What Happens Next in the City?


ULI Report

What happens next in the city? It’s the question that makes many of you tune in each morning to see the daily topic on this blog. Many of us feel like simple observers in the pageant that is downtown development. We’re hopeful that it goes well, but we feel powerless to influence it. Well, perhaps this is one of those opportunities for your voice to be heard.

The Urban Land Institute visited Knoxville at the request of the City. They were to make suggestions for the World’s Fair Park, the Jackson Avenue/McClung Warehouses site, Henley Street, the old Supreme Court Site and the Coliseum/Auditorium site. Taken together, decisions and resulting development on these sites will go a long way toward dictating the bigger picture of what happens next in the city for the next ten or twenty years or more. These are big topics.

ULI Report2

The final written report was published this week and on March 19 at 5:30 (site undetermined) the city will hold a public hearing to discuss the findings. If no one shows, the city will not know how we feel about the information. If you don’t express your opinion, no one will know what you think. Our city government is filled with good people who have good intentions and would probably be inclined to do what the people want – if you tell them what that is.

You can find the full report here. The whole document is 36 pages. The meat of what they have to say is only 22 pages. It’s an easy read and there are very few surprises if you attended the presentation at the Bijou Theatre or if you read my articles on the topic. I took three full posts to write  an overview of their impressions, their recommendations for Henley Street and the Supreme Court sites and, finally, their recommendations for the World’s Fair Park, McClung and Coliseum sites.

Here are the “overarching recommendations” from the final report, including a surprise or two:

  • Transform the Henley Street corridor by introducing on-street parking and activating the street with retail and a pedestrian-friendly environment.
  • Redevelop the State Supreme Court site with active uses, such as mixed-use development with a performing arts component, and ensure that any future requests for proposals clearly guide design and program mix.
  • Preserve the World’s Fair Park’s green space as an amenity for current and future Knoxville residents, and activate underused sites and additional infill sites with synergistic uses, such as homes for existing cultural organizations seeking new space.
  • Relocate those existing uses currently at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum to downtown, and engage in a public master-planning process to envision and create a vibrant, desirable, mixed-income community that includes diverse housing types and households.
  • Consider a master-developer approach to ensure successful and contextual redevelopment for 400 and 500 W. Jackson Ave.
  • Extend Knoxville’s greenway connection north from the World’s Fair Park.

Beneath the surface of the headline recommendations are some interesting details:

  • Although downtown Knoxville represents the smallest residential submarket in the region, it is also the fastest growing area in the region.
  • Knoxville was one of three cities in the country to have recovered from the “great recession” by 2012 (Pittsburgh and Dallas)
  • Market conditions do not support new office development at this time.
  • Market conditions do not support new hotel development at this time.
  • The downtown residential market has been the strongest performer in the area market since 2008.
  • Increased population will create a need for additional core retail offerings.
  • There is a strong opportunity for Knoxville to transform its infill sites
  • While the 2014 amended design guidelines for downtown are good, “the panel strongly recommends that the city go beyond these existing guidelines and develop educational programs and tools so that the private development community clearly understands the city’s design vision for downtown as well as specific design requirements.
  • Current rail operations (on the north side of town) carry about three freight trains a day and the city should attempt to reduce the width of this corridor.
  • Create a sports hub on the north side of Fort Sanders including possibly creating a new home for the Tennessee Smokies. Also consider moving the Knoxville Ice Bears to this location.
  • Daylight First Creek, plant trees and develop pedestrian walkways and reduce James White Parkway.
  • Support families in downtown with a full range of school choices
  • Use local artists to enliven the public realm, especially forgotten or overlooked public spaces.
  • Make Henley Street pedestrian-friendly, thus eliminating the need for elevated walkways.
  • Existing guidelines must be strictly enforced so that new buildings address Henley Street appropriately.
  • Place the Clarence Brown Theater in the old Knoxville Convention and Exhibition Center (beneath the Holiday Inn).
  • Extend a pedestrian/cycling connection from the north end of the World’s Fair Park to West Jackson Avenue.
  • The Supreme Court site should target “mixed uses including ground-floor retail, a significant cultural or performing arts component (the functions now served by the Civic Auditorium) above that, and upper-floor residential.
  • Design for Jackson Avenue should be guided by a master developer. Parking should be below grade. Design guidelines could be included as terms of purchase and deed covenants.
  • The Coliseum area is an example of previous generations “urban renewal” gone awry and should be re-imagined as a mixed residential area. (They note that the current complex loses nearly a million dollars per year).

ULI Report3

There is more and there is supporting information for what I’ve included above in the full document. Please take time to read it if you care about downtown Knoxville’s future. The question on the table now is what will we do with this information? Will we say these ideas are too bold and crazy? Will we give them some lip-service, but ignore them going forward? Do we have the will to downsize Henley Street and James White Parkway? Do we have the will to fight for a realistic size for our train yard? Will we really unearth a creek (or two)? Will we really begin to insist that developers must find a way to place retail at street level in new construction?

Or will we simply say those ideas are too fancy for us and we’ll just stick to “good enough?” Will we continue to say, “We’re not Chattanooga/Asheville/Nashville/New York City.” Are we ready to demand excellence?

The answer to that question may be up to you. For the city to have the will to make bold statements, they need to know they have support. Will our design community step up and insist that the city reach for a higher ideal? Will downtown residents let the city know how much these things matter? Will developers be willing to find a way to include these ideas in their proposals, designs and construction?

Read the report. Comment to the city starting today at  ULI@cityofknoxville.org. Attend the meeting on March 19. We will not get a do-over if we don’t get this right this time around.