Ed. Note: Today Just John turns his attention to the east along Jackson Avenue and side streets. A couple of notes: First, the Jackson Avenue Corridor plan, which will bring improvements to this area in the near term, may address some of the problems mentioned in this post, however, most of what is included in that plan does not cover his suggested alterations and improvements. Second, it apparently bears repeating: Just John is not a professional planner, architect, engineer or developer. He has not purchased buildings or tracts of land in this area and is simply attempting to engender conversation about the possibilities we might pursue.
In the first steps of a transformative vision, we created a new neighborhood surrounding the Norfolk-Southern rail yard near Jackson and Depot avenues. There’s of course much more to downtown than that one area, and in this installment I’ll discuss opportunities for the other part of Jackson/Depot, east of Gay Street.
This part of downtown has suffered the same disinvestment that others did, but also suffered the indignity of disruption–the elevated interstates and James White Parkway sliced through the existing street fabric and left an unappealing mess. The eastern Jackson-Depot neighborhood could thus now almost be defined in relation to these highways, and any travel to or from neighborhoods east or north must use underpasses: beneath James White Parkway at East Magnolia Avenue, East Jackson Avenue, and Willow Avenue; and beneath I-40 at North Central Street, Williams Street, North Gay Street, Broadway Avenue, and Cooper Street.
A few developers are beginning to dip their toes into these muddied waters, and the City should encourage the revitalization. In an ideal re-imagining we would not have to deal with the elevated roadways–and we’ll come to that later–but for this discussion we’ll concentrate on the current reality. As we achieved with the Knoxville High Park, we must turn a blight into an opportunity. How do we accomplish that?
First, let’s look eastward. We need to utilize the land under James White Parkway to the best extent possible. There’s not much hope for actual physical development in these underways, though some cities are experimenting with siting government facilities in such places, so we’re left with that constant companion: parking. We can expand the parking lots flanking East Jackson Avenue, under James White Parkway, via the City purchasing the following lots: that west of JWP, east of Morgan Street, between Jackson Avenue and the railroad; that west of JWP, south of the Morgan Street terminus, south of Jackson Avenue; and that directly beneath and just east of JWP, south of Jackson Avenue, west of Patton Street. Parking can be doubled or tripled if we make these underway lots to two- or three-level garages (the highest that will fit). This might be achieved as a public-private partnership, again, to reduce financial risk to the city.
Our new parking garages are better than no-improvement, but from the perspective of a pedestrian, each roadway underpass itself will still be noisy, dirty, and potentially (in the imagination, at least) unsafe, and as such will create an ‘open impediment’ to walking through. However these spaces can easily be improved into streetscape amenities. How? By making them, in computer-ese, ‘a feature, not a bug.’
Achieve a safe sense of space by enclosing or “tunnelizing” the streets and the sidewalks (either as separate spaces -one for cars and another for non automotive travel -or if necessary for cost reasons as one space). Hide the functional elements (support pillars, overhead highway beams, electrical elements) and the parking areas behind solid walls. Achieve a sense of safety by ensuring the walks are well-lighted and clear of obstructions or ‘hiding places.’ Make the new walls of the pedestrian walks interesting by using brick, tile, stone, or some other non-industrial surface, and include lighted wall art (or advertisement) spaces along the walls.
The interiors could be fancy, or it could be simply functional and safe. Here are some examples:
These photos are all of pedestrian-exclusive tunnels, but they could just as easily include the roadway.
If we tunnelize the underpasses we will need to move the parking entrances from their current locations under the bridges. That’s no problem. We can construct decorative permanent entry/egress sites into the southern garage facing the terminus of Morgan Street, and into the northern garage facing the terminus of Patton Avenue.
We made the passages interesting and safe by enclosing them and providing interesting materials to look at. We’ll continue the facing material outward sideways from the tunnel mouths, as well, as far as is necessary to completely hide the under-roadway space from pedestrians walking the nearby roadways.
Here’s an example of the tunnel material continuing outward along the facing wall, to hide the material behind it:
In many parts, an existing or new building can accomplish this without additional effort. In some places, where no building is present, this might require a long wall (for example, along the northern edges of West Magnolia Avenue from Broadway to North Gay, from North Gay to Williams, and from Williams to North Central Street). Remember, though: no blank walls, or people will lose interest. So we should make these walks ‘interesting’ with street furniture, art/advertising space, and lighting. It would also potentially require narrow/irregular liner buildings or false building facades along the Morgan Street, Patton Street, and partial Jackson Avenue faces of the parking under JWP.
We made the tunnels interesting and safe, but there’s still a big, ugly highway there ! Let’s reduce its conspicuity in the same way we did the sides: we’ll continue the interesting or decorative tunnel wall elements, out from the tunnel mouths, upward to the margin of the over-passing highway itself, so that the large roadway is not visible. We can use this new wall space to assist in ‘placemaking’ by in-laying lettering for the street name and “welcome to <neighborhood>” statements.
Here are some examples:
Here’s an amateur drawing of the changes to Jackson Avenue:
Just as in the western part of Jackson-Depot, the Norfolk-Southern rail disrupts the southern edge of the neighborhood. Since it’s here only a rail ‘line’ and not a whole rail ‘yard’ the visual blight is much less–but as anyone who has been on the wrong side of a coal train will attest, it still is pretty disruptive. The only way to ensure trains don’t interfere with city life–and vice versa–is to grade-separate them. Since the rail line isn’t going anywhere, that leaves one option: viaduct. We need to consider building a viaduct over the railroad at North Central Street, and a viaduct over the railroad at Morgan Street.
Just like on the western part, we can deck-over the rail line–of course high enough that trains run unencumbered–and make an additional linear park. A long linear green space would enhance the live-ability and desirability of the neighborhood, and provide an economic incentive for development along its sides.
What does a linear elevated park look like ? Here is the famous High Line, in Manhattan.
The elevated JWP segment east of Morgan Street is held up by dirt embankments rather than overpasses, so the park (or anything else) would have to stop there as long as JWP exists (more on that later). This provides an additional opportunity for a grand ‘terminated vista’ over the railroad between Morgan Street and the elevated JWP.
Need some more green space to counterbalance all the cement ? There’s a small strip of land north of West Magnolia between Williams and North Central, sitting empty because there’s not much development potential. It would, though, make a terrific site for a small water-element park, children’s playground, or dog park. There’s also a large tract of sloping land between West Magnolia and the off-ramp from I-40E to JWP-Southbound. It’s not usable currently because it could allow people onto the highway; but if we grade it into flat land at street level, with the same decorative retaining wall features as described earlier, we could either continue the first park eastward, or use it for city-government building space.
The East Jackson-Depot area has been filled by industry and neglect for a long time, so we will need to upgrade neighborhood pedestrian infrastructure. Widen all sidewalks to 11-14 feet, and install improved lighting, street trees, bollards, benches, and bicycle racks, just as in earlier examples. Although we constructed parking garages under the highways, we’ll also keep space for on-street parking wherever possible, as an additional pedestrian buffer. When two-side sidewalk widening precludes two-side parking, we’ll add parking only on one side, rather than narrow the sidewalks, and add more bollards to the ‘unprotected’ side to enhance pedestrian safety. We will need to design-in public bathrooms, too, ideally in the parking garage areas under I-40 and JWP.
In the next installment, I’ll turn my attention southward from this point, and focus on the northern part of our downtown core. What can we do with Summit Hill Avenue ?
Useful Links–Pocket Parks; Tunnelizing Pedestrian Passages; and Usable Space Under Highways: