Today we welcome Just John for the second in his series of posts:
In the first installment of this series introducing a trasnformative vision for downtown Knoxville, we replaced a rail yard in Jackson-Depot with a park. Now we need to beautify it. A ‘Knoxville High Park’ even in isolation will be a great cityscape improvement, but the surrounding properties offer additional opportunities for transformation, as do several sites slightly further afield but nonetheless in the blocks nearby.
The eastern and western ends of the park provide prime opportunities for ‘terminated vistas,’ that is, sites for grand, interesting, or important architecture. A person looking down the length of the park (or a road) has his or her view toward the end of the space, which gives the structure occupying that position added prominence. Traditionally, such an honored space would be reserved for a civic building, a church, or other grand edifice.
The eastern end of the new park will terminate at the Gay Street viaduct, so a feature building should be constructed in the space abutting the east side of the viaduct, currently occupied by another rail yard void–this is not big enough for a new City Hall or a relocated Church Street Church, but it would be a great place for a theater or an art gallery, or a great site for a Knoxville Rail Museum.
The open expanse of the park is triangular, funneling toward the eastern end, to the west of the Gay Street viaduct. That narrower bit would be a great place to offer an outdoor stage site, viewable from the entirety of the wedge of park space ! The structure need not be permanent (though it could be), but rather simply a flat solid (paved, bricked, or simply grassed) site that would allow temporary concert or theater stage set-up. The other 4-ish acres of park space could hold thousands of people.
At the west end, the Broadway viaduct will soon be reconstructed, creating two great redevelopment opportunities there. The first, the terminated vista I describe here, and the second opportunity receives its own explication later. The Smith & Hammaker company owns a large industrial building at the ground level west of the viaduct, with almost nothing at Broadway viaduct street-level, creating another void. Its position at the ‘wide’ end of the High Park gives added importance to the site, and makes the absence of ‘something’ there more pronounced. The company sold part of the building to TDOT as part of the coming Broadway viaduct reconstruction, and will move its operations to a building east of Hall of Fame Avenue. The rest of the building not destroyed by Broadway reconstruction will thus soon be ‘surplus,’ and as part of the transformation of the area the city should acquire this rump building and include it in one or more RFPs.
This large site would be a great place of honor for a structure that downtown the much-needed and much-discussed downtown grocery and pharmacy, or an Ikea or other downtown-friendly ‘medium-box store,’ with residences above that.
Now that we’ve replaced a rail yard in Jackson-Depot with a park and provided terminated vistas to that park, we need to populate its neighborhood with buildings. The Jackson ramps and the avenue streetscape are already scheduled for rehabilitation. The northeast side of Jackson Avenue currently hosts a large underused surface parking lot, with lot access at the lowest geographic point of the block. This means that both at Gay Street and again at its western end the lot is well below grade. This doubly sloping geography creates interesting opportunities, for walkability, store frontage, and vehicular access.
The street face – the part of the building that pedestrians see – should be complete, without any gaps except for walkways. The buildings built along Jackson Avenue should not offer an entirely uniform facade, but rather should provide visible variation. All the buildings should certainly be multi-story, not necessarily ‘high-rise’ but rather mostly in the 5-8 story range–large enough to provide density, and therefore a population large enough to warrant retail development, without shadowing the streets’ natural light. Will that limit its potential ? Not really. If you think about it, central Paris is one of the Western world’s most-densely populated cities, but most of its buildings uniformly top out at 7 stories, thanks to the 1800s Hausmannization plan.
It’s important to note again that this is an exercise mostly in infrastructure, not a discussion of individual building-sites. I think David Denton’s Southern Crossing is a wonderful concept, and the two plans are complementary.
Residents and visitors alike will need parking, because no matter how walkable the local environment is, most people will arrive in cars. To that end, below-grade parking is a necessity, and to provide certainty some of it must be reserved for the new residents (for a fee that reflects the cost of parking-provision). Car access to this under-grade parking from Jackson Avenue itself should be via the same site it currently enters the large parking surface lot, at the block’s lowest point around midway through the block. However, primary access should be provided from behind, via an access road at rail-yard level, arriving via access-lanes from near the L&N Station. The buildings should also offer direct access to the Knoxville High Park directly behind them, for their residents and visitors.
In addition, cities have had success with ‘sector parking plans’ which provide a central parking garage for visitors within a confined geographic range, and there is no reason that would not work here, to serve not only the buildings right-adjacent, but for the one-to-two blocks in each direction. Mid-block pedestrian walks, well lit and with interesting wall facing, provide access to and from the street. The garage, however, should not show a parking-face to the world, but rather should have either ground-floor usable space or should be ‘buried’ within the core of a block. There’s more discussion of parking later.
What about the northern side of High Park, along Depot Avenue? This north side is currently occupied by parking lots owned by Depot Properties Inc., and more Norfolk-Southern property adjacent to Gay Street. It is therefore not immediately available for city RFP inclusion unless the City gets bolder with eminent domain. However, the largely empty and under-used space will quickly become valuable, with creation of the park nearby, and revitalization of the Jackson Avenue side providing an easy direct example. The sloping ground there provides the same opportunities for active streetscape development with below-grade and sector parking.
Next: What should these new buildings actually look like ? What will people see and do walking the neighborhood ?