Urban environments are complicated spaces. Anyone who witnessed the re-working of the 100 block of Gay Street understands just how complex something seemingly simple can become. The reality is that, often, no one really knows what lurks beneath the surface of old city streets. An overhaul of the 700 block of Gay Street appears to be simpler than the 100 block – it hasn’t been raised more than a story into the air, after all – but surprises may be waiting.
When I learned the block would be re-worked, I assumed a new paving job and a few planters, maybe a bench or two would constitute the bulk of the work. As I learned at a public meeting held last night at the East Tennessee History Center, I was wrong. $800,000 has been budgeted for the work. Ross/Fowler has produced the preliminary designs. Details will be worked out, bids will be taken and a company selected. Work isn’t expected to begin until May – of 2015.
So, what about paving a city street could cost that much money? Well, first, while the 700 block is the focal point, the intersections on each end of that block as well as the intersection of Gay and Clinch a block away, will all be re-worked. Pavers will replace the current bricks. They will be bolted together, though that will not be visible. The shift in material is to allow rainwater to slip through into the gravel and soil below rather than becoming toxic runoff. Additionally, they should require less maintenance than the current bricks.
The changes only start there. The entire surface of the street and the sidewalks on either side will be replaced. The sidewalks will not only be replaced, they will be made to more closely resemble the brick and concrete of the blocks to their north, although with permeable pavers. Wider trees will be planted on the western side next to the parking lot and more vertical growth trees will be planted next to the buildings on the eastern side. In both cases underground provisions in the form of tree wells will be made for their root growth, with the hopes of increasing their life-span.
Discussions have not yet begun as to finishing touches such as benches, leaners (is that what they are called?), bike racks, etc. The other planned addition is an ornate brick wall which will line the western side of the street between the sidewalk and the massive parking lot. While this is clearly an aesthetic improvement, it also seems to be a tacit admission that we are likely to have a charming parking lot on that site for many years .
Some confusion seems to exist as to whether the utilities for the block will be upgraded while they are laid bare. Rick Emmett stated that improved conduit for cable and internet connections will be a part of the effort. It seems this is the opportunity to mitigate as much of our outdated underground infrastructure as possible.
The project is expected to take about six months barring unpleasant surprises – which is likely the only kind of surprise in this kind of situation. Plans call for maintaining an open lane for the duration and for all businesses to continue operation. It’s hard to picture the eastern sidewalk being completely replaced while businesses conduct business as normal.
A question was raised as to the facades on the block – many of which seem to be in danger of crumbling if not attended to. This is particularly true of the upper levels. Rick expressed some optimism that the owners will be looking at that con-current to this project, but it didn’t sound as if any agreements had been reached to that effect. David Craig made it clear that the street width would remain the same, which the urban planners among us will appreciate.
While a public meeting on a street improvement a year before it happens might seem a bit early, it does give the public time for comment and input. Contact Rick Emmett if you have an opinion to express. I really appreciate the fact that the city offers these forums for information and comment. I’d encourage you to consider attending some of them if you have an interest in downtown development.
So what do you think of the changes? Big improvement? Much ado about very little? What else should be included?