The Chattanooga of yesteryear: A small industrial enclave blanketed with thick smog. Its people breathe air the federal government in 1969 calls the dirtiest in America. De-industrialization in the 1980s, however, triggers a socioeconomic crisis. Massive layoffs, a deteriorating infrastructure, and social tension lead to a more than 10 percent decline in population.
The Chattanooga of yesterday: Significant private and governmental resources are invested in an effort to transform the city and revitalize the downtown and riverfront areas. The Tennessee Aquarium opens in 1992, and the $120 million 21st Century Waterfront Plan is completed in 2005. In 2008, Volkswagen announces it will build its first new automotive manufacturing plant in the U.S. in over 30 years in the city. Two years later, Chattanooga launches the first one-gigabit-a-second Internet service in the U.S. through city-owned Electric Power Board of Chattanooga (EPB). The introduction of several business incubators in the city unleashes an explosion of successful start-ups. Population losses are recouped. Transformed, the city begins winning national awards for livability, affordability, housing, and more.
The Chattanooga of today: In the words of Mayor Andy Berke, “the greatest mid-sized city in America.”
There’s just one niggling problem. The Chattanooga of tomorrow is being built using the zoning codes of yesteryear.
Mayor Berke was aware of this problem, and a year ago put together a task force, called Chattanooga Forward, to solve it. Members from a variety of backgrounds spent several months investigating and discussing a variety of topics, and then made their recommendations to the mayor.
One of their suggestions was to change the city to form-based codes. Berke liked the idea because he wants the people of Chattanooga to have input into where the city is headed. “Form-based codes are people-centric,” he said. “They’re about getting people who care about their city involved, asking them what they want to see, and then making it happen.”
Enter the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, which on behalf of the City of Chattanooga is working with Code Studio of Austin, Texas to develop a form-based code for five downtown neighborhoods: North Shore, Riverfront, City Center, ML King, and Southside.
Starting Saturday, March 7 and ending Thursday, March 12, a team of 12 consultants from disciplines ranging from design, to transportation and parking, to historical preservation worked with residents from each neighborhood as well as local stakeholders to begin molding and shaping the new form-based code.
Out of those intensive brainstorming sessions, called charrettes, came big ideas:
The residents in North Shore want to preserve established single-family areas, encourage appropriately-scaled businesses along its corridors, and promote a higher quality of design.
People in the Riverfront and City Center areas want to take better advantage of the river, make sure new housing is compatible with that part of the city, and improve access to existing parking lots.
The residents of ML King want more density in the single-family areas, and to encourage bike connectivity.
The people of Southside also want better connectivity, along with a more walkable neighborhood and better parking – but not at the expense of diversity. They want to encourage mixed use zoning, which would entail keeping the industrial portions of the neighborhood but cleaning them up and creating a buffer between them and the residential areas.
It’s a tall order, but the roots are in the ground. When Code Studio gave its work-in-progress presentation to the public on March 12, the walls of Bessie Smith were papered with drawings and paintings that showed what the Chattanooga of tomorrow could look like someday. Each area retained its character, but was also filled in with new developments that fit the vision of the residents and were sensitive to the environment and context around them. North Shore had an extended waterfront, Riverfront and City Center had less surface parking and active developments in their empty spaces, ML King had more housing options, and Southside had a vastly improved Main Street.
A clearly proud Mayor Berke gushed on the people of Chattanooga before he praised the work of Code Studio.
“People admire Chattanooga because it’s a city in which the citizens take control of their destiny,” he said, speaking to a gathering of over 100. “We come together, talk, work things out, and then take action. What we’ve seen over the last week is in the best tradition of Chattanooga.”
While Mayor Berke said not everyone would be happy with everything that was drawn, he said there was consensus on a great number of things that will move the city toward greater prosperity and better quality of life. “We want developers to have predictability so they can complete their projects and save money. We want our residents to have predictability so they’ll know whether or not they should buy a house and put money into it. Ultimately, we want everyone to feel good about where they live and what they can do in their neighborhood,” he said.
During the work-in-progress presentation, Code Studio principal Lee Einsweiler said zoning in Chattanooga could come in of several varieties offering several building types and uses.
Detached residential zones would allow for a number of detached single-family housing options, while attached residential zones would add attached single-family housing options such as row houses. Multi-unit residential zones would allow for the widest variety of housing options, including multi-family structures no taller than two to three stories.
Neighborhood mixed use zones would allow for a variety of uses and building types, including everything from shop fronts to single-family dwellings, although again, buildings would be no taller than two to three stories.
Einsweiler said the next step up would involve mixed use zoning “on a more intense scale, with buildings ranging from two to three stories high to as tall as existing buildings downtown.”
Rounding out the varities of zoning Einsweiler predicts could be a part of Chattanooga’s new form-based code would be retail, heavy commercial, hybrid industrial, industrial, civic, and parks and open space.
Einsweiler then showed how the many kinds of zoning could come together in each of the five neighborhoods for which Code Studio is developing form-based code.
“The North Shore is one of those places that because of its present value and anticipated future value will likely see a lot of activity,” Einsweiler said as he displayed watercolor paintings ranging from present-day North Shore to a future North Shore with more retail activity and an extended waterfront.
“You might build along the water, but pull everything back so you have a riverfront connection,” he said.
Einsweiler then used a present-day photograph of Publix, with its expansive parking lot, as an example of where North Shore residents said they feel the city’s C-7 guidelines failed them. Not to worry, he said, because this is in fact not irreversible.
“Good things can happen to supplement what’s already there,” Einsweiler said as he displayed the same photograph modified to include modest storefronts, structured parking, street trees, and a gazebo. “We can imagine a day when the surface parking is no longer necessary, and instead we might have some additional development and structured parking on this site.
“We could even add bicycle lanes so you might be comfortable getting groceries on your bike and then heading back to your neighborhood.
“This is just an example of what can happen when you think forward. Publix was never going to build structured parking upon initial investment in that property, but as they become a more important part of this neighborhood and the residential areas around them grow, creating greater demand, we can see a time when someone might build these shops and the structured parking behind them.”
Riverfront and City Center
Einsweiler called the Riverfront and the City Center area “the most intense and one of the most interesting areas” due to its surplus of office space. “You’re not likely to see a lot of new towers built here anytime soon because of the need to absorb the space that’s been available downtown since Blue Cross Blue Shield moved out,” he said. “If towers are coming, they’ll be either a hotel or a residential tower. Your next office tower won’t come until about 2020 or later.”
Moving foward, Einsweiler sees not just a reduction in surface parking but an elimination of it, with structured parking taking its place. He also anticipates active developments in currently empty lots, with the buildings adding to the urban form and other features that create a more walkable downtown.
“Essentially, we see a more filled up, complete downtown,” he said.
Einsweiler used words like “fascinating” and “frustrating” to describe the ML King neighborhood.
“It was frustrating to hear that it had been skipped over in regard to streetscaping because the community couldn’t envision what wide sidewalks, great lighting, street trees, and other elements could do for it,” he said. “Instead, that money was spent on Main Street, which is a lovely area.”
Einsweiler’s team and the residents of ML King see a better and more eclectic future for the area, however – one that includes larger buildings in the industrial areas and more housing options, including tiny houses, cottage courtyards, and other modest scale, affordable dwellings.
Einsweiler also sees a more connected neighborhood. “If you look at our drawings, you’ll see places you could cut through to make the area more functional and connected,” he said.
While discussing ML King, Einsweiler displayed a dramatic reconstruction of Martin Luther King Boulevard that included a median, bicycle lanes, better lighting, and buildings two and three stories tall that filled in the gaps along the street. “These things would be subject to the new rules,” he said.
They would also be designed to deal with storm water, with permeable paving in parking spaces and parking bump-outs with storm water rain gardens. “If we begin to manage storm water closer to where it falls, then you’ll be helping out the sewer runoff you have going on,” Einsweiler said. “It’s important to think about how your public infrastructure can be a part of the solution to that problem because it can’t all occur on private property.”
Southside has what Einsweiler called “the least clear future in the project area.” Perhaps as a result, it was also the neighborhood with the most participation during the charrettes. “Southside is already kind of mind-boggling, with a lot of intense activity, but it’s going to grow in ways I don’t think we can begin to understand,” he said.
Einsweiler did offer a sense of what might happen, including a fair amount of redevelopment to the south, where large industrial parcels occupy most of the real estate. He expects these developments, which could include a new car dealership, to formalize the urban patterns seen there today. “Things are all over the place right now. They’re pulled up to the street, they’re not pulled up to the street, and there are small things and big things all comingled,” he said. “We’re likely to see more consistent patterns in the future.”
Einsweiler also foresees adding more housing to create a more conjoined neighborhood as opposed to the three separate pockets of residential housing that exist there today.
His primary focus, however, was Main Street, seen in a photograph looking northwest from Main Street and Mitchell Avenue, with a dilapidated building on the left and a row of buildings and some surface parking lining the road to the right.
“This is going to be a great Main Street someday, but you have to sensitively fill it in; otherwise, you’re going to blow it,” he said. “The character of this area is what attracts people to it, so do things that encourage people to be there. Fill in the space along the block face with the kinds of things that make a Main Street exciting, fill in the surface parking with structured parking, and put down some ‘sharrows’ to let bicyclists know this is the right place to be.”
A modified version of the photo showed these features as well as other tactical touches, including a parking space that had been turned into an extension of a cafe – which Einsweiler suggested would be beneficial after more parking resources are available.
Code Studio has packed their bags and returned home, but they’re far from done. Over the next 60 days, Einsweiler and company will be preparing a comprehensive report based on the charrettes. They will then present the report to City Council. “I don’t want to draft a new code for this area without asking the City Council if they think we’re heading in the right direction,” Einsweiler said.
Einsweiler expects to have a draft of the form-based code prepared by this fall, and said adoption hearings could take place as soon as next winter.
The residents of Chattanooga aren’t done either, Mayor Berke said. Rather, he wants the people of the city to continue the conversation they’re having about the Chattanooga of tomorrow. “Stay involved, and make sure this is the best code Chattanooga can have,” Berke said. “We’re in control of our own destiny, and that’s why we’re the greatest mid-sized city in America.”
For more photos, pick up a copy of the Hamilton County Herald.