citybeat (2007-12)

Local developers take issue with proposed MPC guidelines

The once-demure UT Gardens make a statement

Wednesday, March 14

By Design?

Are proposed new downtown design guidelines helpful in promoting harmonious downtown development, or a hindrance to center-city entrepreneurs who already must clear several economic and regulatory hurdles? City Council will decide when it votes on the second and final reading of the proposed guidelines on Tuesday, March 27. Council unanimously approved the guidelines on first reading on March 13.

The guidelines, which were posted on Jan. 4 after a year-long formulation process through a steering committee working in conjunction with the Metropolitan Planning Commission, address a broad range of planning and design issues from signage and street setbacks to building finishing materials. If the guidelines pass on second reading, they will be used by a nine-member committee to review all new building projects as well as renovations to existing properties. All projects will have to receive a certificate of appropriateness from the committee in order to proceed.

But 14 prominent downtown developers have signed a letter authored by preservationist developer Patrick Hunt asking that Council identify guidelines that deal specifically with building-design issues, as opposed to urban-design issues, and make them voluntary for a term of at least one year, subject to a review at the end of the term.

"It gives the appearance that they're trying to prescribe a style of architecture downtown," says architect Buzz Goss. "And that's so subjective I don't see how you can guide it. Those are things that change dramatically over the years. Downtown is complex and diverse, and people are going to build according to the times."

Goss's company, Goss Piercy Goss Architecture, is a partner in the rebuilding/redevelopment of the Crimson Building on Gay Street, which was gutted by fire in 2005. Their plan calls for two additional floors to be built onto the new version of the Crimson, a move Goss says would be considered inappropriate according to one section of the proposed guidelines. "We found that the economics of building as it was before is not economically feasible, and that adding two floors is the way to overcome our shortfall," he says.

But MPC director Mark Donaldson says the guidelines are intended to be flexible, and that the nine-member review committee has the freedom to review individual projects in their totality, rather than reject projects out of hand based on the letter of the guidelines.

"There are few actual standards as far as architecture and building elements are concerned," says Donaldson. "The committee isn't likely to mess with your project because of the mutton bars on your windows."

Donaldson and other proponents of the proposed guidelines also say that the developers have waited until the tail end of the process to raise their concerns.

But some developers say such accusations aren't entirely fair. "Speaking for myself, it wasn't always clear to me that there would be a nine-man committee granting certificates of appropriateness based on design aspects," says Jeffrey Nash, whose downtown developments include Keystone Place on Church Avenue.

"It's difficult enough to renovate these old buildings," Nash says. "I don't want to see anything that will add more tiers to the process."

Bold and Organic

On the Agricultural side of campus, just off Neyland Drive near the Third Creek Bike Trail, are the University of Tennessee Gardens--formerly known as the Trial Gardens. They were originally established as a green laboratory for experimental study by UT students and professors, but for anyone with a mild interest in gardening or botany, the 10-acre garden has long been a pageant of floral diversity, especially in the spring, with its 3,000 different varieties of trees, shrubs, flowers, and herbs. But it's always had a kind of unfinished aspect to it, as if it wasn't quite ready for visitors. For much of its history, visitors may have felt obliged to keep an eye out, suspecting they're trespassing.

"We get 50,000 visitors a year, without visitor amenities," admits Theresa Pepin, executive director of Friends of the UT Gardens. The place has succeeded to some degree in spite of some problems. "There have been problems with sub-surface drainage," she says. "The gardens have grown topsy turvy." An unleveled surface made it a problem for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

All that's being fixed this spring, including a level grade to meet ADA standards. Currently under construction this month is a new Entrance Plaza, organized by the Friends of the UT Gardens.

"The design is quite extraordinary," says Pepin. "It's very bold, very organic." She mentions in particular the incorporation of about a dozen "shade sails" for cutting UV rays. They provide visitors with relief from the heat and glare without compromising the outside aspect of the experience. Shade sails are large, sculptural stretches of nylon fabric, reputedly an innovation out of Australia--and to judge by the renderings on the website ( ), the new entrance might bear some family resemblance to the Sydney Opera House. It'll be eye-catching.

Pepin, who was partly raised in Paris and misses the idea of urban public gardens, says the new entrance is "designed to be a much more multi-functional plaza for the 10-acre public garden. It serves the function of a public park, with no support from the city or county. It's intended to be a garden that demonstrated plants, and how they do well in Tennessee. Gardeners can come and see plants, and decide whether they want to get them for themselves."

The design was the result of a student competition, judged by local landscape architects. The winner was UT landscape-design undergraduate Tony Clark. The improvements will cost a quarter of a million, all of it donated from private funding through the Friends. Further enhancing the gardens' makeover may be sculptures from local artists like marble sculptor Bruce Bennett and metalworker Preston Farrabow.

"We mean to have it all finished by the end of June, and the Bloomsday Festival," Pepin says. "This year, it will be covered in Southern Living . We expect a lot of visitors. We usually get 2,000, but we expect more due to the media coverage."

Her next priority is finding a new director or professor "to lead the gardens toward a much larger vision as a major public garden in Tennessee." Specifically, she acknowledges there's a good deal of interest in founding a state botanical garden on campus. Tennessee's said to be the only state in the Southeast without a state botanical garden; in other states, they're typically established at the flagship university campus.

The Gardens and their supportive Friends celebrate their 25th anniversary together next year. Pepin is looking forward to celebrating with a lecture series.



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