A Transformative Vision for Downtown

The First in a Series of Guest Posts from Just John

The City of Knoxville has recently hosted public meetings to solicit input from the residents of the city, regarding development along Jackson Avenue, for bicycle mobility, for downtown accessibility, and for several other development topics. The City has even invited the Urban Land Institute, a well-regarded planning organization, to evaluate the area and proffer recommendations. That the City is seeking public input is wonderful:  we have an opportunity to create the City that we want and that we need.

We must take advantage of the opportunity. As Wayne Gretzky memorably said, “You miss one-hundred percent of the shots you don’t take,” so I am taking my shots. The City requested input for particular sites -the McClung warehouses, Jackson Avenue – but I believe that local plans can be even more effective and more transformative if they are placed in context within a wider plan.

To that end, I have created my own vision-plan for the Knoxville cityscape, from the downtown core to the interstate ring-road.  It is predominantly an exercise in infrastructure, not specific building designs, so it’s entirely compatible with others’ ideas for specific uses, like David Denton’s awesome Southern Crossing concept.

The constellation of ideas ranges from straightforward, to optimistic, to a few outright ‘flights of fancy.’  Each component part could be achieved on its own, and would improve the city experience in its own way. Taken together, they constitute a coherent transformative vision for the Knoxville cityscape.

Who am I ?  I’m just John – an educated guy, with a non-professional interest in urban design.  Although I have read many books on the subject, I do not have degreed expertise in urban planning. That means you may very well know a lot more than I do about something.  Please correct me, amplify my thoughts, whatever.  I just want some discussion!

The vision document is pretty long, and at times it dives into the weeds, so Urban Guy has suggested segmenting it into digestible pieces, and will publish each piece at his scheduling convenience. In each part I attempt to map or draw the relevant area and my re-imaginings and provide relevant links. At the end of each one I provide the email addresses of Knoxville’s planners, so you will be able to voice your opinion. Remember, we will get what we want only if express our thoughts about the city’s potential to the people who can make them happen.

Let’s start the discussion by by re-introducing a previous topic – what to do with the Norfolk-Southern Rail Yard at Jackson Avenue. In hopes of changing it from blight to an asset, I believe this area has at the Jackson-Depot-Broadway lands have tremendous potential for growth and activation. To realize that potential, though, any transformative plan must, well, transform the area, starting with the blighted pit at its core, the Norfolk-Southern Railyard.

Railyard Map
Railyard Map
Railyard Before SAT
Current View of Railyard – Before SAT

Knoxville has a great history as a rail center, and the L&N station, the Southern Depot, and other historic sites stand as a record of that. Freight and passengers passed through Knoxville as the nation moved westward. However, the large rail yard along Jackson Avenue serves now not as a facilitator of movement but rather as a barrier – a figurative and very literal block to the revitalization and growth of our great downtown.  No one wants to walk across the rails, so they create an impediment to walkability; the noise and dirt reduce livability; and property values near rail suffer 5-20% decrement, further reducing the ability of a development nearby to succeed.

Current View of the Railyard from Broadway, Knoxville, July 2014
Current View of the Railyard from Broadway, Knoxville, July 2014
Current View of the Railyard from Gay Street, Knoxville, July 2014
Current View of the Railyard from Gay Street, Knoxville, July 2014

Norfolk-Southern adds to the economy of the city and State, and they certainly have every right to operate on the land they own, here and elsewhere. No one would begrudge the company’s need to operate safely and profitably. However, the city should make every effort possible, to convince NS that there is an easy solution that allows their operations to continue essentially unchanged, while ridding downtown of one of its most blighted areas. The city can acquire air-rights over the rail yard, leaving N-S all the vertical space they need to operate effectively. Hopefully, these efforts would be collaborative, but the city should remember that it has well-established eminent domain and blight-removal rights.

The technology has existed for over a century to construct safe high-ceiling decking over rail, and this is gaining traction in recent years in many cities, as the need for downtown space increases.  The technique is finding use even in places one would think blessed by unlimited space. Dallas, for example, has built a five-acre park over an eight-lane highway that bisects their northern downtown, and restored connectivity there.  In addition, recent innovations (see the ongoing Manhattan West development system in New York) have cut costs and conflicts considerably.

A deck should cover the five acres of the N-S rail yard, between the Gay Street and Broadway viaducts, and between the buildable land on the north side of Jackson Avenue and the south side of Depot Avenue. I am certainly not an engineer, but according to what I’ve read, a deck constructed simply to support ‘extensive green roofing’ can be accomplished for $5M per acre, or $25M the space in this discussion, including the green roofing itself. (‘Extensive green roofing’ entails engineering the support and space to grow grasses, shrubs, and even smaller trees upon what would otherwise be dead hot spaces, and so not surprisingly it finds the greatest use as the top surface of parking towers and large buildings.) As the Broadway viaduct is soon to be reconstructed anyway, the construction will not add much to the inconvenience already anticipated.

View from Broadway After Proposal
View from Broadway After Proposal
View from Gay After Proposal
View from Gay After Proposal

Twenty-five million dollars is certainly no small sum, but it is not out of proportion to other development incentives the city has relied upon (and which I heartily support). It would be money very well spent, for several reasons.

First, financial value.  Since people love the peace, green living space, walkability, and quiet that a park provides, real estate near park land is valued up to 20% higher than otherwise similar property further afield. Swinging from the 5-20% decrement of an adjacent rail yard to a 20% bonus creates a very large boost in value, value that will both entice development, and fill the city’s tax coffers.   Given the value-added nature of the adjacent properties, potential developers may find they can make the necessary profit without additional tax incentives. In addition, perhaps a local corporation, even N-S itself, can be convinced of the desirability of the project, enough to donate funds or to purchase naming rights.

Second, civic value. There is currently no green space in this part of downtown, and the creation of a five-acre space creates a myriad of opportunities–does the city want an amphitheater, concert space, a walkable wooded park, a site for the Clarence Brown Theater, or all of these at once ? An attractive place for any or all of these will provide a great draw toward downtown.

Third, connectivity value. The rail yard’s current barrier to northward expansion of downtown revitalization will be replaced with an attractive feature available to all residents of the city, which activates rather than suppresses the area.

Aerial View of Railyard After Proposal
Aerial View of Railyard After Proposal

In the next installment:  We’ve created a beautiful green park where just a few paragraphs ago lay a giant eyesore – now we need to take advantage of the vistas it offers.


Useful Links–Decking Over Things:


Rick Emmett, Downtown Coordinator:
Room 470B, City County Building
Fax: 865-215-232

Bob Whetsel, Director of Redevelopment:
Room 655, City County Building
Fax: 865-215-3035


William Lyons, Chief Policy Officer, Deputy to the Mayor:
Room 655, City County Building
Fax: 865-215-3035


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


Dawn Michelle Foster, Deputy Director of Redevelopment:
Room 655, City County Building
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)

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