When the Urban Land Institute suggested that the Coliseum District needed to go forward as an area dominated by residential and mixed use development, some were surprised. The implication that the coliseum should not be a part of the future for the area surprised many, including me. Just John had already been thinking about the area and here are his thoughts on what needs to happen in this difficult section of downtown:
The neighborhoods east of the Parkway are a combination of lower-income housing and the Coliseum and its associated structures, and they have been reconfigured into ‘super blocks’ that further reduce permeability.
The ‘superblocks’ are certainly under-used–this area has more ‘built-in’ advantages than any other district near downtown. Several huge parking garages in good condition sit unused 95 % of the time, and several empty sites await development and activation. (One of these sites, a 5-acre tract east of Hill Avenue, was recently purchased, but plans for it are unannounced).
Compared to all the controversy surrounding parking-access in downtown, these areas are ‘ready to go.’ In addition, the garages themselves are set back from the roadside, and stepped-back further at higher levels, which makes possible street-facing liner stores, restaurants, and other ‘activating’ features. The surface lots for the Police Station and the Regions Bank there offer additional opportunities for development.
Howard Baker Jr. died in 2014. The road named after him could have a long and prosperous future. Unlike the streets of downtown to its west (including its own continuation, Church Street) it is wide, it has a tree-planted median, and it boasts generous and generally well-lit sidewalks. Its problems: it is five lanes wide; it has no parking on-street; and of course there is very little for a pedestrian or an on-street parker to do there most of the time. The first are easy: reduce the lanes to three; add on-street parallel parking in the space, including street trees like the 100 Block of South Gay Street. The other is soluble, as well, though that will take additional efforts.
The part of East Summit Hill Drive between HOFA and Dandridge Avenue shares some of these advantages, though it is not as well lit. East Hill Avenue is similarly appointed with wide street and sidewalk spaces. The development along these currently is mostly suburban-style office parks and low-income housing, all set far back from and not interacting with the streets.
Townview Drive is a U-shaped road partially encircling Green Elementary School. It is not parallel to any other road nearby, or even straight to the school it fronts. It separates the school from the housing and office parks nearby; no building interacts with it, except partially the school.
The east-west part of JWP, walled and bordered by Historic Preservation Drive, will never in its current form welcome walking or development, but it could be reconfigured as a multiway boulevard with relative ease. It already boasts a large hotel as well as a bank and the Hall of Fame itself, though it doesn’t interact with them in its current form. Integrating these into a walkable streetscape will provide opportunity for greater civic life and further development.
Honor Our Troops Drive is a one-block north-south street connecting Howard Baker Avenue and Historic Preservation Drive, east of a huge parking garage and west of a huge parking lot (for the police station further east). As such, it does nothing useful.
Networking the Super-blocks:
Honor Our Troops Drive should be continued northward to intersect Townview Drive (which itself should be straightened and made parallel to its neighbor streets); and continued southward to East Hill Avenue.
A parallel street should be constructed east of the coliseum, running southward to intersect the new James White Boulevard we discussed, and further to ‘Riverfront Way’ (the hotel access road is named); and additionally northward between two additional huge parking garages, as far as it can be taken.
A second parallel street would run just east of a forested tract owned by one of our local conservation groups, from Townview Drive to HBA at the police station. A cross street parallel to Howard Baker Avenue should run north of these garages–in fact, there is already an essentially-unused garage access road in the proper location.
Building the Amenities:
The forested tract in the center of this district is owned by a local conservation group, which is great. Green space is a wonderful amenity, for peace, solitude, shade, animal life, and cleaner local air.
As mentioned, much of the built environment in this district is suburban-style low-income apartment parks and office parks. However, the current trend in public housing assistance is toward integrating low-income residents within the larger community, rather than isolating and concentrating such hardship, so these apartment areas may not be long-lived. This vision-plan concentrates mostly on urban form and connection, rather than the specifics of urban use, but one could easily imagine these communities reconfigured as street-facing row-house or mid rise development, mixing market rate and subsidized residents’ housing without announcing the difference architecturally.
The two huge garages north of HBA are begging for addition. They are placed 40 to 50 feet back from the sidewalk at street level, and the first two stories have further step-backs. This space is ideal for retail/restaurant space. With ample rear-access parking already present, mid rise or even high rise housing could be built atop the garages.
Additional space is readily available for larger commercial needs–grocery store; Target-style store; Ikea; whatever is needed. An unused giant lawn sits to the west side of Honor Our Troops Drive; and there are additional large spaces east of the HOTD, surrounding the Suntrust Bank building south of HPD, and in a 5-acre tract east of East Hill Avenue. The first two are currently—you guessed it: parking lots !
The coliseum district has great fundamentals for redevelopment—good (modifiable) streets and sidewalks, and lots and lots of parking. Re-integration of its superblocks, and innovative building upon parking garages, will allow this area to flourish.
Next: North, West, and East–what’s left ? Oh, yes, the south side of downtown.