City Council Workshop on Henley Street Options

The barely-there view of City Council from the small meeting room.

 As I indicated last week, at the request of George Scott and the Central Business Improvement District (CBID) the City Council held a workshop on the proposal to alter traffic patterns through downtown on Henley Street. The idea has been advocated by Mr. Scott and others in recent months due to concerns regarding the physical barrier presented by Henley Street and the pace of its traffic between downtown and the UT/Fort Sanders/Convention Center area and because of the opportunity presented by the fact that the current closure of the Henley Street Bridge gives Knoxville a window of time in which to make changes while through traffic has been halted.

WBIR was the only local television affiliate present.

Mr. Scott makes his presentation.

The meeting opened with Michelle Hummel making it clear that CBID is not backing the idea as much as asking for a discussion to take place. Bill Lyons then gave some historical background regarding how this issue was addressed by the Nine Counties, One Vision effort and the study done by Crandall-Arambula in 2004-2005. George Scott then gave the presentation previously featured on this blog.

Ms. LaLonde represented Shoney’s opposition to the plan.

What followed was a few comments by commissioners and a series of statements from numerous concerned persons as to why this should not be pursued. The worst of the comments came first. Councilman Pavlis made a rather impassioned speech in which he made his frustration abundantly clear. He insisted there is plenty of foot traffic on Henley as it is, implying, it seemed, that no one minds walking there.

Steven King from the City Engineering Department expressed skepticism.

He went on to say he didn’t understand why the topic was before council when, in fact, the state controls the road. He pointed out that he felt any plan such as this would cost a tremendous amount of money and in the worst display of inflamed rhetoric of the night, said in reference to Moody avenue, “Over my dead body will I let that turn commercial.” Fortunately, the other council members spoke in a more measured manner and no other speakers, though almost all uniformly opposed to the idea, suggested that they would need to be killed for it to go forward.

Mr. Cochran, South Knoxville Businessman, expressed opposition.

Councilman Della Volpe expressed concern that after so much effort to make this an efficient north-south route, the city was now being asked to spend a large amount of money to reverse the process, but he also indicated a willingness to listen. Councilwoman Roddy seemed to suggest that perhaps this type of effort should be discussed when the James White Parkway via the South Knoxville Bridge is connected all the way through to Chapman Highway, which was indicated to likely happen twenty or more years from the present, if ever. Mr. Welch of the Metropolitan Planning Commission indicated that their view is the proposal would cause traffic problems on Henley Street and they doubt that people would change their driving patterns. He seemed to support the idea of waiting until the James White Parkway was completed.

What followed was a series of citizens and business representatives who opposed the idea. Annie LaLonde representing Shoney’s in south Knoxville indicated it would be bad for their business, as did Tom Cochran and John Johnson who pointed out that Arby’s has been on Chapman Highway for forty one years and has lost twenty percent of their business since the closure of the Henley Street Bridge.

What seemed unclear to me throughout these presentations was how much the specific plan would truly impact these businesses. In the case of Shoney’s, Ms. Lalonde talked about the community groups that gather there, but this change would not impact that, as far as I can tell. The same is true with Arby’s. If twenty percent of their business is lost due to the closure of the bridge, wouldn’t much of that return when the bridge is opened even if the traffic was reduced? Disk Exchange was also mentioned in this discussion, but who wouldn’t drive across the newly re-opened bridge to disk exchange simply because the traffic on Henley had been calmed?

Sylvia Woods, Moody Avenue resident objects as Mr. Scott looks on.

The discussion ended with Sylvia Woods, a long-time resident on Moody Avenue pleading for it not to be made into a main highway and Kevin Grimac, eighteen-year downtown resident encouraging the council to strive for a vision for the city and to look for a chance to “do something beautiful.” He implied, if I understood him correctly, that as an investor, Chapman Highway would be more appealing if the traffic was slowed and made more local.

The meeting concluded with Councilmen Woodhall and Grieve thanking Mr. Scott for opening up the dialogue and with Councilman Grieve acknowledging that “Henley Street is one of our ugliest streets.” Former councilman Joe Holquist expressed an interest in having further discussion about “big ideas” such as this one, seeming to echo the earlier comments by Mr. Grimac.

After the meeting, Mr. Scott expressed disappointment only that others didn’t present alternative ideas designed to accomplish some of the same goals as his proposal, feeling the meeting instead was a series of explanations of a litany of reasons his idea will not work.

For further understanding of the apparent staunch opposition, I spoke with Bill Lyons who helped me gain some insight into the city’s perspective and, not so incidentally, a personal one since he has regularly crossed Henley Street as a pedestrian for thirty years. He re-iterated the concern that any similar solution to the one being proposed would be very expensive and suggested “the portion of traffic wanting to go far south will resist being routed 2.5 miles out of the way.”

Bill Lyons provides background to the Council.

He points out there is a pedestrian bridge, wide sidewalks and limited possibility for development. The best solution to connect the convention center to downtown, he said, would be lowering that section of Henley Street and building a plaza over it, but he points out this would cost many millions of dollars and that money is simply not available, given the current economy and competing priorities.

He suggests that the Henley Street barrier is more a psychological than physical and that the World’s Fair Park is a dividing area which the city is addressing or planning to address in several ways, including “a high priority to calm the traffic on Cumberland, create a pedestrian area there,” and enhancing the World’s Fair Park itself. He pointed out that other plans in the works would unify the area, such as ” . . . a pedestrian bridge in the planning stage from the Art Museum into the park . . . a greenway extension planned to connect Jackson to the World’s Fair Park from the north” and “enhancing trolley service from downtown to UT.” He feels the monetary costs and negative impacts to other areas of the city are much lower by pursuing these approaches to the connectivity problem.

“In short, and unfortunately, Henley is a corridor that we just have to live with in pretty much its present state because the costs – financial and otherwise, drastically overwhelm the benefits. The changes we make there reverberate around the system with a lot of negative outcomes to counterbalance what I think are relatively modest gains.”

I wish all of that had been said at the council meeting. It makes sense and I would have like to have heard George or others respond. I would have like to have heard Jack Neely speak as he has written about this more eloquently than anyone I’ve read. I wish we could have had a presentation by the UT class that Mr. Scott said is studying the issue. I wish others had presented ideas which might have offered less expensive alternatives.

As it was, the conversation was less than fulfilling. At the least, it was a conversation, and unlike councilman Pavlis, I feel it is one worth having whatever the conclusion. Also, I’d prefer nothing had to happen over anyone’s dead body, but rather that we might acknowledge the difficulties presented by Henley Street and jointly pursue solutions that minimize its damage. I still fear crossing it on foot and I continue to wonder how many people come into town, stay at the Holiday Inn, attend a convention in the Convention Center and leave thinking what an ugly city we have, oblivious to the fact that just a few blocks east is one of the coolest up-and-coming urban centers in the region.

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