Urban Street and Building Design and Memorable Focal Points

Current Five Point Intersection of Jackson, Oak, World's Fair Park Drive and Broadway
Current Five Point Intersection of Jackson, Oak, World’s Fair Park Drive and Broadway

When I first started writing this blog, I knew nothing about urban design. As I continue to learn, I realize that Just John’s latest installment gives some specific information which would have been very helpful to me. I realize many of you are architects, designers and planners and for you, much of what he’s written below is commonly known. It’s important for the rest of us involved in downtown to understand the basics he’s included today, so that the understanding of good urban design might form a more widely known basis for discussion about the future of the city. Here’s what he has to say:

In the first step of the transformative vision for Knoxville we replaced a rail yard in Jackson-Depot with a park. Next, we gave the park terminated vistas to enhance it, and discussed the basics of what the street will hold.  But what do we want to actually see, when we walk the street?

My discussion is mostly about infrastructure, rather than specific building designs. For example, David Denton’s great Southern Crossing concept would mesh just fine with these ideas – just lift it up to the level of the High Park and the Gay Street Viaduct!

However, I should give at least a nod to the design aspects of new urban development.  So:  what should a new street look like?  There are two ways to answer this question: the overarching style or general look of the area; and the specific details and interest-creating features that will keep pedestrians, residents and visitors alike, in the area.

On the first, we can let the past guide our choices somewhat, though it cannot dominate the present. The history of Jackson Avenue is crystallized in our modern mind’s eye by the recent McClung warehouse saga, and indeed brick warehouses are a big part of the street’s architectural history. But that is not the only architecture the street has hosted, and an aping of history should not be a requirement of any new architecture there. Although certainly for ‘place-making’ purposes some sort of homage to the street’s industrial history might be useful, the City should encourage modern design elements.

On the second front, there is a wealth of information about what makes a street ‘interesting’ and what saps its energy and interest.  The street itself should have wide sidewalks, as wide as possible without reducing the street.  Street trees provide shade, pedestrian safety, and a partial sound buffer for the residents above.  On-street parking adds an additional pedestrian safety buffer, and allows quick access to stores there.

The block face or the structures that people see as they walk the street, should be dominated by usable and viewable frontages, with a mix of uses keeping the street active at most hours.  Those building ground-level faces should be mostly glass/window or visually interesting architectural design, regardless of the uses going on behind them.  This doesn’t have to mean baroque stonework, or the latest modern facade, but a building cannot be allowed to show a blank face or an empty parking-scene to the street.  A blank wall as short as 50 feet long will sap the walkable energy of a street, even if there’s something really exciting on its far side.

Blank City Wall
Blank City Wall
Quebec Hill
Quebec Hill

Which of the above photographs would you prefer ?

Daytime retail and office uses and evening restaurant uses should be included, to ensure activity at most times of the day, but not every foot of ground floor street-face needs to be one of these.  Indeed, to require that every new street-level face in the whole of downtown be commercial will lead to empty storefronts, and cause precisely the ‘deactivated’ experience that mixed-use design is intended to prevent.  Since existing downtown office space currently goes wanting, office uses should play a minor role, at least at the beginning.

Residential spaces should therefore dominate the new buildings’ upper floors; and these residential components should have inviting front-facing street access and lobby space just as any office would.  Think, for example, about how inviting the Holston, Burwell, and Medical Arts Building entrances are, versus the blank door-and-stairs entry of Gay Street’s 300 Building, even though the residences in that building are actually quite nice. One helpful example of this required ‘mix of mixed uses’ is Manhattan. Even in that dense home to ten million people, many streets are predominantly faced by residential space, with a few retail sites; only a comparatively few streets are dominated by commerce.

Even with active, interesting street forms and architectural elements, the area is not simply a rectangle to be filled with a grid of streets; rather, it offers opportunities to create a defining statement or two – opportunities at memorable ‘place-making.’

There is one site in the Jackson Avenue Corridor, in particular, that offers a grand opportunity for place-making: the intersection of Broadway, Jackson Avenue, World’s Fair Park Drive, and Oak Avenue.  This is a ‘downtown Five-Points’ that, with a little attention, could define a downtown landmark and a memorable place. The Southeastern Glass Building is the only one of five corners occupied by a long-term business: the properties at the southeastern and southwestern corners are both currently or recently listed for sale (and they are sizable tracts); the Keener Lighting business has announced it is closing its store at the northwestern corner; and the direct-north corner is an empty triangular void above yet another piece of the N-S rail yard. Each of these four dis-used corners should be redeveloped to create a ‘destination intersection’ that draws residents both on foot and in vehicles. The City could help by ‘land-banking’ the sites and presenting another Request For Proposals.

Map of the Jackson/Broadway Area as it currently exists
Map of the Jackson/Broadway Area as it currently exists

Certainly none of the streets at that intersection needs to be wider than three lanes, based on current traffic patterns – and Broadway is up to a whopping six lanes.  A road with up to 23,000 cars per day can be right-sized to one lane in each direction and a left turn space without adverse impact, and the counts reveal clearly that the streets at this intersection do not need to be large: 2012 TDOT traffic counts for Broadway were less than ten thousand; for Jackson, less than four thousand; and Oak, barely over four hundred.  Alternatively, if the occasion calls for it – and I hope it will, as I discuss in later posts – these can retain their size but gain considerable life by taking on new identities as multi-way boulevards.

With the streets right-sized one way or the other, there is plenty of space, without expensive building changes, for the broad sidewalks and street furniture that help activate a space and create a walkable environment.  Outdoor dining, pocket-parks, or plaza-style paving could find a great home in the narrower corners of this five-points intersection. Or, imagine the intersection reconfigured as a roundabout, with a central fountain or art piece offering a visual landmark – and offering a nice ‘terminated vista’ down each of the five streets (see how these themes recur?). Once accomplished, the question rises as to how to connect this seeming island to the surrounding neighborhoods. We’ll address that in the next installment.

An example of what the Intersection could look like
An example of what the Intersection could look like


Helpful Links–Mixed-Use Design and Street Design:






Helpful Links–Place-Making:







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
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)