For Chattanoogans who have wondered how the city's downtown revitalization could continue in the coming years, the six Urban Design Challenge events sponsored over the past year by the River City Co. have provided an inspiring answer. Indeed, the visionary results of this friendly ad hoc competition among local architects, planners and urban design thinkers are simply too comprehensive and too stunning to put away on a shelf.
The Design Challenge worked like this: River City leaders and two local consultants picked out six downtown sites that are either under-utilized, barren or outright eyesores. Six volunteer redesign teams were assembled from the architectural and planning community, and each was assigned to create a redevelopment plan for one of the selected sites. Every two months, one of the teams rolled out its plan in a public presentation.
Raising the bar
No one expects future development to implement all the concepts created by the design teams to foster rejuvenation of the sites. But their work has clearly elevated the conversation about the city's unmined potential, and raised the bar for what the community can expect in urban redevelopment. In fact, some of their ideas are already being reviewed in light of Design Challenge recommendations. The Tennessee Department of Transportation, for example, is now reviewing its Highway 27 remodeling proposals for the Fourth Street ramps and a roundabout at M.L. King Boulevard.
Sites for the Design Challenge included: The barren eyesore of vacant land in the 700 block of Market Street; the old Civic Forum site, now just a parking lot, at Market and 11th Streets; the under-utilized Patten Parkway loop off Georgia Avenue; the uninviting Fourth Street corridor that juts from the Highway 27 ramps into the riverfront district, harshly dividing it from the middle section of downtown; the Vine Street corridor bound by parking lots on the north side from Georgia Avenue to the UTC campus; and the desolate Main and Broad intersection that, together with the odorous nearby chicken plant, inhibits redevelopment of what could be an appealing Southside gateway neighborhood into downtown from Interstate 24.
The resulting semimonthly presentations proved to be far more than random, superficial overviews of how the sites could be used to make them more useful and more attractive. Rather, each team did enormous research on the surrounding areas of each site, delving into historical land-use records, old photographs of the evolution of each site, how they served and were connected to surrounding neighborhoods, and how those patterns could be revived, sustained, enriched and more integral to the city's urban fabric.
The Design Challenge guidelines, developed by consultants Ann Coulter and Christian Rushing and River City's Lisa Flint, were spare but broad. They emphasized how the redesigned sites could enhance the quality of public life, provide multiple benefits and resource conservation, connect the past to the present and the future, and fit into the overall context of a rejuvenated neighborhood.
The brain-storming, urban-renewal insights and architectural expertise for the selected sites proved to be immensely rewarding in the design results, and in spreading public interest in the projects. The teams invested hundreds of hours of work, and their presentations drew standing-room-only crowds in the hundreds. Such participation attests both to public interest in the goal of expanding the city's revival, and the quality of each team's work.
Readers can see files on each presentation at urbandesignchallenge.com. They will find bold vision, exciting renderings, thoughtful ways to reconnect the city's isolated parts and blocks in a larger, more pedestrian-friendly framework, and ideas for more livable green and built environments.
What they will not find is a way to fund their redevelopment concepts. But funding for the plans was never the point. Rather, the purpose was to show how, over time and with thoughtful planning, the best of our old downtown and the best of what comes in the future can be melded together as the city and urban density grows.
Designs for the future
The fruits of the Design Challenge may be seen in an open public meeting at Track 29, the new music venue behind the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, on Aug. 23. A professional jury will announce the winner of the competition. Attendees also will be able to cast ballots for the winner of a "civic vision" award.
It should not go without notice that funding for the Design Challenge -- to provide modest stipends for the team members and public venues for each presentation -- did not come from River City, or city government. It came from the city's three leading foundations -- Lyndhurst, Benwood and Maclellan.
That is noteworthy because the city's former Urban Design Studio, which for 20 years had provided vital architectural and strategic urban planning for the city's revival, was eliminated by Mayor Ron Littlefield when he took office. It took the foundations' $150,000 funding to bring the Design Challenge to life, and to confirm the need for the next mayor to re-establish the Urban Design Studio. Cogent design guidance will be essential to carry the city's renaissance forward.