Wrong on North Shore store

Wrong on North Shore store

October 27th, 2012 in Opinion Times

With the 3-2 defeat Thursday night of a vote to deny the 'P' project a green light until it comes up with a plan for a grocery store that conforms to the North Shore's C-7 Design Review standards, several things are now clear.

One is that the store -- presumably Publix -- will build its cookie-cutter, suburban-style, big-square-box grocery store without bothering to meet the core standards of the C-7 design laws that other North Shore developers have embraced. It will just cosmetically air-brush a few facades and gussy up the landscape.

Another is that by sandbagging the North Shore Design Review process from the beginning, the current city administration, as ram-rodded by Mayor Littlefield, has broken the design committee's teeth, sabotaged its legal credibility, and put a very visible stake in the heart of the North Shore.

As a result, North Chattanooga -- the city's best and most widely applauded representative of a revitalized urban district with a chance to model sound, mixed-use urban development -- will get run over with the same-old, same-old, intrusive encroachment of inappropriate suburban blah.

18-wheelers vs. bungalows

Part of the North Shore will still try to be an attractive, cool, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use neighborhood with store-front retail and residential units above. But right through its Frazier Street heart will come rumbling 18-wheeler trucks, turning down a narrow, bungalow-bedecked Woodland Avenue by Walgreens. Two blocks north, they will turn down little Kent Street, and then back into a 40,000-plus-square-foot, big-box store.

Lying in a topographically low spot, the store will expose its huge flat roof to the surrounding hills -- residential on the east side of North Market; and, on the south side, a finger-in-the-eye right under the new scenic-view platform atop the $3 million Stringer's Ridge park. The platform at the top of the 90-acre park's new trail system, to be opened in November, will look over the city to Lookout Mountain and beyond, but the store's huge roof and parking lot will mar the center of that view.

Publix's 260-slot parking lot will comprise at least two football-fields of asphalt in front of the store. The store itself will open not to North Market Street, as the guidelines dictate, but to the interior center of a parking lot that will extend from the closed portion of East Manning Street north to Bush Street.

Though C-7 design guidelines call for retail-store frontage along North Market, barely half of the store's Market Street frontage will provide space for small retail businesses.

TWH architect Phil Whitfield ran through a series of modifications -- i.e., faux windows instead of real ones, relieves and a corner tower to mitigate the expanse of brick, enhanced landscaping, pedestrian ac cess, street-edge work and downward-oriented exterior lighting -- requested previously by the design committee to make the store's facades and public access points more tolerable. Yet these embellishments fail to address core standards that call for frontage entry points on Market Street, a "primary street" in the North Shore under the C-7 codes; and hiding the parking behind the store.

Questioned on these issues, Whitfield pointedly asserted: "The store is what it's going to be, if they do it."

Pressed further as to why the store could not be redesigned to make it more rectangular with longer frontage on North Market, or possibly smaller, or to create a more concentrated parking space behind, Whitfield said the size was "dictated" by a "full-service line." The client, he said, wanted the store to be a regional-size store that sticks to the square-box plan.

No one from the city or the design committee substantively addressed the traffic issue, nor would anyone say when, why or whether the city's chief traffic engineer would address the critical issue of access and exit routes for the 18-wheeler trucks and trailers that will be forced onto Frazier, Woodlands and Kent streets. Indeed, if the truck access and egress issues were properly addressed under city and C-7 codes, the result likely would be to reject the traffic route and public burden.

The city's public works director, Steve Leach, did allow that "modifications" would be made to address these huge traffic concerns, but he didn't say what they would be, when they would be revealed or how they would fit in the heart of Frazier Street and its adjacent residential areas. He also declared that the committee had no jurisdiction to limit truck delivery or dumpster service hours.

Neither did the committee or city officials comment on requirements for pervious parking surfaces, or the larger idea of a green roof system, as suggested by Garnet Chapin. In fact, a green-roof would make a significant offset for the foregone C-7 provisions: It would further the city's effort to introduce green roofs for their value for storm-water storage, energy efficiency, aesthetic appeal and heat-island-reduction effects.

Missing a vital guide

Certainly such a roof would be far superior to the massive, bare surface -- with just a six-foot-high fence around mechanical systems -- that will be so visible in the North Chattanooga-Stringer's Ridge community. It merits serious consideration, but the tone of the developer's representatives, and the committee's defeatist compliance, suggests that will not happen.

The larger lesson of the mangled P store project is that a better process -- one similar to the comprehensive design screening of urban development projects offered under previous mayors by the Urban Design Center -- should be revived. On taking office, Mayor Littlefield quickly dismantled the Urban Design Center, which had been notably run by Stroud Watson, to satisfy the lobbying effort of a segment of local developers who wanted free rein for projects that were incompatible with sound urban architectural design in the city's center.

The community has paid dearly for that mistake the past eight years. The proposed P store, inappropriately sited and designed as it is for the North Shore's center, is just the latest sad example of needless diminishment of the city's urban potential. North Chattanooga deserves better.