published Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Stroud Watson: The man behind Chattanooga's downtown revival

Scott Poole, left, the dean of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's College of Architecture and Design, and Amy Howard, the director of development at the college, discuss the exhibits at the Design Studio Retrospective.
Scott Poole, left, the dean of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's College of Architecture and Design, and Amy Howard, the director of development at the college, discuss the exhibits at the Design Studio Retrospective.
Photo by Alyson Wright.
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Design studio projects:

• Miller Plaza

• Tennessee Aquarium

• 21st Century Waterfront

• Downtown housing

• Southside redevelopment

• Fountain Square

• Market Street Depot

• City landscaping

Source: Chattanoogastudio.com

If you go:

What: Urban Design Studio retrospective

Why: An interactive temporary exhibit will showcase projects such as the development of Miller Plaza, the creation of the Tennessee Aquarium other downtown landmarks.

When: Public reception tonight at 5 p.m.

Where: 831 Chestnut St., the CitiPark Building

Who can come: Anyone

Hours of operation: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday through Oct. 25.

Contact: info@chattanoogastudio.com

Chattanooga's urban renaissance surged over three decades, through several recessions and recoveries.

A generation of residents spent untold man-hours in the design, construction and renovation of what are now city landmarks.

A few gave more than just time.

Chattanooga architect Stroud Watson gave the city a whole new vocabulary, teaching that downtown should be a living room made up of districts filled with defined edges and streetscapes.

Watson remains a striking, recognizable figure -- even to those who have never laid eyes on him. He simply can't be anyone else.

His face is engulfed by a vigorous white beard, punctuated by a pair of piercing, intelligent eyes. Along with his signature vest and ever-present scarf, he cuts an anachronistic figure in Chattanooga's urban landscape.

Yet he's praised as one of the most forward-looking figures in the city, responsible for generating the ideas behind Miller Plaza, the Tennessee Aquarium and the 21st Century Waterfront.

"We were visually ahead of the curve," Watson said. "We got things done that people would say, it'll never get done."

His greatest triumphs came through his work at the Urban Design Studio, which was founded in 1981 on Vine Street. Originally designed as an outlet for college architecture students to practice in a traditional urban environment, the studio grew into a quasi-governmental arm of the city.

With support from the city, the University of Tennessee, the Lyndhurst Foundation and the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, it was a good time to be an urbanist.

"Most of what we were doing was so far-fetched," Watson said. "As far as I know, there were no other university programs like this."

City officials often asked developers to work with the Design Studio on new downtown projects, which were then redesigned to fit in the city's overall plan.

But after a contentious 2005 mayoral election between then-City Councilman Ron Littlefield and urban planner Ann Coulter, a victorious Littlefield declined to renew the contract of Watson, who had supported Coulter in the race.

Now, as Littlefield's time in office draws to a close, some are pushing for the return of Chattanooga's Urban Design Studio.

"It highlights the need for an entity or an organization that works beyond political term limits," said Christian Rushing, a Chattanooga planner.

Rushing is exhibiting a retrospective of the Design Studio's works in one of the city's first mixed-use buildings, which is now home to River City's pop-up retail efforts.

Located at 831 Chestnut St. behind the Sheraton Read House, Rushing has collected architectural drawings, detailed models and various evolving plans that show the formation of some of downtown's most recognizable landmarks.

"If there's a vision that's established which changes every four years because we get a new mayor or someone gets a new board, the city isn't able to be built the way it could be," Rushing said. "That was the magic of what Stroud and those guys were able to do."

Part of Watson's secret to success was his engagement with the public, he said.

"So much of moving forward had to do with making things visible to people," Watson said. "When you show someone a plan drawing, it's like showing them a roadmap with dirt all over it. That's why we created these models and three-dimensional studies."

He's most proud of his city-as-living-room concept, which postulates that "the city belongs to everybody, and when we build there we're building something for everyone."

Watson still sees a role for design, even with a real estate market slowed by the lingering recession.

The current challenge is replacing the city's blacktop parking lots with garages, he said.

"The 700 block [of Market Street] is as empty as it can be because there's no parking there," Watson said. "It's been a tough eight years for development, but it's been a good time for planning."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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