Sunday, April 22, 2007

Chattanooga Shows How A Riverfront Can Transform A City

There’s so much that Chattanooga has done right to transform its once underused riverfront into a vibrant public place, and so many lessons that Memphis can learn from its sister Tennessee city.

Lesson #1 – do something.

We’re thinking about Chattanooga as we develop suggestions for a city that needs to reclaim its waterfront, and it’s hard to find a city that’s done a better job than Chattanooga. After all, it’s morphed from being called the most polluted city in American in 1969 to one of the most honored for its courage and success in redeveloping its waterfront and downtown.

Cast Of Characters

Interestingly, it did it with much of the same cast of characters that we have – city government, a mayor with downtown and riverfront improvements as a priority, a private nonprofit devoted to improving the riverfront and private foundations determined to make the city more competitive.

What it did have that we’re missing is a design center – there called the Planning and Design Studio – that serves as convener on urban design issues, as a voice for high quality design and as advocate for the mixed-use, vibrant, walkable, livable developments that elevate the quality of life so important to city competitiveness in the current economy.

We’ll come back to the subject of design centers in a few days, but for now, suffice it to say that progress is being made in creating one in Memphis.

Making The Most Of Crisis

It’s been said that a “crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” and reeling on its heels, Chattanooga sure didn’t waste its chance to turn the city around. The battle back began on the riverfront. In some ways, the city had little choice, because its economy was cratering and every sector of civic leadership felt the same - that Chattanooga was fighting for its life.

The new partnerships created out of crisis were so strong that they have endured through four mayors, and before they were through, the signature projects that we’re all familiar had become Chattanooga landmarks -- the $75 million Tennessee Aquarium project and a new riverfront, a 10-mile recreational greenway along both sides of the Tennessee River, new mixed-use development, $1.2 million in public art and a free electric shuttle.

The Fab Five

Analysts have traced the Chattanooga “culture of cooperation” and “era of enlightenment” to five factors that converged to make it possible:

A clear regional vision. Public and private leaders came together to reach consensus on an agenda for growth.

Public processes to set goals. The plan created in 1984 led to the Aquarium opening in 1992, and the success from that led to a three-year, $120 million 21st Century Waterfront Plan.

One-stop design center. Setting higher design standards and becoming the vehicle for problem-solving, the focus was kept on quality and livability.

Portable planning for neighborhoods. A process was set up in which the city identifies priority zones, a nonprofit organization works with neighborhood citizens to set goals and the development agency follows with plans of action. It’s produced two downtown magnet schools, incentives for corporate and public employees to buy homes and jumps in property values of 60 percent in four years.

Design excellence. Chattanooga’s unyielding obsession with high-quality, well-designed infrastructure created walkable, pleasing experiences that connect public space with development.

Milestones Of Success

Key benchmarks on the Chattanooga timeline include much more than the Aquarium. Other milestones from the momentum are renovation of the Walnut Street Bridge for pedestrian use between south and north shore developments, 1993; multi-family housing at Riverset Apartments, 1994; opening of the Creative Discovery Museum, 1995; IMAX theater opens, 1996; Coolidge Park opens on north shore, 1999; BellSouth baseball park opens on south shore, 2000; groundbreaking for two new schools, 2001; rollout of the 21st Waterfront Plan including museum improvements, waterfront piers and redesign of the Riverfront Parkway from four lanes to two lanes through downtown, 2002; and completion of 21st Waterfront Plan, 2005.

Chattanooga’s version of the RDC – The RiverCity Company – led the transformation, including the 21st Century Waterfront Plan, and along the way, it leveraged $12 million in seed money into $1.5 billion in private investment.

In addition, special attention was given to connectivity, and the most dramatic example of it was the reduction of the four-lane Riverfront Parkway to two lanes so museums would have river access and so development parcels could be created. In addition, an impressive glass pedestrian bridge connected the once-isolated Hunter Museum of American Art into the fabric of downtown.

Common Ground

Since its opening in 1992, the Tennessee Aquarium has attracted more than one million visitors, and the area adjacent to the aquarium on the south shore quickly became the city’s most popular common ground, made even more popular by the addition of a well-designed, newly-constructed project where visitors to the river could enjoy scenic vistas, participate in river events and gather for civic celebrations. It’s a reminder of the impact that can come from a project like the proposed Beale Street Landing at the foot of Beale Street (although the Memphis project is more context sensitive).

To make connections easier, with the opening of the aquarium, an electric-powered shuttle was added, but it was there to do more than provide transportation. For a city maligned as the most polluted in the nation, the shuttle became a symbol of a commitment to more environmentally sensitive policies. The shuttle eliminates an estimated 130,000 pounds of diesel particulates.

Today, Chattanooga bears little resemblance to the sad city that we knew a couple of decades ago. Back then, all of its stories were about the ones that got away – how Coca-Cola started there but left for Atlanta and how the New York Times Company began but left for the Big Apple.

Good News, Bad News

The good news is that these companies, plus steel and chemicals, created wealth that’s found now in foundations that have invested in the waterfront improvements. There are always serious bumps in the road (including election of a new mayor who campaigned as an anti-urban design candidate and whose rhetoric bordered on anti-intellectualism), but that is the nature of city development in general.

The truth is that there are no magic answers that can be transplanted from city to city. The truth is that by the time that something’s called a best practice, it no longer is. The truth is that Memphis needs to quit chasing the last, greatest answer to its problems.

That said, there are few things as instructive as taking the lessons that come from cities that have faced similar challenges, and one of these is 330 miles away in Chattanooga.


Anonymous said...

If Memphis' plan has that much GREEN space in it then I would be in favor of the new riverfront plan. So far all I have seen is concrete, concrete, and more concrete. Way too HOT in Memphis for all that hard surfacing on the river.

Anonymous said...

I think a Downtown Design Center would be a good idea. Some place where meetings can consistantly take place and where the public can drop off suggestions and have questions answered.

That said, I like the Beale Street landing idea, although I'm skeptical of the RDC's promenade plan. It needs more work.

Smart City Consulting said...

Actually, the riverfront plan here has more green space than Chattanooga. The photo of the downtown riverfront posted to the blog looks awfully "concretey" to us.

We also need to think of our riverfront as more than just the downtown part of it, although this clearly is the showpiece. We need to think of ways to envision the the riverfront from T. O. Fuller - the only state park inside Memphis and one of the nation's first African-American state parks - in the south to northward to Frayser. That kind of connectivity is what Chattanooga did best, and it shows. We can use the riverfront to connect the city, rather than to divide it.

But looking strictly at downtown, the amount of green space now and the green space that would exist after the implementation of the riverfront plan would be essentially the same. Interestingly, one of the unintended consequences of killing the "land bridge" is that it eliminated some greenspace there also.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, one of the unintended consequences of killing the "land bridge" is that it eliminated some greenspace there also.

Utter bull. What are you smoking?

No, we killed millions of square feet of mixed development and hundreds of $ millions of more debt that this town of vacant buildings needed like it needed another hole in its pothole-riddled streets.

Smart City Consulting said...

Well, clearly, we see things differently.

The area that would have been created as part of that concept could have transformed downtown and created space that would have had mixed use, density, and all the other things that we need more of. It would have been a dynamic riverfront that would have rivalled any in the U.S., and it would not have created the kinds of debt that's being created by the more than $600 million in roads to sprawl-land.

Anonymous said...

While I certainly don't think you've been "smoking" anything, I do think anonymous@12:46 makes a smallish point. Doesn't the benefit of density come from people, not just buildings?

I realize it's not exactly affordable for most of Memphians, it would seem like the recent spat of condo building put plenty of housing in place if someone wanted to move into downtown and I know full well that there are plenty of places along Main for businesses to move into. So, and I swear I'm not just trying to be contrary, I fail to see how privatizing more of the riverfront would "create" density downtown.

Signed most sincerely,
A citizen of sprawl-land
(Memphis, 38134)

Smart City Consulting said...

It was about creating new waterfront, and if it doesn't exist now, how was it going to be privatized? It was about setting up a business model - think of Baltimore Harbor - where development was made possible and created the revenues to pay its debt.

Unfortunately, some of what passes for density downtown is essentially suburban models brought to the river.

Thanks for the comments

Anonymous said...

I do not like Baltimore Harbor - it was tacky to me and in no way IMHO attractive. Again - lots of concrete, subpar restaurants and "touristy" spots. Before you mentioned Baltimore Harbor I had always thought "I hope our new riverfront does not end up like that"...well looks like it will. What a shame.

Smart City Consulting said...

Well, you form a very small group of people who don't like Baltimore Harbor, not only for the way it upgraded the area but that it repositioned Baltimore's brand and improved its economy.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps that is true in that Baltimore harbor brought in tourist dollars and if that is all the Memphis riverfront plan is about then so be it. As a tourist to Baltimore it did not make me want to return nor would I recommend it to anyone as a must-see while in Baltimore...there has to be a better way of improving an area that does not involve miles of concrete and strategically placed t-shirt shops...

Smart City Consulting said...

I respect your opinion on this one for sure. It just seems to me that in Baltimore, it wasn't really about catching tourist dollars, any more than it is here.

It's all about giving the city a new vibrant brand, presenting a new face to the nation and showing that a status quo attitude is no longer prevalent there.

Accepting the premise (if you can) that the riverfront is underused, that the garages are eyesores and that the fire department HQ needs to be relocated and that the library site needs to become a showplace, what are your suggestions for improving the riverfront by making it more vibrant, more multi-use, etc.

I'd love for you to riff on this some with the idea that we might post it to our weekly suggestion box feature. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Accepting the premise (if you can) that the riverfront is underused,

A. Give the public more reasons to come there and enjoy it, while taking away the reasons they don't.

that the garages are eyesores

A. Tear them down.

and that the fire department HQ needs to be relocated

A. Relocate it.

and that the library site needs to become a showplace

A. Turn it into a showplace.

what are your suggestions for improving the riverfront by making it more vibrant, more multi-use, etc.

See above.

This has been another edition of simple answers to simple questions.

But these answers have been on the table for decades. Ask people again (as was done at the PPS workshop), and amazingly they still come up with these answers.

The better question is why these answers have been, and continue to be, ignored. If Smart City Memphis wants to contribute some knowledge to the subject, why not give us your honest answer to that question. (Hint: Lack of a Design Center is not the answer.)

Maybe the answer is because those are not the answers some people want to hear. Some people want to hear about putting millions of square feet of new private development (hotels, condos, office buildings, shopping plazas, and of course a Starbucks) smack dab on top of what is by history and law Memphis's premier public space, specifically, the last last four blocks of the bluff that has not already been turned over to private development. And if that were not enough, some people have proposed filling in the harbor and putting many millions more square feet of "multi-use" development, leaving only the cobblestones, surrounded in concrete like a mauseleum, as the last remaining vestige of what Memphis once was.

Anonymous said...

Dang. Somebody riffed on it for me - and did an excellent job I might add! I concur. I concur. I concur. Thanks.

LeftWingCracker said...

Anonymous 1:27 says it better than I could.


Smart City Consulting said...

Of course, under the much-hated RDC plan, there was just as much space that would be public, but we tend to fall in to such a pattern of reciting talking points on all sides that we obliterate an objective understanding of the facts.

I think we've pretty much said for two years what we think ought to be done. That's why we asked you. We of course never held up the design center as THE answer. The point of this post was that at least Chattanooga was bold enough to do something, which is the hardest step for our city to make.

It's our opinion that as long as we cling to the notion that the riverfront should be maintained as some movie set from a bygone age, Memphis loses one of its chief differentiator that can be a major competitive advantage for it in this economy.

If the idea is to tear down the garages and leave them open space and relocate the fire station and leave it as open space, it's not worth even doing. Until the riverfront is vibrant and alive and animated (with retail and shops and restaurants), it's a lost opportunity that becomes one of the many reasons that Memphis is at risk of being a non-starter in the competition for new jobs and talent.

We live and work a half-block from the riverfront, so we have emotional, economic and physical equity in it, but we can tell you from the lost ("There's no there there) looks on the thousands of people who walk by our office each year, more of the same begets more of the same. That's something we can't live with.

bob said...

It's our opinion that as long as we cling to the notion that the riverfront should be maintained as some movie set from a bygone age, Memphis loses one of its chief differentiator that can be a major competitive advantage for it in this economy.

You really ought to read my post, where I suggest that may be exactly the issue. Memphis doesn't want to remember its bygones!

That's not a snark. I'm dead serious.

By the same token, would you be suggesting we should just erase our history -- our unique differentiator -- and then have some architects, whether out-of-town or in-town, design a brand new identity (aka branding) for us?

That's also a serious question.

Smart City Consulting said...


And here's a serious answer. We're not saying that we should desecrate the riverfront or pillage it for high rises. We're saying that it is a differentiator for us, but in its present state, we shouldn't think that it is always an overwhelmingly positive one.

All of this is reminiscent of the 30 year battle at Shelby Farms Park. There were many of us who were unilaterally opposed to a road through the park and even some among us suggested that not a blade of grass should be cut.

But in the end, it became clear that an approach based on leaving it as it is would never capitalize on the potential of those 4,500 acres. So, we came (reluctantly, we admit) to see that we could reach a compromise on the road design and it could actually serve the park and that multiple uses are needed there for it to fully serve the needs of this city and claim its full potential.

We feel the same way about the riverfront. We can reclaim the public land now covered by some of the ugliest buildings in Memphis, the parking garages and the poorly designed fire headquarters, we can create some uses that enliven the riverfront, we can in the process attract new investment in downtown (and there's no high rises in this scenario), and we can still have the same amount of greenspace.

We don't want to sound too pessimistic about Memphis, but most of our work is outside of our city, and regardless of what our internal marketers are saying, our city is on a bubble and we are not keeping pace with other cities our size.

We've got to shake off the lethargy and imbue the economy with new energy and new money if we're to end the income disparity that mirrors our racial divide. At this point, Memphis isn't hitting the radar of companies making major investments in their futures, and a more active, multi-use, vibrant riverfront could be the differentiator that gets us serious national attention and sends the message that there's a new day here and they should pay attention to us.

The history of the riverfront is not of a place that was pristine and untouched and noncommercial. Fortunately, we reclaimed the riverfront from those uses, and now, we need to decide what the next era for the riverfront should be. In our mind, leaving it alone comes at great cost to our city's futur and we need to be leveraging every asset we have to be competitive.

Anonymous said...

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