Design group aims to elevate look, layout of downtown Chattanooga

Design group aims to elevate look, layout of downtown Chattanooga

June 1st, 2016 by Dave Flessner in Local Regional News

Christian Rushing talks about the new offices of his Chattanooga Design Studio amidst construction outside the former Cooper Office Supply on Cherry Street.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Studio formed to elevate downtown design

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“Cities, like forests, are in a constant state of renewal. While forests recycle in rhythm with natural laws, the city is recycled by the collective will and conscience of its citizens.”
Retired University of Tennessee architectural professor Stroud Watson, founder of former Urban Design Studio in Chattanooga

Eleven years after Chattanooga's Urban Design Studio closed, a new Chattanooga Design Studio is opening to help upgrade the urban landscape, public spaces and building designs of downtown and its neighboring areas.

Organizers of the nonprofit group hope it will elevate the look and layout of Chattanooga's central city and build on what they say helped transform downtown Chattanooga over the past generation.

"This is a real chance to step up our game and revisit the principles that made us such a poster child for good design in the past," said Christian Rushing, a long-time city planner who will head the new Chattanooga Design Studio. "One of the great things about the old studio is that it helped take the community's ideas and made them visible and put a vision behind them. The role that urban design has played in Chattanooga's growth and re-invigoration over the last three decades cannot be overstated."

Rushing, who worked for six years at the Urban Design Studio, said many of the most popular features of Chattanooga's downtown were outgrowths of urban design forums by the former Urban Design Studio, including development plans around the Tennessee Aquarium, along the waterfront, at Miller Plaza and in the redeveloping Southside.

Rushing said Chattanooga took major projects like the Tennessee Aquarium and Walnut Street Bridge and made them catalysts for the entire downtown by adding surrounding public spaces, streetscapes, riverwalks and parks.

"We got out in front of other cities in the 1980s and 1990s, but I think in the past decade or so other communities have caught up with us," Rushing said.

The new studio will open next month in a renovated, 2,000-square-foot storefront carved out of a former office supply building on Cherry Street. Inside, beneath a giant brick wall displaying the layout of downtown, local planners and visiting designers will gather to discuss and collaborate over design approaches for new parks, sidewalks, offices, apartments and parking areas in and around the central city.

"The studio can offer an independent view of projects and hopefully make them better, working with developers and the city to bring better design to our urban core," said Kim White, president of River City Co., which once sponsored and housed the Urban Design Studio. "I think this has tremendous potential to help our city to make sure that what we build enhances the overall appeal of our downtown."

White is one of the 12 directors who will oversee Design Studio. The board includes leaders from local foundations, businesses and City Hall.

Stacy Richardson, chief of staff to Mayor Andy Berke and another one of the board members, said the studio "will be a critical advocate for high quality urban design.

"Through collaboration and citizen engagement, they will play an important role in shaping the urban environment for years to come," she said.

The new studio will not have any of the design review functions of its predecessor agency. But it will act as an independent voice and facilitator for architectural students, urban designers and downtown planners to work with developers and city officials in recommending better urban design.

Rushing said such designs will vary based upon the needs and location of each area and will attempt to best reflect the history, people and characteristics of each site. Rushing said good urban design "requires conscious, deliberate effort" and should be thought out in advance to avoid helter-skelter or cookie-cutter-style designs frequently used in many cities.

In the past decade, national restaurant chains such as Buffalo Wild Wings, Chili's and Applebee's have used their suburban prototypes in downtown Chattanooga without reflecting the urban characteristics of the area.

The Design Studio, which is initially funded by grants from the Lyndhurst, Benwood and Footprint foundations, will be staffed by Rushing along with Roy Wroth, a local urban designer with more than 20 years' experience, and Ryan Sandwick, an urban designer from Los Angeles.

The studio is already a part of the stakeholder team working to design the new Miller Park and Patten Parkway for the city. But most of the studio's work will be to facilitate building and open space designs and to advocate for better urban design.

The group says it will concentrate on the urban footprint from the Tennessee River to the north, to the Chattanooga Creek to the south, and from the river to the west as it snakes around Moccasin Bend to Central Avenue to the east.

The work of the Studio will take many forms, including studies, charrettes and exhibitions for the general public; programs for the professional design community; facilitation for community stakeholders; consultation with the development community; and resources for local government.

According to its founding principles, the studio will work to make sure that downtown is inclusive for all people in its planning and design and will try to promote quality projects that attract people and bring economic, social and environmental value to downtown projects and buildings.

"The character of the public realm is an expression of community values," Rushing said. "Good urban design requires conscious, collaborative and cooperative action and done right, urban design can improve quality of life for all Chattanoogans."

Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.


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