Mar 092015

With its superfast broadband, the city has reinvented itself. Now it must safeguard its future by building to sustain that growth.

Image Flickr/Andrew Steele
Flickr/Andrew Steele

Chattanooga gets a lot of press thanks to its smart-grid Internet. Both The New York Times and The Guardian ran affectionate spreads of “Gig City” this past year. Both mentioned that Chattanooga residents can download a two-hour movie in under a minute. And both mentioned that the city’s economy has been revolutionized as Chattanooga emerges as a destination for tech-driven innovation.

But there are other valuable infrastructure lessons being hashed out in Tennessee’s fourth-largest city. Chattanooga is aiming to build on the reputation it’s earned from its world-class broadband service. The goal is to make the city a sustainable innovation hub, showing that it’s a well-rounded city rather than a one-trick pony. Evidence of this forward-thinking strategy can be seen in an ambitious expansion of housing downtown—known locally as the City Center—which is aimed at attracting young professionals that value walkable urban cores.

The latest downtown housing effort began in 2013, three years after the city’s gigabit Internet was first introduced. The community was of course enthused by the changes they were seeing in the city. But to local policymakers, the level of housing density in downtown Chattanooga was far from ideal. Over 50,000 people showed up to work there each day, but a dearth of adequate housing prevented many of them from moving there. Over the course of several months, more than 70 local stakeholders came together to identify 22 downtown buildings that needed to be remodeled (some razed) to make room for new housing.

The downtown structures being transformed into modern housing in downtown Chattanooga. (Courtesy of River City Company)

“We knew we had to get some things together to really catalyze development in this area,” says Amy Donahue of River City Company, a nonprofit development group that led the effort. Most of the properties they targeted were vacant and antiquated. Still, their value was clear: Most were within walkable distance to the local public university and surrounding restaurants and coffee shops. And the picturesque Tennessee River was right around the corner. Also, many were revered hotels and office buildings that told the history of the city—relics from an industrial-boom after WWII. In total, 1,260 new housing units were planned to occupy the fallow buildings. A year and a half later, Chattanooga’s urban core is showing signs of a more vibrant residential area.

Already, 11 out of 22 buildings have been redeveloped or are in the process of being redeveloped, according to Donahue. Why have the structures flipped so quickly? One reason is that tech-focused venture capital firms have been getting into the mix—recognizing that downtown housing goes hand in hand with start-up activity.

Of the most recent proposals is a 43-unit microhousing project. The units will be built in a former hotel dating back to 1888, and will feature 300-400 square foot co-living spaces that are expected to cost roughly $850 per month to rent. Named the Tomorrow Building, the project is led by the Lamp Post Group, a well-known local venture capital firm that finances a number of Chattanooga-based startups. Joda Thongnopnua, Lamp Post’s communications director, says he sees the project bringing a variety of changes to downtown. Best case scenario: Entrepreneurs from other tech hubs relocate to Chattanooga. In turn, more and better start-up activity takes off. But equally importantly will be the project’s sidewalk-level retail. These types of social spots that accompany new housing, Thongnopnua says, is what will densify the city.

The exterior of the future Tomorrow Building (Courtesy of the Lamp Post Group)
An area in the microhousing project will feature an innovation room, where entrepreneurs can collaborate on projects. (Courtesy of the Lamp Post Group)
Located downtown, the units will likely generate foot traffic to neighboring coffee shops and retail stores. (Courtesy of the Lamp Post Group)

A denser downtown may prove to be more important to Chattanooga’s tech scene than the speed of its Internet. A 2014 study by Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program concluded that density “enhances innovation.” Yet, compared to rival and aspirational start-up cities, Chattanooga lags behind in urban density.

The demand for downtown housing is clearly there, however. And the need to diversify the attractiveness of Chattanooga beyond its Internet-centric image is increasingly apparent. “Chattanooga can’t keep relying on the ‘Gig-City’ thing,” Carson Kahn, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur, says. Kahn was selected to participate in an innovation delegation held in Chattanooga in 2014, and is enthusiastic about the city’s downtown area. He told me the aesthetics were “incredible.” But Kahn expressed concern about Chattanooga’s viability unless the city can offer a wider basket of resources to entrepreneurs. “[The fiber Internet] makes for a great nickname,” but, “past that, Chattanooga’s going to have to find out what its real advantages are.”

That was made even clearer by a Federal Communications Commission ruling last week. The decision struck down regulations—in Tennessee and North Carolina—that largely prevent publicly owned broadband services from expanding. That’s not entirely bad news for Chattanooga—for now. If the FCC ruling isn’t shot down by an appellate court, according to reports, Chattanooga will have the right to offer its fiber Internet to new municipalities. But if Chattanooga-style Internet sweeps across the country, implies David Dayen of The New Republic, Chattanooga will look a lot less special. “The ruling has major implications for promoting competition, increasing broadband speeds, and perhaps even making broadband speeds look more like electricity,” he writes.

But a city smart enough to build America’s best Internet infrastructure is smart enough to know that can’t be the end of its urban planning. Chattanooga essentially won a second shot at life with its revolutionary Internet service. And it hasn’t simply sat on its winnings. Chattanooga’s future will hinge on a broad range of infrastructure investment rather than simply its Internet—and that’s a sustainable future.

Original article.

Jan 102015

“Strategic disturbance … is the key to … environmental innovation.”

“We are not anti-techmology … what we like … is technology that allows us to better … bio-mimic the patterns.”

Joel Salatin, Polyface Farms

“For the last 3 years we have been filming a documentary on the renowned Polyface Farm & it’s broad community of 5000 families within a 3 hour ‘Foodshed’ of this unique operation in Swoope, Virginia. This farm is a wonderful example of how to feed people & produce food without the use of harmful chemicals, whilst regenerating landscapes & soils, respecting animals & re-invigorating local communities.”

Future of Food – Joel Salatin – Polyface Farms

Future of Food – Darren Doherty – Permaculture Master

Jan 082015


“The new vision of the future suggests that driving per capita will essentially remain flat in the future. The benchmark is important because excessively high estimates of future driving volume get used to justify wasteful spending on new and wider highways. In the face of scarce transportation funds, overestimates of future driving translate into too little attention paid to repairing the roads we already have and too little investment in other modes of travel.”

“For U.S. DOT to embrace a future less dominated by driving, it first must recognize when change has occurred and that a different trajectory is possible. Quiet and incremental as the current changes may be, they represent a profound step in the right direction.”

Original Article

Nov 112014

A Proposal:

Oxnard Blvd as AN URBAN RESIDENTIAL COMPLETE STREETS CORRIDOR from the 101 to Pleasant Valley Road.

The concept is that the Oxnard Boulevard corridor be rezoned (as a ‘form based code’ or in some way codified to – encourage and incentivize – mixed use and housing) for retail at the street level with diverse residential above. 4, 5 and perhaps 6 story residential buildings with higher end homes at the top level and all nature of dwellings below: Singles, one – two – three and even four bedrooms units with appropriately sized attached outdoor spaces and gardens. Providing housing options for multi-generational needs, seniors, small families, empty nesters and more. All mixed to make a rich diversity for housing along the Blvd. “To the extent possible we should aim at “flooding” the market with housing, in order to make it affordable to all, not just to build affordable housing.”

In addition the new Blvd will be a tree lined pedestrian and bicycle friendly model of a walkable community the entire length of the new urban corridor, in other words Oxnard Blvd will become a Complete Street. Transportation planners – listen up – as a society we are moving towards more public transportation and much smaller vehicles and away from wide auto dominated speedways that destroy a livable walkable urban landscape.

The new Blvd will have the look and feel of a more urban space with pocket parks and other civic amenities (public art and more) along the spine. This is not a rigid idea – it’s an idea with lots of flexibility built in. Many variations and permutations within the basic theme of housing and retail concentrated along a walkable urban corridor. Each block along the current corridor is different, suggesting and evoking variations on the general theme of an urban residential street.

It is expected that Ventura County, a very desirable and attractive – if less well known area, will experience a strong demand for housing going into the future. This project location will link the LA area via Santa Monica and Malibu to all points north, starting here in Ventura County, onto Santa Barbara County, with Central California and points north. The mix of housing types will, in part, be aimed at Millennials and other savvy urban seeking young people and tech workers. Creative development options, like those proposed here, reduces the pressure to sprawl with its detrimental effects on cities – and enhances our quality of life.

Oxnard has a historic district that may not want a downtown with all the hustle and bustle to encroach into the area. With this plan Oxnard downtown remains A, B, and C streets. There are a number of historic business and buildings along the corridor. These entities must be respected and integrated into the fabric of this plan.

The Blvd will provide auto, bus, and perhaps other (innovative) access from Pleasant Valley to the 101 via this route. However, the Oxnard downtown area (A, B, and C streets) from 1st or 2nd streets to 8th or 9th streets will have streets designed in such a way as to connect the downtown with the Blvd, and perhaps a walking link from the downtown to the Blvd at 2nd and or 6th street.

Many ideas have been proposed for a vital downtown Oxnard and upgraded Blvd, but I am not aware of anyone suggesting this concept. As I think about it this it’s not so much about downtown as it is about creating an urban residential corridor on the Blvd. A few nodes of “neighborhood centers” along the spine of housing will develop – which I perceive as a good thing, as well as helping our current downtown grow in the future.

All too often parking is the form generator for cities. Clearly this is not a good way to plan for the future. The residential structures I am proposing for the Oxnard Blvd Urban Residential Corridor may have parking at the street level behind retail and perhaps on the second floor with residential above. This second floor parking might (will) be designed so it can be easily converted into residential or office space as we advance further into a world where we use public transportation and bicycles more and cars less. Also with appropriate public transportation, perhaps we plan for one parking space in the residential structure and another in a easily accessible parking structure near by. Or a credit of some kind is given for only one parking space.

Currently Oxnard Blvd has a shabby look with empty lots and the remnants of auto dealers, strip malls, and other old worn out buildings lining a rundown road. The above ideas have the potential to make Oxnard Blvd and the City of Oxnard a leader in transportation planning and housing innovation in Ventura County.

Roy Prince Architect

While most of the ideas and concepts above are my own (of course they are in the public domain and have been used elsewhere), I did get feedback and refinement from other stakeholders in our community, and for this I am grateful.

Nov 062014

The point is most younger people today do not want to be bound by the auto bug – and they do not want to live in suburbia. If we want a vibrant downtown Oxnard we will work to eliminate sprawl and make our downtown a vibrant place to live and work.

“Millennials are relatively averse to driving, and especially concerned about the costs of doing so. If you have to drive a car to get around, that can cancel out savings from living in an area with cheaper housing. The average cost of owning, insuring, maintaining, and gassing up a car is more than $9,000 a year, according to AAA. Beyond cost of living, there’s quality of life. The average commuter in Houston wastes 58 hours a year stuck in traffic, and that wasted time has an economic value too — $1,322, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. (Of course, the dense, transit-rich cities also have bad traffic, but they have better options for non-drivers.)”

Read the entire grist article.

Jul 172013

The Partnership for Working Families has created two smart documents to help us sort out the mysteries of municipal trash services. Lots of great info to help us understand the ins and outs of urban trash and how we can make Oxnard a leader in talking trash. Oxnard did it with water – now we have a great opportunity to tackle trash.

Transforming Trash in Urban America, a new report from the Partnership for Working Families, demonstrates that creating jobs and slowing climate change through a new approach to waste management is both possible and urgent for America’s largest cities.”

“Transforming the way local governments manage trash promises to improve conditions in many cities by turning bad jobs into good jobs, creating new employment, decreasing pollution, and lowering costs. Cities can move toward zero waste and capture a range of worker, community, and environmental benefits by introducing new systems for managing trash. Some cities are adopting a new approach toward recycling that delivers a range of public benefits. Sustainable recycling combines robust recycling programs with high road job quality and economic development policies. This approach contrasts with what exists in many cities, where there are low recycling rates and little attention is paid to the environment, workers, or communities. Together the elements of sustainable recycling create trash management systems that fight climate change, create family-sustaining jobs, and support strong local economies and healthy communities. This vision of clean, thriving cities requires policymakers and leaders to take an aggressive and proactive stance toward tackling trash problems.”

Click the links below to view these reports:

Transforming Trash in Urban America
Trash and Recycling Profiles of 37 Major American Cities



Must View

“If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”

– Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces


What’s the Big Idea?

  1. The current path cities are pursuing is not financially stable.
  2. The future for most cities will not resemble the recent past.
  3. The main determinant of future prosperity for cities will be local leaders’ ability to transform their communities.
Form Based Codes
“Why form-based codes? Because our current laws tend to separate where we live from where we work, learn, and shop, and insist on big, fast roads to connect them all. Roads that are unfriendly to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. As a result, North Americans spend more hours in their cars than anyone on earth, and a growing number of communities are working to do something about it.” [ ]

Tactical Urbanism

City Planning

City Planning & Urban Design

These firms and consultants seem to get it right

Economic Development

  • Safer Streets – Stronger Economies
  • Fiscal Implications of Development Patterns
  • A candid talk about the future of America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods
  • Competitive Cities for jobs and growth
    “While the report takes pains to note that there is no silver bullet for urban competitiveness, it identifies some key factors and strategies that bear on itThe most competitive cities focus on higher-skill tradable industries, attracting foreign investment, creating new businesses, and growing their existing, already competitive firms (which usually has the biggest impact on job creation). They also have strong growth coalitions of elected leaders, civic officials, and the private sector. Most importantly, they have a clear strategy to exploit their competitive advantages. In Bucaramanga, Colombia, for instance, the city has used its oil revenues to invest in universities known for their research on the oil industry—in turn generating technical skills and boosting human capital. It’s this kind of creative and independent thinking that allows cities to do a lot with a limited amount of resources.”
You Think You Know About Parking?
Design Review

Human Scale Design

Transportation Engineering
  • Context Based Design and the Fate of the Arterial
    A brief and urban look at the way a street engineer can make our streets walkable. The street engineer that pulls out the code book and tells you, with various official sounding citations, that making streets only for cars is the only thing that can be done – is regressive and does not understand where cities are going. We need street engineers that understand walkability, urbanism and placemaking. The code based street engineer is a dinosaur.
  • Institute of Transportation Engineers
    Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach