A Tale of Country Music Park and Two 200 Blocks

Country Music Park, Knoxville, August 2014

Country Music Park, Knoxville, August 2014

Last week a public meeting was held on the future of the sliver of city park at Summit and Gay. It’s generally talked about in terms of the missing 200 block of Gay Street. There were once buildings where the park is now located and on the surface parking lot across the street. Commerce formed the southern boundary of the block then, but now Summit Hill snakes across the middle of the entire block. It is, also, the 200 block of West Summit Hill, but mostly it consists of slivers and small swaths of unusable land formed by the odd trajectory of Summit Hill.

Public Meeting on the Future of the City Park at Summit and Gay, Knoxville, August 2014

Leslie Fawaz, Public Meeting on the Future of the City Park at Summit and Gay, Knoxville, August 2014

The meeting was sponsored by the City of Knoxville and hosted by Public Arts Committee and the Community Design Center. Money has been designated for a significant work or works of art for the little park in the center of the block. Once called Country Music Park with a treble clef sculpture and a monument to country musicians with ties to Knoxville, it now hosts a temporary, and impressive, sculpture by Albert Paley and the park is being referred to as “City Park at Summit Hill/Gay Street.

The purpose of the meeting was to generate possible designs for the park. After a presentation by the Community Design Center‘s Leslie Fawaz in which we learned that the park as it stands includes .58 acres, about the size of a large suburban lot, the floor was opened for general discussion. Pleas were made to retain the identity of the park commemorating Knoxville’s role in early and contemporary country music. Others spoke of opening up to other ideas for the park. Allusions were made to Summit Hill.

Public Meeting on the Future of the City Park at Summit and Gay, Knoxville, August 2014

Public Meeting on the Future of the City Park at Summit and Gay, Knoxville, August 2014

Public Meeting on the Future of the City Park at Summit and Gay, Knoxville, August 2014

Public Meeting on the Future of the City Park at Summit and Gay, Knoxville, August 2014

Public Meeting on the Future of the City Park at Summit and Gay, Knoxville, August 2014

Public Meeting on the Future of the City Park at Summit and Gay, Knoxville, August 2014

Public Meeting on the Future of the City Park at Summit and Gay, Knoxville, August 2014

Public Meeting on the Future of the City Park at Summit and Gay, Knoxville, August 2014

After the general discussion and a break, the audience of around forty to fifty people was divided into six groups at separate tables and given the task of coming up with our desired design. The resultant products are to be displayed at the Emporium and online in order to solicit public comment. I haven’t found a link to provide input, but I’ll try to pass it along as I can.

The problem with the discussion, which did assume that eventually there will be a building in the parking lot on the western side of the 200 block of Gay Street, was the constriction of discussing only the park. The city has conceded that one row of city-owned parking spaces on the north side of the park might be included, though that isn’t assured. One group incorporated the west-bound lane of Summit Hill, which would make the park a bit larger, traffic less foreboding and noisy and would provide a clear passage to the Old City.

200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

I realize Just John did a good job of discussing this last week, but I wanted to add my voice directly to the issue: Something has to be done about Summit Hill. I’m glad the city wants to add permanent public art. I’m glad the little park is getting some attention. But I’m not sure it will ever be utilized as long as it is surrounded by so much pavement. It really doesn’t offer a retreat from the city. The city encroaches too much on every side.

As you can see in the photographs included here, there are little pockets of parking, median and unused frontage all around the block, generated by the snaking Summit Hill. It’s also a beast to cross. At least one pedestrian has died there. The small pieces of property and parking are mostly in private hands at this point and that makes any significant re-design a challenge.

Bacon and Company Building, 200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

Bacon and Company Building, 200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

200 Block of Summit Hill, Knoxville, August 2014

 

The 300 Building, which could easily have not been developed after it (then called the Crimson Building) burned in 2005, thankfully was redeveloped into beautiful condos, albeit unfortunately with a condo on street level. There are five parking spaces now connected to that building, which the owners would not want to relinquish. Next to it, the Bacon and Company Building with its sadly unkempt appearance possesses about 18 spaces. Neither of these parking islands existed before the roads were re-routed.

The bottom line is that if we want Summit Hill to be navigable by pedestrians, if we want any kind of connection between uptown and the Old City and if we want that park to ever be used, we have to take bold steps with Summit Hill. Of all the topics, large and small, fantastic and simple, that Just John has covered, the re-design of this intersection and that at Jackson and Broadway are the two items that, to me, would transform their separate portions of the city. I have to believe this block can be taken back. There are obstacles, but it is too important to neglect.

Is it just another crazy, new idea? Just impractical ramblings? No. With a traffic count lower than that of Cumberland which is currently undergoing a road diet, this could be done. We are going to have to start maximizing the dwindling space and opportunities we have downtown and this is a big one. The entire block doesn’t have to be a park, but half of it could be. If the whole block was a park fronted by businesses on all sides, we’d have another Market Square and the Old City and the 100 block would be connected and much more viable for retail and other businesses.

Kristen Faerber's Senior Design Project, UTK, 2001

Kristen Faerber’s Senior Design Project, UTK, 2001

Kristen Faerber's Senior Design Project, UTK, 2001

Kristen Faerber’s Senior Design Project, UTK, 2001

One last word: How obvious is this idea? So obvious that Kristen Faerber, who many of you know as co-owner of Just Ripe, delineated it in 2001. What you may not know about Kristen is that she is not only a passionate advocate for real food, but she is also a trained architect. Her senior design project at UTK centered on this very block.

Not surprisingly for those who know what she has done in recent years, she envisioned a grocery store on the surface parking lot featuring whole foods and helping downtown residents and workers learn about foods. If I read her sketches correctly, there appears to be a large park across the street and Summit Hill is re-routed. The downtown grid is restored. Revolutionary, right? Thirteen years ago.

Organic, incremental change is good and has worked well for the city in many respects. But maybe there is room for a bold step occasionally. Maybe this is a time we could think big and not continue to attempt to put a band-aid on a situation that requires major surgery. If we do the hard thing today, there won’t be a need to look back thirteen years from now and realize the conversation is repeating itself for a new generation. Instead, we’ll have a vibrant city block and the current monstrosity will be a strange interlude.

Comments

  1. Has anyone seen a published link yet for the park design proposals? And when are they supposed to be displayed at the Emporium? Need the info for the City People newsletter. And if you would like to be on our mailing list, just let me know! 🙂

  2. Bill Lyons says:

    Thanks Kristen. We have explored other options under the lease and will continue to do so. It is very complicated and, yes, other options can be part of the discussion. But as I noted above, there are other options, demands, limits, etc. for some of the other possible locations And the key is “negotiate.” The use of the 200 Block has been a concern of mine and others for years. I am hopeful that something can be done eventually, but only after we fully sort out the future of Jackson between Gay and Broadway.

    In follow-up re: Summit Hill a comparison to Cumberland is not really helpful in germane in my opinion. I was on the Cumberland Vision Team and it is being implemented through the City’s Office of Redevelopment. The key to Cumberland is to make it a place to “Go To” and not “Go through.” Cumberland between the Baker Center and the 22nd has massive potential to be a much more effective pedestrian friendly commercial area that will bring multiple millions of new investment and new life. Someone coming from downtown to the west has I40, Middlebrook, and Neyland as routes around Cumberland, which will go to 3 lanes with no on street parking.

    Summit Hill between Henley and Gay, or to Central, is not the least bit comparable. The state built a very wide bridge over JWP to the east. Western empties from the west. Folks come to downtown off if the Interstate and empty either to Henley or to Western at 11th. Creating a bottleneck for parking and bulb-outs in front of the TVA tower on one side and the hotel on the other would provide some minimal value. Perhaps there could be more value between Gay and Central but there are real turn lane and circulation challenges at that end of Summit Hill And I am sorry but a lot of the comments here dealt with big digs and bid dollars and Summit Hill as difficult to cross. And as a reader of this blog I have noted a lot of repetition regarding Summit Hill and the crossing experience as a key divider downtown.

    What I am saying here is that some of the suggestions regarding Summit Hill would present immediate challenges and potential unintended consequences and expenses along with minimally justified benefits or additions to the overall public good, including affecting the major non-interstate connection between East and West Knoxville. If some believe that I overstate the liabilities and understand the benefits, I understand. But keep in mind that the population of people who would have to be convinced is quite large and affecting a change would mean research, organization, and communication beyond any online forum.

    We had a traffic circulation meeting recently. I was there. Very few from the public attended and I don’t think we heard any suggestions about Summit Hill. It would be appropriate to provide feedback to traffic engineering as part of that process regarding Summit Hill, I suppose. It would also be appropriate to talk to all the immediate stakeholders – The Duncan School of Law, KFD, TVA, Crowne Plaza, OP Jenkins and others.

    I am trying to respectfully communicate that as of now the discussion of the future of the park, public art, etc. or the future of downtown is not particularly advanced by focusing on narrowing Summit Hill. Perhaps that could change but if I really thought so I would say so. As a reader and one who respects this mode of communication I feel compelled to come here and explain.

    We have done a lot of street narrowing and road dieting.. Just look at North Gay under the interstate to and around Emory Place. We are improving all the infrastructure on State. We are working on a more pedestrian friendly Jackson from Henley all the way to and through the Old City. We are spending significant dollars to improve the bridge over Henley and area around Clinch and Henley. Mayor Rogero is not at all reticent about taking in suggestions and I sure believe in addressing as many as I can from my position.

    I know that I will not have changed many, if any, minds about Summit Hill Drive. As a next step I would suggest that folks place their names with their specific road suggestions and communicate these suggestions to traffic engineering at the City of Knoxville or to Jim Hagerman, Director of engineering.

    Thanks again for everyone’s patience.

  3. Bill Lyons says:

    I really appreciate my neighbor Urban Guy for doing so much work to place this material before everyone and also appreciate all the feedback. Out of respect for this effort on all parts I would like to offer some reaction from a couple of perspectives.

    The parking lot at Summit Hill and Gay street is under lease (50 years) to the owners of the Sterchi Building. When it was consummated on or about 2000 it was to fulfill terms of a HUD portion of the Sterchi’s finances. This is handled by KCDC on behalf of the City. This was the only was for the Sterchi to be funded at the time Given the prominent place the Sterchi played in downtown renaissance and the fact that local lenders were not interested in underwriting such projects I can hardy second guess the City’s decision at the time to work though this arrangement.

    We are the City are very well aware of the need for development on the 200 Block. We have had many conversations with potential developers. But that lease presents real issues. The City (through KCDC) owns the parking lot up the hill on Vine. The City owns the lot on Jackson as well. There are multiple pressures and interests relative to those properties. All of this is on hold pending the visit of the Urban Land institute.

    Jimmy is correct regarding the state of infrastructure in the Summit Hill, State and Central areas. The City recently included well in excess of a million dollars to work on all of that infrastructure to complement the development of Marble Alley.

    Big Digs are incredibly expensive. Such ideas are just not practical. Once Jackson is developed, using our best ideas and practices (hence bringing in Urban Land and having a full public process) and if we can get a solution to the 200 block reality on the ground along with sidewalk improvement toward the Old City the crossing of Summit Hill will cease to appear as much of a burden.

    Now I am going to take off my City downtown redevelopment/ policy hat and put on my downtown (66 years old) resident hat. I walk daily all over downtown, and cross Summit Hill multiple times at Gay Street and often at Walnut. Is it optimal? No. It just is not that much of a burden. One can stop at the midpoint if one desires.

    Just about every city I visit has a few arterials that carry traffic through or at the edges of downtown. I tend to look at glasses as half full rather than half empty. I am so pleased that we have a pedestrian core at Market Square and that the surrounding blocks function so well for pedestrians. Asking the taxpayers to pony up multiple millions of dollars and causing traffic issues for those entering downtown from the East and West so that folks can more easily cross a street is not an ask I would want to justify as a greater civic need than the multiple miles of sidewalk and greenways or park improvements that could be made all over the city. I offer that not as any official policy, of course, but more as a longtime political participant and observer.

    The most practical thing is to continue to work on infrastructure, signage, and signalization. We have real signage issues that should soon be addressed with a very significant wayfinding project.

    For better or worse Summit Hill was designed a few decades ago as the major east – west route connecting East Knoxville with West Knoxville. There is relatively little east west traffic until Cumberland and Main on the South end of downtown.

    We need everyone’s ideas and big thinking. Downtown has been transformed greatly largely because of big ideas. But it does help when folks realize that we operate within constraints of finances, political structure and laws, and the greater political environment in which decisions are made with scarce resources and competing interests.

    Thanks for everyone’s patience.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      Thanks for the perspective, Bill. (I still want Summit Hill to be a city block at that spot! 🙂 )

    • Just John says:

      Mr. Lyons–Thank you for replying here. The gist of this article is not about “asking the taxpayers to pony up multiple millions of dollars and causing traffic issues for those entering downtown from the East and West so that folks can more easily cross a street.” That’s simultaneously an oversimplification and a distraction.

      The narrowing of Summit Hill could be accomplished very easily and inexpensively, with intersection sidewalk bump-outs, without causing traffic issues: according to the City’s ADT data, a total of three lanes, not five, is more than sufficient.

      The article is more focused on making better use of the limited space that exists in downtown. There’s simply no need to fill so much of the Treble-Clef space with cement, and to arrange all that cement in such a disruptive way. To spend money putting lipstick on the current pig there is to throw good money after bad. That’s not a disparagement of the current art there, which I think is great, but rather recognition that the whole space could be better.

      • I appreciate Bill Lyons willingness to read and participate in the discussions on this blog in such a constructive manner. As a resident and taxpayer it makes me feel like at least the city is paying attention. Thanks for that!

        However, I have to agree with Just John that Bill oversimplified the discussion to be about spending lots of money to make it easier to cross 1 street. Speaking as someone who crosses that street very often, I have to say that I don’t find it to be a particularly difficult barrier… in other words, that’s not the main issue. The real important issue is making the best use of limited downtown land and greatly strengthening the connections between the Old City and Downtown. I would suggest that fixing this broken connection would encourage much more robust economic growth in the area and lead to longer term stability, particularly in the retail market; that seems to me to be a pretty good use of taxpayer dollars.

        As has been mentioned, moving the roads around Treble Clef Park could be accomplished at grade and is fundamentally a different thing than a “big-dig” fantasy project. Also, I fail to see how a reduction in lanes would “cause traffic problems” when the traffic counts on Summit are less than on Cumberland Ave. If a road diet from 5 lanes to 3 lanes on Cumberland will improve traffic flow (an idea that I absolutely support and believe) then why would it do the opposite on Summit Hill?

        Finally, I’d like to offer an alternative to consider: test a road diet by re-striping one side of the divided street to handle all the automotive traffic, and re-stripe the other side of the divided street for bike and pedestrians. Memphis did something similar on Riverside Drive:

        http://usa.streetsblog.org/2014/06/17/memphis-turns-two-highway-lanes-into-a-car-free-oasis-by-the-mississippi/#more-327371

        For high-traffic events like Boomsday, UT games, etc, both sides could be opened back up to handle the increased automobile traffic. For the other 350+ days of the year, bikes, runners, pedestrians, etc would have use of the space. Re-striping is not that expensive and it would allow the city traffic engineers to study how a reduced lane-count on Summit would function without committing to rebuilding the street right away. If it turns out that it causes huge traffic problems it can be easily reversed. If it doesn’t and people grow to like it, then permanent changes can be designed and implemented.

        Seems like a relatively easy way for a win-win.

    • Thanks, Dr. Lyons, for the information, perspective, and clarifications. Do you know if it is possible for the city to try to re-negotiate that 50-year lease, providing other parking be made available that would fulfill the same need? Has the city tried to do that? Or could it try to? 50 years is an awfully long time, and it seems like 38 year of that still remain. Is that correct?

  4. PolishTom says:

    Something else that would help connect the Old City and the rest of Downtown: if there was retail that was open past 6pm along Summit Hill, next to the furniture stores, all the way up to the Enterprise. Correct me if I’m wrong, but they all look like offices. Also, considering the lack of traffic on Summit, wouldn’t that have been a good spot for some food trucks to park?

  5. We could really use a new high rise I think that area could sustain one there are lots around the hotel and TVA towers are close.

  6. I agree with most everyone here on the fact that this plot and the surface parking lot would be perfect and a much better use if developed into some mixed use development. What better way to tie in the 100 block and old city with the rest of downtown.

  7. I also don’t imagine the “big-dig” idea for Henley that I mentioned will ever happen, and I agree with Jimmy that making improvements within the existing framework is always a good idea. I don’t think this particular rearrangement of the section of Summit Hill between Gay St and Central is too big to dream about, though. (Meaning, the un-suburbanization of Summit Hill and re-establishing the city grid.) And it’s true that just putting a building(s) on the west side of the 200 block would make a huge difference. This block has to be developed.
    As for fire trucks, considering their routes are very important, but I see them regularly make an urban block turn from Locust St left onto Union Ave. They are more maneuverable than you might think, though it does slow them down of course.

  8. “I’m glad the little park is getting some attention. But I’m not sure it will ever be utilized as long as it is surrounded by so much pavement. It really doesn’t offer a retreat from the city. The city encroaches too much on every side. ”

    Agreed. It’s difficult for me to even think of that tiny area as a “park” at this point in time. Although it offers lovely scenery and a break from the surrounding concrete jungle, I don’t see how designers can do much more with the current space — aside from adding more art. And, it sounds to me like a bigger vision (more retail and green space) for this area would be applicable, given the current circumstances and concerns.

  9. The city is not going to re-route Summit Hill in the near future. Maybe within 20-30 years, but not now. Yes, we can encourage a road-diet for future plans, but we need to shift a majority of energy from the mirage of unrealistic goals and refocus on encouraging reasonable amounts of change and redevelopment that will affect the city now. I know this because I have spent countless hours thinking, drawing, and researching ways to alleviate my unending frustration with James White Parkway and Neyland Drive. It is so easy to get lost in these (for now) unmanageable dreams.

    I am not saying stop dreaming. I’m saying dream within some realm of reality. Summit Hill is not as big of a beast as Henley Street. I walk across Summit Hill at least 3 times a week and there are enough destinations on both the 100 block and 300 blocks of Gay street to draw people back and forth. The elephant on that block is the large surface parking lot that is owned by KCDC. I have no idea why nothing has been built there but there are enough people who complain about the lack of small retail – and Dewhirst has more than shown a demand for loft apartments – that I don’t understand why KCDC has not organized something there as of yet. Some kind of red tape, I’m sure.

    Build an appropriately scaled building there and that corner is instantly changed – pulling more of a connection between the blocks, making Summit Hill less of a beast. As for the ‘Bacon and Company’ building – that has less to do with Summit Hill and more to do with the owner’s ignorance of the downtown renaissance that has been going on these past 10 years. Those buildings could easily be redeveloped into office space, lofts, and businesses. If anything, the jog in Summit Hill allows for an awesome outdoor seating/concert/eating area for a future establishment.

    My biggest concern with Summit Hill is it’s inability to naturally bring pedestrians down to the old city. Every time I walk visitors to Knoxville from Gay Street to Central I am embarrassed by shoddy sidewalks, a dirt patch where there was once a sidewalk but was removed by the city, and the Diner-turned-Enterprise on the corner. I do think that the city could do some street-work towards Summit Hill’s intersection with Central, widening the sidewalk along the south-side of the street, encouraging more business development and the buildings, and therefore making pedestrian connection more natural.

    Summit Hill could even benefit from turning some of TVA’s street-level storefront into retail space. There is ample amount of room between the street and the building to create an active boulevard there.

    All of this to say… let’s start dreaming about how to do the best we can with what we have. Focus on how to remodel with the existing structure in place, with multiple smaller moves and changes rather than major overhauls and reconstruction (I’m looking at you, Big-Dig). Those small moves will constitute a bigger, more realistic result.

  10. Check with the fire dept. this is their route to east of town

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      That is true. On most of their calls they go other directions (I watch them go out), but some go that way, of course. The thing is the fire department was located there many years before Summit Hill was cut through. If the block of Summit was changed, they would still go that way, but would have to make one additional turn to continue east. But you are right, any plans would have to include planning for fire engines.

  11. Any idea how much funding has been designated for the work or works of art?

  12. Good post. I’m all for any proposal to put buildings back on both sides of the 200 block of Gay Street.

    All of the groups at the meeting recommended using the park as a performance space (by adding a stage among other things), but I have doubts about the practicality of that. When I was out walking around yesterday I stood in the park for a few minutes. Even at the back next to the parking lot the road noise is very loud. Summit Hill along there is a fairly steep incline and trucks gun their engines going uphill. It’s loud enough to drown out a band playing in the park.

    • Were you at the meeting, Greg? Just wanted to confirm your information that most of the plans included a performance stage.

      • Yep. I was there.

      • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

        Greg was at the meeting. I didn’t mention the performance stages because I didn’t see everyone’s proposal. My guess is that Greg stayed until they were all shown. I know my group included a performance stage and a terraced listening area.

  13. If Knoxville were going to have a big dig, it should be to drop the through-traffic of Henley Street (those passing through downtown without stopping) below grade and under the river to south Knoxville and then narrow Henley Street to a reasonable size for supporting local, urban traffic. The interstate changes already drop below grade into the tunnel under Summit Hill. The through traffic could just stay buried until it reaches the south side of the river. Fixing Summit Hill at grade is much more simple than fixing Henley due to its low traffic count.

  14. Just John says:

    Hear ! Hear !

    Let the City know it’s time for change.

    Contacts:
    Rick Emmett, Downtown Coordinator:
    remmett@cityofknoxville.org
    Room 470B, City County Building
    865-215-3837
    Fax: 865-215-232

    Bob Whetsel, Director of Redevelopment:
    bwhetsel@cityofknoxville.org
    Room 655, City County Building
    865-215-2543
    Fax: 865-215-3035

    William Lyons, Chief Policy Officer, Deputy to the Mayor:
    wlyons@cityofknoxville.org
    Room 655, City County Building
    865-215-2029
    Fax: 865-215-3035

    Thomas Strickland, Jr., Community Relations Director & Special Assistant to the Mayor:
    tstrickland@cityofknoxville.org
    Room 645D, City County Building
    865-215-2048
    Fax: 865-215-2085

    Dawn Michelle Foster, Deputy Director of Redevelopment:
    dmfoster@cityofknoxville.org
    Room 655, City County Building
    865-215-2607
    Fax: 865-215-3035

    Mayor’s Office:
    Room 691, City County Building
    Phone: 865-215-2040
    Fax: 865-215-2085
    TTY: 865-215-4581 (for all depts)

  15. Steven Harris says:

    If the city isnt willing to reduce summit hill in size, maybe Knoxville could have a big dig and burry it so that the cross section of downtown still exists and now it wouldn’t have to be bothered by traffic lights at Gay, Locust, Walnut and State.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      The “big dig” idea did come up in the meeting, but it is extremely expensive. The fix for this is not difficult and can all be done above ground. I agree with Kristen’s comment that if we have the money for a big dig, it should be for Henley Street, but I don’t see Knoxville doing anything like that in my lifetime.

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