearly class and culture divisions in town. You could see how a guy with a high school diploma might prefer a mayor who put more energy into pursuing an automobile factory—something Littlefield has talked of—than making sure a new hotel had the correct brick facade and was built up to the sidewalk. In their zeal to follow the dream, urbanists (typically affluent and educated) sometimes unintentionally exclude average folk. Despite these tensions I felt that Chattanooga was doing a lot better with its waterfront than many cities—including New York, which recently approved a major rezoning in Williamsburg and Greenpoint that will allow developers to line the Brooklyn waterfront with tall towers. How a city treats its waterfront is a good indicator of its values and priorities. Chattanooga’s human-scale waterfront was actually a manifestation of a more inclusive democracy and fewer extremes of wealth and poverty.

The country has been turned into warring camps of Red and Blue who reactively oppose any efforts by the other. Part of this dynamic was present in the last election, given that Littlefield made a lot of his evangelical church affiliation and anonymous flyers labeled Coulter an atheist, which she was forced to deny. But my gut tells me that the center in Chattanooga will hold and the region will continue to move forward to become more urban, prosperous, and fun. But if I’m wrong then the new waterfront park, meant to be a common ground for all, could instead mark an era of shared purpose that has prematurely ended.

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