Wrong on the North Shore

Wrong on the North Shore

September 29th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Residents of the city's North Shore and downtown neighborhoods clearly want to land a new full-service supermarket. Most seem happy that the proposed "P" store - not yet officially identified as Publix - has selected a two-block section of North Market Street opposite Manning Street for such a project. There's just one large problem so far: The P store developers don't want to observe the North Shore Plan's design guidelines that have helped make the area, and Frazier Avenue in particular, the coolest, most pedestrian-friendly place in the city.

With Mayor Ron Littlefield running unusually personal political interference for them, they're about to get away with ignoring those standards. As of Thursday night, when the North Shore's design review committee caved under the mayor's rare intrusion into zoning hearings, they're now poised to build your typical suburban, big-box, one-story, out-of-character store, oriented to the parking lot - all within a stone's throw of the riverside street that kicked-off the city's revival of old-style, walkable, street-front buildings.

The P store, presumably Publix, can - should - do better.

Ironically, its refusal stands in sharp contrast with the appropriate urban architecture that Publix has built elsewhere. It has erected successful, two-story, street-front-stores with windows along sidewalks in Florida (Miami, Biscayne, Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando) and Charleston, South Carolina. It has also agreed to build a similar two-story brick store - as has WalMart -- in the new University Commons urban project in Knoxville.

So it's not that Publix leaders aren't capable of meeting the North Shore Plan's guidelines - the urban building standards that for 15 years have guided North Chattanooga's renaissance. Rather, it's a question of why they resist doing better here.

More pointedly, it's a question of their respect - or lack of it - for the city's hard-fought effort to revive an urban downtown that has served as the engine to pull Chattanooga up off its knees over the last 25 years.

The P store's developers, with Littlefield running interference like a hulking bodyguard, managed to push their typical big-box approach past the North Shore's zoning panel on the promise of some minor cosmetic changes and approval of landscaping. Regrettably, a motion to defer the panel's decision for a month, until members could see more detailed architectural designs, failed.

Under the approved plan, the grocery will face inward toward the parking lot rather than outward to the street. Publix stores elsewhere disprove the notion offered Thursday, however, that supermarkets couldn't be oriented to the street, with parking behind. The developers also rejected the idea of real windows along the street -- they agreed to add just some faux window outlines -- and they largely refused standards that call for mixed-use retail stores along the street front, and upper-story residential space, as is now the norm along the North Shore.

The site to be developed combines the two blocks of North Market Street north and south of E. Manning Street into one large block, eliminating Manning Street's access to Woodland Avenue on the east side. The store would be on the south end of the site, with parking on the north end. The store's representative dismissed a proposal by North Shore advocates to take advantage of the upward slope of the land on the east side of the block to build a dug-in, two-level parking area. The approved plan calls for 260 parking spaces, all at ground level.

The panel should have deferred a vote to approve the builder's proposal in order to negotiate a more appropriate design for the urban neighborhood. Contrary to one panel member's assertion, a store oriented on North Market could easily serve both pedestrians and people who will drive to the store. A compromise that better serves the larger urban goals of a revived downtown shouldn't be dismissed so easily.

Indeed, there is still time for P-store officials to prove they have downtown's best interest at heart. If it's Publix officials who oppose doing the right thing for North Chattanooga, they should rethink their project. The city's urban goals deserve fairer treatment.