The City Responds to the Urban Land Institute Report – and Listens

Mayor Rogero, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, March 2015

Mayor Rogero, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, March 2015

A large crowed gathered at the East Tennessee History Center to discuss the recommendations by the Urban Land Institute, about which I wrote last month. (Read the report if you haven’t. Too many people who have obviously not read it are discussing it on Facebook.) A brief introduction by Bob Whetsel, short remarks from Mayor Rogero and a direct, organized and short presentation by Anne Wallace to frame the conversation with what has happened so far and then city officials effectively got out of the way and listened. I suspect a lot of cities would never experience such a thing.

Anne’s presentation did clarify a few things. She said we need to understand that the ULI report is “a set of recommendations on issues we deal with everyday. This is not a plan to be implemented.” She pointed out that it will lead to public discussion and then, hopefully, some sense of what the citizens will support. She pointed out principles that guide the city government’s approach to development. Among other’s on the list was the principal that growth should be “market driven” and it should have “sound urban design.” It occurred to me that those two principals sometimes clash.

One piece of “news” to most of us in her remarks was the statement that the city intends to purchase the Supreme Court site by the August deadline. The previous plan had been to have a developer who would buy it from the city in pretty much the same transaction. That is no longer the case. The intention of purchasing it from the state is driven by the desire to prevent poor development on the site which could happen if it is auctioned off by the state. Bill Lyons later referenced the importance of the “stewardship of Henley at that site.” The current state appraisal for the site is $2.4 million.

A second news item, though not a surprise is that the city has set the McClung site as the priority for re-development. A “master planner” will be secured who will come up with a vision for the property, though other developers may complete pieces of the project. Bob Whetsel suggested  that if a below-grade parking garage were to be built there, as many have suggested, that might be done during the master planner phase and then other developers might have the chance to build on top of that base. Later councilman Della Volpe pointed out the importance of keeping in mind that this site will be the public face of downtown to everyone passing on the interstate.

The idea of a master developer drew a number of questions from the audience. Apparently it is a common practice elsewhere. Anne Wallace pointed out that often these planners are addressing massive sites like former military bases covering perhaps a hundred acres. She answered the question hanging in the air when she said this person could certainly be a local developer. Joe Petre would later point out that the organic growth which has served us well seems hard to reconcile with a single developer/planner getting to design what will potentially be a $100,000,000 project.

To Joe’s point, Bill Lyons agreed that a master developer does seem contradictory to organic growth, but that, clearly, we don’t want development that doesn’t work together well on the site. Anne Wallace pointed out that “master developers” elsewhere are often actually teams of developers. Bill also noted that massive public discussion will guide any decisions. To a question from Wayne Blasius, the audience was told there is no time frame for getting the master developer, but the discussions are underway as to how to proceed.

IMG_5010

Anne Wallace, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, March 2015

 

Finally, Anne pointed out a couple of errors in the ULI report. First, the Clarence Brown can’t go under the Holiday Inn because that is private property. Second, the hotel occupancy rates and nightly hotel rates used in the ULI report are inaccurate as they reflect the larger county. For downtown she said our hotel occupancy rate is about ten percent higher than the rest of the county and the average nightly price is over $100. The implication was that some additional hotel development might be warranted.

She said the coliseum site needs more study and that is currently underway and is expected to be completed this summer. The intention for the World’s Fair Park is to follow the ULI suggestion of retaining the green-space and adding complementary development along the edges while connecting it with the Jackson Avenue corridor. As for Henley Street? She pointed out that 43,000 cars use it daily and that it is a highway passing through four states. She said they are pursuing “above grade crossing improvements and enhancing connectivity. She said they will have to consider TDOT and are looking at, “strategic, incremental improvements.” Later someone asked if the city had the power to change lights on Henley to make crossing times longer. The answer was affirmative.

From there the discussion took over and, surprisingly to me, didn’t last until the 7:00 PM time limit. A number of people did speak. Mary English suggested the city consider meeting space for non-profits in some of the new construction, a sentiment that was echoed later.  Mike Cohen, Mike Collins and Joe Petre all asked questions about the master developer. Bob Whetsel responded that a survey of who is interested will be followed by a screening process to see who is qualified to do the work and then these developers or planners will be asked to make proposals.

Robin Hill pointed out that the infrastructure to handle the current and the additional traffic must be considered. Bob said that was already being examined. Bicycles and dedicated lanes were mentioned by Matt Warden and others. Michael Henderson, a Mechanicsville resident expressed concern over a lack of cycling connections there. A Bicycle Facilities Plan has been developed and will be presented next week, April 8 at 6:00 PM at the East Tennessee History Center. You can read the report and learn more here.

Bob Booker spoke passionately about saving the Knoxville Coliseum if possible. He told a fascinating personal story about its history from his perspective as an African-American, long-term Knoxville resident. He said when he heard the coliseum was opening in 1964, he found the number for the box office, called and asked if there would be “seating for negroes.” He was told the facility would be integrated from the outset which he said led to cheers among his co-workers.

Mayor Rogero followed that with a note that her first Knoxville memory was made there in 1966 when her family pulled off the interstate when moving from Florida to Ohio. They saw a billboard advertising a Beach Boys concert there and stopped to allow young Madeline and her sister to attend the concert.

A bit later Umoja Abdul-Ahad told how “urban renewal” devastated African-American communities and wealth. He expressed distrust of the system saying, “I’ve been to a thousand meetings like this where comments are made. When the money hits the table, the people are forgotten. I cannot take my children or grandchildren to any of the places I used to live.”

Henley Street did elicit some conversation. Rhonda Reger, a 100 block resident and UT employee expressed her hope that the ULI suggestions regarding Henley Street will be considered carefully in order to make Henley Street a better pedestrian, cycling and retail environment. Bob Whetsel noted that they hear that and they hear the opposite. It didn’t take long for that to happen. Betsy Pickle who lives in south Knoxville said Henley Street is not a barrier. She pointed out that people who live in Fort Sanders drive to the Old City to drink and don’t want to walk or bike. It seemed an odd defense to suggest that people can drink and drive. She said south Knoxville has suffered enough and seemed to suggest we leave Henley Street alone.

Bonny Pendleton of Theatre Knoxville Downtown and Steve Drevik of Flying Anvil Theatre each spoke in favor of the recommendation for medium-sized performing arts space. Scott Poole, dean of Architecture at UT, said transportation questions need to come next, including walking and biking throughout the impacted area. He asked, “Is there a  master plan for the master developer to look to?” The answer was, “no.”

Becky Hancock asked if the comments would be posted online along with the city’s presentation and we were told it would be posted today. It should be posted here. The city wants your comments and I’ll welcome them below, of course. If you don’t let the city administration know what you think, you get what you get. As it is I would not want to be in their shoes and try to navigate the conflicting demands. Here’s where to send your comments: ULI@cityofknoxville.org.

 

Big Ears: Day 2 and 3 and Wrap-up

Kronos Quartet with Rhiannon Giddens, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Kronos Quartet with Rhiannon Giddens, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

This was my first time to go all the way through three days with Big Ears. I have to say it’s really as amazing as you’ve heard from your avant-garde friends. Concerned I might be out of my depth and find very little with which to relate, I could not have been more wrong. The cumulative experience opens new aural worlds while offering windows into connections not previously imagined. I’ll walk you through my final two days and then I’ll end with a few thoughts.

Kronos Quartet with Sam Amidon, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Kronos Quartet with Sam Amidon, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Kronos Quartet with Rhiannon Giddens, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Kronos Quartet with Rhiannon Giddens, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

I started my second day with the Kronos Quartet. It may seem a little repetitive that I saw them so much, but not so much. First, I only knew them around the edges and wanted to sink further into their sound. Second, they paired with so many people that I really got to double-dip by seeing them with guests. Sometimes their sound helped me bridge my way to less familiar sounds.

This show featured folk music and they took the audience around the world with folk songs from numerous cultures. The pairings for the day were selected with the folk theme in mind. The first set ended with several songs shared with Sam Amidon. Particularly moving was Sam’s rendition of a shaped-note song learned in his youth. The odd tonal shifts perfectly matched Kronos’ own sound.

The second set ended with a pairing of sounds with Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and recently of solo fame. The versatility of the amazing Kronos musicians stood front-and-center as they moved through several of her folk/traditional songs. The absolute drop-dead highlight came at the very end when she sang Mahalia Jackson’s “God Will Take Care of You.” Chills throughout the house. Rhiannon’s vocal range and depth of feeling for these old songs makes for a powerful experience.

Photographer, Big Ears, Krutch Park, Knoxville, March 2015

Photographer, Big Ears, Krutch Park, Knoxville, March 2015

I didn’t have much time to take in the “scene” around downtown. I did hear multiple languages spoken on the sidewalks, which is something that long-term readers know I enjoy. I also ran into a photographer using 80’s equipment – 1880’s, that is. I don’t know that he was any part of the festivities, but he fit in. I also didn’t make any of the “secret” shows. The schedule was just too full of awesome from the beginning to the end.

Nels Cline and Norton Wisdom, Big Ears, Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, March 2015

Nels Cline and Norton Wisdom, Big Ears, Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, March 2015

Nels Cline and Norton Wisdom, Big Ears, Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, March 2015

Nels Cline and Norton Wisdom, Big Ears, Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, March 2015

I caught a Nels Cline and Norton Wisdom show at KMA. Norton does sequential art live while Nels (recently of Wilco) plays ambient guitar with his fingers, teeth and vocals via guitar pickup. It took me a bit to get into the idea that Norton would shape a painting before shifting or obliterating it for another. Someone in the audience likened it to sand painting – not intend to be permanent. I’m not sure I caught every meaning and connection, but it was one of the more interesting shows. A side note: I left a lens at this show and when I returned, the staff had found it and secured it for me. Kudos, Kudos, Kudos.

Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

After that it was back to the Tennessee Theatre for a final round of Kronos, this time with Laurie Anderson. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand everything I heard in this show, but I didn’t expect to. I’d never seen Laurie Anderson and knew to expect to be stretched a bit. She, along with the Kronos Quartet, matched that expectation. Poetry, other readings and fascinating instrumental interplay highlighted the night. Many of the shows, including this one, featured a screen with images behind the performances. I couldn’t see the entire screen the entire time, but I suspect it wouldn’t have made the obscure symbols and messages any more meaningful. Thankfully, the musical and spoken performance was enough.

Max Richter, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Max Richter, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Tune Yards, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Tune Yards, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

I heard Max Richter in the Bijou backed with a small orchestral ensemble and accompanied by a reader. This was the most sedate of the performances I saw. It also included electronic samples, which was not unusual through the weekend. This was followed by the most joyful and fun performance of the week: Tune Yards. Love, love, love. Mostly percussive and mostly female, this combo rocked the packed Tennessee Theatre. Equal parts indie and soul, but predominantly joyful and high, high energy. Easily far and away the most sheer fun event of my festival experience.

For Sunday, I decided to pace myself a bit. One of the choices festival goers have to make is whether to attend full or near-complete shows and miss most of them or to sample a bunch of them without hearing full shows by anyone. For me, the choice was easy: I wanted to hear full shows. I did leave some a few minutes early in order to be at the next show when it started. That said, I attended only three shows on Sunday, but they were each spectacular. I was afraid after Tune Yards I was ruined for the weekend. Not at all.

Rhiannon Giddens, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Rhiannon Giddens, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Rhiannon Giddens, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Rhiannon Giddens, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

I started the day with a full show by Rhiannon Giddens. She delivered the promise of her short set the previous day with Kronos. It turned out to be the kick-off show for her first solo tour and she’s taking along band-mates the Carolina Chocolate Drops who were in attendance at the Sunday show. After a delayed start due to sound issues, the show stunned from beginning to end. She hues to a very traditional set list with a few newer songs sprinkled in, but the arrangements and delivery make them seem very fresh. The hour-and-a-half show could have gone three hours and I don’t think the packed house would have objected.

Terry Riley, Big Ears, Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, March 2015

Terry Riley, Big Ears, Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, March 2015

Next, I walked to the Knoxville Museum of Art for a show with the wonderful composer, Terry Riley. Sound check was underway when I arrived and at show time, he, his son Cyan Riley and violinist Tracey Silverman simply kept playing. The entire performance was similarly informal and warm, yet precise and elegantly played. I found myself thinking about the similarly mellow performance by Max Richter and feeling this was somehow more visceral. I stayed for an hour-and-fifteen-minutes of the two-hour show and loved what I heard. I did wish for three things I’ll mention: chairs (why were we on the floor?), a visually appealing back-drop and better lighting. The first made for a pretty uncomfortable show and the other two made attractive photographs virtually impossible.

The reason I cut out of that show after just over an hour was because I wanted to see the entire Bill Frisell show at the Bijou. I’m so glad I did. The jazzy (and sometimes bluesy with a modern twist) sounds would have been enough to keep me happy, but the focus of the show was the great flood of 1927, which is of a particular interest to me for various reason. Featured was footage from the pre-flood Mississippi Delta, the flood, the aftermath, the migration and the cultural renaissance that followed. Very few words appeared on the screen. The video footage in the film by Bill Morrison left me speechless and really not wanting to follow the three great performances – and particularly this one – with anything else. My experience felt complete.

Bill Frisell, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Bill Frisell, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Bill Frisell, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

Bill Frisell, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

So, it was spectacular and I’m exhausted. I saw eleven shows in three days, took around 400 photographs, weeded through them, edited the remaining pictures and wrote about the experience. But it was so good, it was worth the work. The value to the city can’t be overstated. It puts on a cultural map like no other event. Nothing else attracts the media attention – like the three reporters from the New York Times, Rolling Stone, etc. – and people from all over the world.

We felt international and “big city” for a weekend and that’s a good thing. Today people are traveling home to places all over the world and, hopefully, they are taking with them good impressions of Knoxville. I felt particularly proud of each of the venues from the Standard to the Tennessee and Bijou Theatres and the Knoxville Museum of Art, which looked resplendent dressed up in its Richard Jolley best.

For next year, I’d encourage anyone who has an interest in music to attend. Make your best choices and know that you can’t really go wrong. I didn’t write about the electronic music which played all weekend at the Standard. I decided not to go there, but it might be your thing. By all accounts “Hive” was the stuff. I also didn’t attend movies because I love music too much. I wondered if there should be a Big Ears Movie Festival the weekend before, just to whet the palate for alternative goodness.

You can see my complete photo albums of the Festival on the Inside of Knoxville Facebook Page: Day One, Day Two, Day Three.

The Downtown Knoxville Ten Day Planner (3/22 – 3/31/2015)

Alabama Shakes, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2015

If you want to be certain to be included on this calendar, I'll need your event two weeks in advance. The absolute best way to make sure I include your event is to make a FB event and invite me - two weeks in advance. My FB "events" are the one place … [Continue reading]

Big Ears 2015: Day One

Kronos Quartet with Wu Man, Big Ears, Knoxville, March 2015

The best advice I saw tweeted during the first day of the festival was to forget about the music you can't hear and focus on what you are hearing. Very good advice. Consider that the first evening contained sixteen announced events. And then there … [Continue reading]

A Small Window into Big Ears

Ashley Capps and David Harrington, Big Ears Kickoff, Square Room, Knoxville, March 2015

I've studied my schedule for Big Ears and begun the process of acquainting myself with the artists. There are familiar faces and sounds: Kronos Quartet serves as the glue for this year's festival, collaborating with numerous artists through the … [Continue reading]