Today Just John returns for a more macro view of the issues facing downtown infrastructure and design by taking on the highways that strangle the center city. The ideas in this section are very big. So big that, no doubt, many of you reading it will think it is crazy and there is a good chance these ideas will never happen. Still, the problem is obvious even to people with a casual acquaintance with Knoxville.
This past weekend a visiting comedian from LA, after very little time in town, made jokes about how massive our interstates through downtown have become. So, maybe it’s worth dreaming big if for no other reason than to begin to understand the damage we have done and not make the problem even worse in the future. Here’s Just John:
All of the work so far in this transformative vision offers a great improvement in liveability and civic life compared to the present. But it’s merely scratching the surface of possibility.
The mid 20th century saw unparalleled growth in automobile use, along with the sprawl and single-use zoning that accompany it. Americans wanted to go everywhere, and quickly. We all know the results: vibrant dense cities were hollowed out as residents moved outward into the new green spaces of isolated and isolating subdivisions; and urban neighborhoods were split and disrupted by highways and interstates connecting that sprawl.
Knoxville has suffered its share of neighborhood dissections. The orphaned and dead-ending streets are clearly visible in overhead maps. We should be thankful that much of the original in-town interstate and bypass system was built along less-populated ridges, east, west, and north of downtown, so the damage to existing fabric in the periphery of the city is less than it could have been. However, the central city fabric was ruptured by I-40, the I-275 interchange, and of course James White Parkway. Almost half of the Fourth and Gill neighborhood is simply gone, hundreds of homesites buried under I-40, Hall of Fame Avenue, and James White Parkway. Parts of the eastern old city were bulldozed for the Coliseum area. Other neighborhoods are bisected.
About 90-135 thousand daily trips occur on the in-city interstate, more on the western parts than the eastern segments. Many of these have no business in town, and are simply ‘just passing through.’ That is a perfectly valid use of a highway, though it could just as easily skirt the city itself, and it should. However, many thousands of those daily trips are due to sprawl, as a shopper must drive 15 miles to reach Turkey Creek; or due to disrupted city networks.
We should be mindful of what Jeff Speck and Andres Duany have called ‘the highwayless town and the townless highway.’ ‘While high-volume roads can be good for commercial neighborhoods, high-speed roads destroy them. High-speed roads should either skirt neighborhoods or transform to a low-speed design as they enter them. This used to be the standard: highways became urban main streets as they entered towns. Unfortunately, this practice was not acknowledged in the postwar traffic manuals, and highways have reamed our much of America’s historic urban fabric. Even while continuing to handle through traffic, roadways within neighborhoods must be designed to slow traffic to pedestrian-friendly speeds of 30 miles per hour or less. This can be done with little loss of traffic capacity.’ (‘Smart Growth Manual’ p 3.9)
There is a solution: tear out the intracity interstates ! I do not mean, “Interstates are bad!” or “I don’t like good highways!” Not at all—I love to zip along through the countryside without interruptions from lights or intersections, and that is precisely what interstate highways are for. I simply mean that when these huge disruptive limited-access behemoths plow into the city itself, they destroy the land—and the land values—around them, they disrupt surface travel and social networks, they cost far more to maintain than surface streets, and they contribute to sprawl; and for those reasons and more, they have no business running through our city’s interior. We already have a fast means for through-traffic to get to its destination, in I-640. People within the city can use a new travel network (which we’ll create momentarily) that is integrated with the city’s neighborhoods. (It’s interesting to note, though of only historic value, that Eisenhower did not want his interstate system to enter cities, but rather only to skirt them.)
Here is the vision: I-640, renamed simply I-40, carries through traffic, avoiding city streets, as it should. The in-city parts of I-40 and I-275 are gone–in some places converted to grand but pedestrian – and local-friendly multiway boulevards; in others, removed root and branch, drivers simply using nearby thoroughfares. Just as the city sprawled outward not instantaneously but rather over time, this re-networking can be achieved in phases if necessary, beginning at the city’s core.
Let’s imagine the first phase, closest to the downtown core, before looking further afield. In this exercise we will restore the street fabric of North Knoxville, Fourth and Gill, South Deaderick, Dameron, Mechanicsville, Brownlow, Parkridge, and around Brandau Hill. There are, of course, three interstate sections to deal with–I-40 west of I-275; I-40 east of I-275; and I-275 itself.
Western I-40, west of Alcoa Highway:
This is straightforward. Middlebrook Pike is a large well built street, and it is nearly parallel to I-40. Create a single-point urban interchange or simply a diamond between Middlebrook Pike and the new I-40 (I-640, as it is called currently), and widen Middlebrook Pike into a multiway Middlebrook Boulevard. A redesigned Alcoa Boulevard simply T-intersects.
Western I-40, east of Alcoa Highway, to Western Avenue:
This is straightforward, as well. Middlebrook Pike and Western Avenue constitute the basis for boulevard construction in this segment–leading into the remodeled segment I described earlier. Simply tear out the interstate. This will allow the north-south streets south of Middlebrook Boulevard–Citico, Clyde, and Unaka Streets, to connect to Dale Avenue (and a truly grand plan would continue these over the railway into Fort Sanders, intersecting Grand Avenue).
Eastern I-40, between Hall of Fame Avenue and North Broadway:
This is a little more involved, though not much. First remove the interstate. This removes the blight from north downtown, and allows re-creating Lamar, Patton/Deery, and Luttrell/Humes streets. It allows recreating the Fourth and Gill neighborhood fabric. Next, deal with the middle part of Hall of Fame Avenue–the part that flies over the east Jackson-Depot neighborhood–by lowering it into the ground and re-orienting it onto Morgan Street to Magnolia. Re-straighten Magnolia and Fifth Avenue and reconnect them with their more-eastern components.
Next, remodel the HOFA interchange:
Make HOFA and the interstate terminus co-linear, and reorient the southeastern interchange to create a new network street following Abilene Place, south of Standard Knitting Mill and the municipal ball field, and continuing down Jessamine Place.
It will then cross to Bell Street and terminate at Summit Hill Boulevard. This new street will form part of the new network, and as such it should be a multiway boulevard. The intersection of Summit Hill, Dandridge, East Hill, Martin Luther King Jr., and the new boulevard offers a prime opportunity for place-making, with a roundabout or park. The new street bisects the public housing north of Summit Hill, but as I mentioned earlier, this offers an opportunity to re-imagine it as mixed-income, a concept that is consistent with KCDC’s desire to integrate subsidized housing with the greater community.
The reconfiguring of this spur interstate might be the most straightforward of the components. Simply concert the elevated and isolated interstate into an integrated at-grade multiway boulevard, from the Woodland Avenue interchange down into the large interchange near Henley Street.
Reconfigure the I-40 – I-275 – Henley – Western Interchange:
This complex interchange occupies almost as much space as downtown-proper! Removing the interchange allows a re-connection of the several neighborhoods in this area. The sketch below is just one straightforward way to re-network the streets; of course, there are almost as many ways to do that as there are people with ideas.
Remove the central city’s interstate highways, and use the re-claimed space to re-unite divided neighborhoods and re-develop a streetscape scene for each region.