What to Do with the World’s Fair Park?

World's Fair Park North Satellite View
World’s Fair Park North Satellite View

Back for another round, Just John takes a look at the World’s Fair Park. It has elicited quite a bit of conversation in recent months and one such exchange followed his piece about making Henley Street a multiway boulevard. So, he decided to take up the topic:


The recent discussion of what to do with Henley Street led to debate about the ideal use for the World’s Fair park area.  It is wonderful to have green space in the city, and if appropriately activated, that space becomes a tremendous asset, both in terms of increased property values and in terms of resident happiness.

World's Fair Park North Map
World’s Fair Park North Map
World's Fair Park South Satellite View
World’s Fair Park South Satellite View
World's Fair Park South Map
World’s Fair Park South Map
The park areas right now have great, open spaces, but there are not many people in the immediate vicinity who might use them easily.  Sure, there are residents in the Candy Factory lofts, and intrepid residents of core-downtown or eastern Fort Sanders may trek there.  But currently both parks are bordered predominantly by under-utilized space.
Eastern side:
The Convention Center is, well, it is what it is.  One complaint is that there isn’t enough local hotel space to accommodate many potential conferences, and that is being partially remedied by the construction of multiple hotels in the Fort Sanders neighborhood and potentially in downtown proper (though neither the proposed hotel at Church and State nor the Tennessean has yet broken ground).
Several comments in the recent discussion opined that there is no potential for development along Henley Street, and that as a result there’s no reason to upgrade the street itself.  A careful observation of the streetside properties reveals that this is simply not true.  There would be complexities, to be sure, but there are several acres of land along Henley Street that could be utilized.  The land between the two halves of Cumberland as it splits there currently houses a few KUB components but nothing else.  This space could hold a large property or several smaller ones.  The Church Street Methodist Church owns several parking lots near its actual church – the church needs parking, and no one would ever say that they should not have it, but if the church elders were agreeable, there is an easy solution, as we’ll see below.
Southern side:
The southern side of the park is Cumberland Avenue.  No one would want to remove the park from the northern street edge, but the southern edge is lacking–lacking pedestrian amenities, lacking interest, and lacking streetside activation.  It’s given over to (from west to east) UT parking, a little greenway / walkway extension, City of Knoxville parking, and Church Street Church parking–all simple surface lots.
As was mentioned in an early segment, “sector parking” is a successful method of limiting the spread of surface parking.  A parking garage placed centrally can obviate surface lots for at least eight blocks at its periphery.  It would take discussion and agreement, but a swap could be undertaken in which an intrepid developer, or the City itself, constructed a multistory parking structure hidden off the street, and provided dedicated access for UT, the City, and the Church Street Church; and in return gained title to the land along the Cumberland Avenue street-face.  The number of spaces needed is not necessarily as high as one might suppose–the uses are complementary and do not happen at the same time.  For example, the Church would use the most parking on Sunday mornings, when UT and the City (i.e., the park) would need few spaces; most people would visit the parks after hours and on weekends; and UT would need spaces most acutely during business / school hours.  As you can see, these peak uses do not overlap much, so the same spaces could serve all of them.
Currently that part of the street itself is not particularly pedestrian friendly.  A simple extension of the Cumberland Avenue streetscape project would create (a) fewer travel lanes to cross, (b) larger sidewalks, (c) a space free of utility poles and lines (of which there are many in this area), and (d) more streetscape amenities.
What does this allow ?  Several acres of land is suddenly available along Cumberland Avenue, one of the most valuable streets in the downtown neighborhood.   Streetside commercial/retail/restaurant would be easily accessible from UT/Fort Sanders and from downtown; and upper-floor residential space would offer great views of the park, the Sunsphere, and downtown.
Western and northern sides:
The western side of the park almost fades into Fort Sanders neighborhood space.  There is no great clear division, though the Art Museum is a good effort.  The Candy Factory lofts sort of hover within the space of the park.  Multiple parking lots are present at the northern end, owned by the City for park use.  The large elevated Central Avenue and Henley streets and their giant interchange further diminish the northern end.
In an earlier discussion I described the potential street improvements for the Henley Street interchange and for Western Avenue.  If we take advantage of “sector parking” again, and consolidate all the scattered lots in this area into one centralized space, we open up several more sites for development along Western Avenue and elsewhere.
We can lower Western Avenue, which removes the need for circuitous looping streets, and further re-integrate this land into the downtown network.
World's Fair Park North Map - After Changes
World’s Fair Park North Map – After Changes
World's Fair Park South Map After Changes
World’s Fair Park South Map After Changes
The various sections of the park itself, offer great, open space.  Lounging and informal games could thrive.  There’s nothing to do there, otherwise.  Some parkscape changes could add additional value.  Tables, chairs, swings; covered or pergola-ed spaces; tree or garden areas for walking; all could add additional uses.   These could even be mobile, as at Manhattan’s Bryant Park.  There is a recent article at www.CityLab.com that describes an urban park that became incredibly popular, not because the city spent millions of dollars on it, but rather simply because an art project added swings and other little touches. (Hat tip to “Greg” for that.)
Section Summary:
If we create sector parking plans for the northern and southern parts of World’s Fair Park, in combination with streetscape improvements to Henley Street, Central Avenue, and Cumberland Avenue, we can create tremendous value, both for the park itself–in terms of use and population–and for the city and its residents.
Useful links: Park activation.