Here’s a new installment by guest writer Just John, a local amateur urban development enthusiast, who is neither an architect, engineer or developer himself and neither owns nor plans to own properties downtown for redevelopment. He simply enjoys urban planning, thinks of possibilities and hopes to engender discussion. This installment is timely because of the following press release from the city:
“City of Knoxville’s Public Arts Committee Hosts Design Charrette for Gay Street / Summit Hill Park on August 21
(07/25/2014/Knoxville) – The City of Knoxville’s Public Arts Committee is pleased to present a Design Charrette and Public Input Meeting on Thursday, August 21, from 2:00-6:00 PM at the Emporium Center in downtown Knoxville to discuss the redevelopment of the City Park located at the intersection of Summit Hill Drive and Gay Street . . . all are welcome to attend this free event, and participants are invited to attend the entire meeting or visit as their schedule allows . . . A design charrette is defined as an intense period of design, with input from designers and users, to develop a solution to a defined problem . . . Items for discussion may include: how to develop a park that is inviting and dynamic to people of all ages and from a variety of vantage points; how to incorporate public art into the park; how the park can function as a connector between Market Square and the Old City; and more. Each group will present their Park Concept Plan at the end of the meeting . . . (Later), the park concept plans will be refined and displayed at the Emporium and on social media. The public will have an opportunity to cast a vote for his or her favorite Park Concept Plan. These votes will be tallied and the highest vote getters will be developed further . . . The meeting will take place at the Emporium Center, 100 S. Gay Street . . . ”
The first thing that becomes obvious in this announcement is that there is no mention of “Treble Clef Park” as many of us called it when the eponymous sculpture resided there, nor is there any mention of “Country Music Park,” which is the formal name previously given the park as its official name. Does this mean that the city intends to begin fresh with this park? Does the original concept matter to anyone? If you want to think big while we have the chance, Just John’s ideas for the area could be that big thinking.
In the fourth installment he mentioned a land-swap possibility that would put the 200 block of S. Gay Street back in the hands of the city and offer a chance to turn that parking lot into mixed-use buildings, which he feels, when combined with today’s suggestions, would “go a very long way toward meeting the City’s stated goal to ‘redevelop the downtown park at Gay Street and Summit Hill Drive in a way that is inviting and dynamic to people of all ages and from a variety of vantage points; how to incorporate public art; and how the park can function as a connector between Market Square/Gay Street and the Old City,’ which is part of the charge for tomorrow’s meeting. Here’s what he has to say:
The core parts of downtown have had a very good start at revitalization, and some people (including me) think we should start to be selective in what goes into the limited space we have. Let’s now take the automotive plank out of downtown’s eye, and then look at its splinters – let’s deal with Summit Hill Avenue.
Summit Hill Avenue is a product of a different automotive era: it was designed to ‘suburbanize’ the city by laying a curving broad and speedy thoroughfare atop the city grid, and thereby essentially destroying the grid in that part of downtown. The interstate highway system now fulfills the need for speed and the many lights along Summit Hill preclude its being the ‘quick way’ to anywhere–and as a result the TDOT traffic count study of 2012 reveals less than 12,500 cars use this street daily. (Ed. note: This traffic count is virtually identical to that of Cumberland which is undergoing a road diet as we speak.) The curving and wide right of way, able to accommodate many more daily trips than that, sits underused but nonetheless disrupts pedestrian flow and precludes the type of development that will help the city grow. The time has come to consider a change – and as you’ll see, it need not be an expensive one.
Three sections present different problems: the western curve, west of Walnut Street; the straight section, between Walnut and South Gay Street; and the eastern curve, between Gay and South Central Street.
The straight middle section has the simplest problem, and the easiest solution. It’s simply too wide. As has been discussed in others’ recent Knoxville weblogs and elsewhere, the traffic count study supports a 3-lane roadway, not the five-lane structure currently occupying the space; and the crossing distance across those five lanes discourages pedestrian use. The city should simply re-stripe the street to one driving lane and one parking lane in each direction (with left-turn lane at Gay Street), and invest in the minimal hardscape changes necessary to reinforce the change, such as bulb-outs at intersections. For minimal expense this would yield dozens of parking spaces, and create a safer, more walkable environment.
The eastern curve is particularly disruptive to the downtown’s orderly grid, swooping one block northward as it courses east to meet South Central Street. In so doing, it fills Gay Street’s 200 block with a major impediment to walkable activated street life – a riotous commingling of parking lots, irregular intersections, and, in Treble Clef Park, a public space simultaneously too small for organized activities and too exposed to allow respite from city life.
A solution readily presents itself: restore the urban grid, and both traffic and public space can improve.
To do that, we’ll continue the eastbound Summit Hill (coming from the TVA-building area) straight east along the 300 Building’s northern side to meet the orphaned one-block length of Commerce Avenue. On the other side, we’ll continue westbound Summit Hill (coming from the JWP area) straight west through the parking lot south of the Rebori Building to meet the foot of Vine Avenue (not shown – the street that flows behind the current 200 block parking lot up the hill to the Catholic Church). We’ll complete the grid’s eastern side either with an upgraded north-bound Charles Place (which lies between the furniture store and the 100-block of Summit Hill), or by continuing State Street straight northward. If we allow it to continue northward across the intersection to State Street, we’ll further increase permeability.
With the exception of the Gay Street component, all these can be one-way, counter-clockwise around the newly expanded Treble Clef Park, which at two to three times its current size would have enough space to honor local musical history in a much more thorough way, while also providing space for quiet passive pursuits. The coming Marble Alley development will find itself with better frontage and access.
The western curve is more geometrically complex, as it must (in the current configuration) accommodate complex interactions with Western Avenue, Henley Street, and the interstate ramps.
There is a ready solution to this complexity and a ready solution to the curve. Currently, Summer Place, Locust Street (north of Summit Hill), and Cafego Place are orphan streets, isolated in the northwest corner of the core downtown grid, not really connecting anything except each other and therefore of only limited utility. They’re like that because Summit Hill Avenue arced through the grid there, and then the (now former) Kimberly-Clarke building ‘sealed off’ access from the south.
A simple solution is apparent: remove the oblique part of Summit Hill, and replace it with a landscaped pedestrian way; and simply re-connect Locust Street with its orphaned fragment, to create a circuit with Summer Place, Walnut Street, Locust Street, and Cafego Place. Only Cafego Place would need upgrades, as it is currently one-way, but KCDC already owns a part of the street frontage there in a surface lot, so this would not require much property-rights work. Summer Place will continue westward to meet Henley Street.
This reconfiguration will bring street activity to this currently rather desolate part of downtown–imagine a restaurant or cafe fronting Cafego and opening onto the green pedestrian way we created by removing the avenue. It will also reinforce the utility of Vine Avenue and Walnut Street as connected thoroughfares leading to and from the Jackson Avenue district.
Next: We’ll look at the problems presented by Henley Street and offer a solution you haven’t heard before.