Anticipation built through the week last week as the Urban Institute panel worked overtime looking at sites around the city, interviewing interested parties and determining recommendations. Originally contracted to review the Supreme Court site and the McClung site, their task was expanded to include an almost impossible list for their time here, incorporating Henley Street, the World’s Fair Park and the area of the Knoxville Coliseum and Auditorium.
It all culminated, pending the written report which should be issued within ninety days, with the panel’s presentation of their findings and suggestions on Friday morning. The assembled audience in the nearly-fill Bijou seemed to hold its collective breath as the group revealed their findings. In the end, their recommendations held a few surprises, but mostly hewed to what one would expect given current urban planning practice. Still, if followed, some of the suggestions would steer the city in different directions than has previously been the case.
I’ll break it down by site and give you what I gleaned as I listened. I’ll have the benefit, thanks to quick work by the city – including a faithful employee who’d just had a hip replacement, but still uploaded it, of the entire presentation which you may access as a pdf here. The city intends to link a comment option, but that wasn’t on the site when last I looked.
Leigh Ferguson, chair of the committee began with some over-arching comments before the panel worked their way to the final recommendations. Much of what was said by Mr. Ferguson and the others prior to the recommendations was noteworthy, so I’ll hit some of the notes that struck me.
Knoxville was commended for the work that has been done so far and they thanked the city for the in-depth background information provided. Pretty quickly the presentation got into the meat of their observations. Observations regarding downtown space included the fact that we’ve reached full absorption of our housing stock, though Marble Alley will be the next test to demand with 283 (the figure they used, though some places say “238”) new apartments adding about 25% to available homes at one time.
Office space sits at a 15% vacancy rate, with the last major office construction over twenty years ago. They did not see a need for more at this time. Hotel occupancy runs at 56%, with the average price for a room sitting below $80. The exception they pointed out was the Oliver Hotel, though small, has near a 100% occupancy rate
They saw the presence of Urban Outfitters as a potential turning point for downtown redevelopment – though only if it is successful. They indicated the Convention Center is underutilized, but also possibly under-funded and under-promoted. They said our city has a great personality, though it made me wonder if that means we aren’t pretty. They also spoke of the personalities of the various districts saying, for example, that the Theater District provides vibrancy and support for retail.
They spoke of Market Square as being vibrant at all times and not filled with tourists, which I took to mean they thought that was a good thing. They specifically mentioned our Artist Alley Project in Strong/Armstrong Alley as showing an “important part of your culture.” Missing pieces, however, exist and must be addressed.
They spoke negatively of the southern Civic District, referring to it as a “barrier,” presumably between downtown and the river, which they were concerned is not easily accessible. The emptiness of this area after business areas will be a growing problem for crime as our population increases and they strongly recommend developing mixed use, presumably including residential, for this corridor.
Edges consumed a good bit of the early focus in the presentation. Edges can serve a helpful purpose and ours defines the area of focus for redevelopment and that’s the positive view. The southern and western boundaries to downtown are natural – the Tennessee River and Second Creek. Concern was expressed regarding our barriers to the north and east.
To the north, the train yard was viewed as a serious problem that must be dealt with. Andrew Irvine delivered the funniest line of the day when he said the entities most difficult to deal with or change are in ascending order, City Government, the Department of Transportation, God and the railroad. Still, he said it is worth the effort because our rail yard simply must be addressed, remediated and re-purposed. He point out that only three freight trains a day pass through the massive space and mentioned that some cities have obtained air rights to build over their rail yards (sound familiar?).
But it was the eastern edge on which they really hammered. The barrier presented by James White Parkway and Hall of Fame (hearing echos?). Resurrecting First Creek, adding landscaping and other changes are necessary to make this an inviting gateway to the city. Calling Knoxville “concrete rich,” our infrastructure is designed, they feel to accommodate the seven days a year that we have a large influx of traffic. The panel seemed a bit incredulous that we’ve built so many roads.
Two members of the committee tried on their own to navigate the eastern edge of the city from the north to the river. Predictably, they didn’t make it. While it’s doable, it isn’t easy and it isn’t necessarily navigable to someone visiting the city. Lack of connections to the river were lamented throughout the presentation. The suggestion was floated that perhaps the city would like a panel to look specifically at ways to make those connections.
The one commendation mentioned on the eastern edge was the Transportation Center, though not for the reasons, such as LED certification, design and reclamation of air space over James White Parkway, that I would have imagined. While I suspect they probably liked those things, they mentioned specifically the possible development that can take place from that urban node. Not much else seemed to make them optimistic about this part of the city.
Additionally, they suggested addressing the perception of a lack of parking, though they made it clear that, while that wasn’t their focus, we seem to have less a problem with inadequate amounts of spaces and more simply with the perception. They encouraged the city to look to other cities for best practices, as the problem is virtually universal.
Emphasis was given to recognizing underutilized spaces and targeting them for proper and best utilization. The concern is if we let key spots slip into less-than-best use, we’ll suffer. Basic services should be a focus for the city to promote on these sites. A grocery store was mentioned, but, perhaps more interestingly, the statement was made that a downtown school will be necessary going forward.
The introductory session was concluded with a couple of final observations and suggestions. Art and culture should be “taken to the next level,” though I’m not clear where that is coming from and what it means. I’ll hope the final report fleshes that out. Design regulations need to be strict and enforced to maintain quality development. The point was made that this is a competition between cities and others are working harder and smarter.
I’ll follow up with examinations of the specific site recommendations, but I think this list could keep us busy for the next decades. What do you think?