commentary (2005-51)

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Look South, South Knoxville

Fables of pre-Reconstruction construction

Look South, South Knoxville

by Matt Edens

Two weeks ago in this space, when I advocated that the redevelopment of South Knoxville’s waterfront adhere to New Urbanist principles, little did I know that I was blundering into what is shaping up to be an incredibly bitter architectural and ideological dispute. Although for now, the controversy isn’t a local one—at least not yet.  

Currently the eye of the storm is over the Gulf Coast, where the state of Mississippi’s post-Katrina reconstruction efforts have embraced New Urbanist planning concepts that put pedestrian amenities at a premium and attempt to preserve, or at least recapture, some of the character and convenience of traditional small towns.

But if you think all the post-storm sturm und drang is due to the homebuilders, realtors, developers and assorted other sprawl-spreaders, you’d be wrong. The objections, overwhelmingly, aren’t because the conservative property-rights crowd went bananas saying the redevelopment plans run roughshod over every American’s God-given right to a three-car garage on the cul-de-sac. No, it’s because of some folks on the progressive left who are pissed off by the push for denser, more pedestrian-oriented development along the Gulf Coast.

Much of the controversy centers around the fact that the architecture of most, but not all, New Urbanist developments have been neo-traditional in style, often drawing inspiration and precedent from local vernacular styles or even local, extant, buildings in the case of infill development. The Mississippi plans (available for download at www.mississippirenewal.com ) are no exception, with renderings and sketches that reflect the region’s rich architectural heritage.

That comfort with traditional architecture is the source of most of the criticism. Some of it comes from Modernists (advocates of an architectural movement that is itself, coincidentally, some 85 years old), who scoff at many bourgeois-friendly New Urbanist developments as bogus and cartoonish. Worse, New Urbanism has begun making inroads in two of Modernist architecture’s old mainstays—university facilities and federal housing programs (Mechanicsville’s Hope VI redevelopment was essentially New Urbanist).

Others, lately, see something far more sinister behind the bucolic sketches of new neighborhoods evocative of old-fashioned small towns. Looking at the Mississippi Renewal project’s renderings of graceful, Greek Revival-style houses and shady streets lined with trees, all some critics see is the forest—Nathan Bedford Forrest, that is. “With Gone with the Wind as their apparent script,” writer Mike Davis claims in Mother Jones that the New Urbanists rode into town and “whipped up a revivalistic fervor that must have been pleasing to Barbour (Mississippi Governor Harley Barbour) and other descendants of the slave masters.” Which strikes me as reading a bit much into a remark by New Urbanist architect and planning effort organizer Andres Duany that “the architectural heritage of Mississippi is fabulous.”

Heritage is a loaded word in Mississippi, but the supposedly progressive critics seem to be judging the New Urbanists’ efforts entirely on a handful of hand-colored artists’ renderings and not on the content of the actual plans. The result is that an op-ed writer for Mother Jones , of all publications, is arguing against a plan for denser, less auto-dependent development that would leave much of the coast uncluttered by the sprawling subdivisions and commercial strips that, pre-Katrina, were the primary form of real estate along this Redneck Riviera (the New Urbanist plan even calls for converting an unused CSX freight line into a light rail system connecting the coastal communities).

By focusing on the pretty pictures, the critics miss the point. It is the urban design that truly matters. The neo-traditional architectural styles are mere marketing, a sugar coating to make the denser, urban-oriented development appealing to the average homebuilder and buyer.

That doesn’t mean the denser development couldn’t be done in more Modernist styles. Just days ago I chanced upon some San Diego townhouses that illustrate how that can be done ( www.sandiegodowntown.info/rowhomes.html).  ; Constructed of steel, glass and the tilt-up concrete panels more commonly seen in commercial construction, they’re simple, sleek and clean-lined, but also thoroughly urban in the way they line the street. I hope something of the sort gets proposed someplace downtown or over along the SoKno waterfront.

But that’s just my opinion. Ultimately, whatever takes shape on the south bank—whether it’s New Urbanist and neo-traditional or more Modernist and avante-garde—South Knoxville should largely have the final say.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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