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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.