In this installment of his series on how to transform downtown Knoxville, Just John examines James White Parkway, which he affectionately calls our “highway valley.” It addresses, at least indirectly one of the sites targeted by the current Urban Land Institute visit: the Civic Auditorium and Coliseum. Its isolation from downtown appears to be an impediment to its usefulness and, I assume, that’s why it was included for study by the city. Here’s Just John:
The set of walled James White Parkway and Neyland Drive-access highway lanes in the shallow valley east of Central Street presents a complex of problems similar to Henley Street: the structure is overbuilt; the arterial freeway design totally separates the Civic Coliseum area from the rest of downtown; and the limited access results in a complicated nest of overpass lanes. Pedestrian travel and street side life are nil.
The dead space surrounding the James White Parkway and the Neyland Drive access ramps is over 600 feet wide, which is clearly an impediment to walkability.
There are several ways to deal with the ‘Highway Valley’ of James White Parkway, ranging from simple tried-and-true methods to more costly but more effective means.
The simplest way is to build more bridges. The City constructed the intermodal transit station above the Parkway itself, and there is no fundamental reason that downtown’s east-west roads could not be continued over the Parkway to meet South Hall of Fame Drive. Increased connectivity over the Parkway would be good as an end itself, but it would bring an added bonus: It would render excess some of the complex and terrifically confusing streetwork interplay at the south end of the Highway Valley, between the Parkway, the Neyland Drive access, and the riverside streets.
The simplest solution: build bridges across the valley.
The bridge-building project would obviously make better connections across the Parkway, but the bridges would still cross over a noisy and unappealing gulf, so the actual desire to connect would be minimal. The next rung up the complexity ladder addresses that weakness: create new space over the highway. As we did at the Norfolk-Southern railway, we would deck-over the Parkway, or at least the parts near the crossing roadways. That would allow construction of new buildings, or simply accessible park-land. It would, however, be expensive, and would not actually do anything about the Parkway itself.
Multiway Boulevard Reformation:
The most integrative approach to improving this area might sound like a repeat, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with repeating a success. Let’s re-imagine the James White Parkway and Neyland Drive access lanes as a multiway boulevard.
The northbound and southbound components of the Parkway and Neyland Drive in the valley total to 44,000 daily trips, on average (TDOT 2013). This volume of traffic could be easily accommodated with a multiway boulevard having two rapid-travel lanes in each direction. The current ROW is literally hundreds of feet wider than required–for the same volume of travel.
A multiway boulevard, as I mentioned in relation to Henley Street, allows both rapid through-traffic and slower local/bicycle/foot traffic in the same right of way, without resorting to access-limitation or walls. This lets flourish a healthy street side without encumbering travel.
A new James White Boulevard could take one of two generic courses: centered or peripheral within the current valley.
A James White Boulevard commencing at an intersection with Summit Hill Drive and traveling down the center of the current ‘highway valley’ would yield enough flanking space to allow at least fourteen entire city blocks, and these would be easily created by continuing the east-west streets of downtown, currently ending at Central, eastward to intersect the access lanes of the new boulevard, and then further eastward to meet Hall of Fame Avenue. The complex web of interstate ramps leading to this area wouldn’t have to change. This would be a clear improvement over the current set-up, but putting the new road at the edge of the current wasteland would be even better.
A new James White Boulevard, still in the middle of the valley.
Tear out the limited-access highways, and place James White Boulevard replacing one of the streets on the edges of the current ‘highway valley’: Central Street or Hall of Fame Avenue. Since HOFA is already overbuilt it would be an easier transition, but either would offer the same benefits. The traversing east-west streets would simply continue across the valley without major impediment. The east side of Central Street and the west side of HOFA would be available for new development.
Reconfiguring Hall of Fame as a multiway boulevard.
Unearth First Creek:
The most exciting benefit of a peripheral re-imagining: First Creek could be unearthed. The little river is currently concreted and buried beneath the highways, but it still flows. If it were re-introduced to daylight as a several-block-long landscaped flowing park, and downtown residents in turn re-introduced to the creek, it would offer an incredible amenity, both for the public good as well as for the development that would be possible along those street-sides.
A multiway boulevard reconfiguration (in this example taking the site of Hall of Fame Avenue), allowing re-opening of First Creek as a public amenity.
If the Interstates are to remain (and as we’ll see later, they need not), a partial reconfiguring of the interchanges for JWP and HOFA would assist this re-imagining. Those lanes leading to JWP from I-40 eastbound, and from JWP to I-40 westbound, would remain; as would those lanes leading to HOFA from I-40 westbound and from HOFA to I-40 eastbound. The other half of each interchange would simply disappear. The JWP and HOFA parts would merge/diverge above East Jackson Avenue east of Morgan Street, where each part already had large overpasses.
Reducing the volume of interstate cement helps re-open the East Jackson-Depot and Fourth-and-Gill neighborhoods.
What about the east-west part of the current parkway, along the north shore of the river ? It is walled in by the divided lanes of (the ironically named – ed.) Historic Preservation Drive, and so it already functions similar to a multiway boulevard now–though without the pedestrian safety and civic improvement virtues of that type. It could be left as-is, if we decide to discourage development along that part; or it, too, could be reconfigured as a true multiway boulevard, with the local and transiting travel types put in the same plane, which would encourage development there.
Easier access to the Coliseum District, and less Spaghetti-Junction at the south end of the Parkway.
Next: Now that we’ve gained easy access to the neighborhoods and coliseum district east of the downtown core, let’s improve them as well.