A Simple and Realistic Plan for Downtown Knoxville

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As I noted in a recent article, the Urban Land Institute has released its final report. The full report may be viewed here. My article drew quite a few comments (32) and extensive interest. The conversation will be continued when the city hosts a forum on the topic March 30, 5:30 at the East TN History Center. The plan is bold – narrow Henley Street, remove the Civic Auditorium and Colliseum, line Henley and fill the Supreme Court site with mixed use development and so on.

David Denton (along with colleagues Just John and Bobbie Crews) , whose vision of downtown has been documented in this space before, has some very different views from the ULI and I invited him to share them here. It’s part of a conversation we need to have. The following is a condensed version of his proposal. Feel free to comment below, of course. Read the report. Comment to the city at  ULI@cityofknoxville.org. Attend the meeting on March 19. This is a critical moment for the future of downtown Knoxville.


The Corridor and focus of visitors’ activities and potential development sites for uses that provide more pedestrian foot traffic


Here’s Davd Denton, Bobbie Crews and Just John’s condensed vision for the city:

The purpose of this plan is to provide a vision for downtown Knoxville, and the framework for informing future urban design decisions.  The concept is to create a downtown core of pedestrian oriented activities and uses that serve both residents and visitors.  The visitors are mostly congregated along Gay St., Market Square and the Old City, an area we’re referring to as the Corridor.  Visitors are an essential part of the success of our downtown.  By expanding and improving the experience for the visitors it’ll also create a more desirable place for the residents of downtown.

One of our highest priorities should be given to supporting our existing downtown businesses, most of which depend on visitors.  One of the most important priorities for these businesses is an increase in foot traffic.  This could be achieved by locating future businesses in or near the corridor.  These  uses would be such that they’d bring more people to the Corridor and could include such uses as museums, libraries, theaters, retail, etc.  By concentrating these venues visitors could have the best possible experience downtown by being able to walk to all major points of interest.

The Jackson Ave. Site is particularly important as a destination place to attract more people to the downtown core.  The site is owned by the City and should be primarily developed in a way that would be accessible to as many people as possible with such uses as a new high-tech interactive learning center (a re-envisioned library), a children’s museum and a major arts-oriented use that would be a catalyst for expanding the arts district.  The development of this site for pedestrian oriented uses would be beneficial as a gateway to the Old City and the blossoming North of Knoxville. Other areas of downtown could be developed with mixed use projects, primarily residential.

The World’s Fair Park area is not appropriate for uses such as museums or theaters, since their patrons are not as likely to use the park itself and would not benefit the downtown businesses not being in walking distance.  A better solution would be to surround the park with high density housing, developing the greenspace mainly for residential outdoor activities.

Walkable Gay Street

An example of making the street more pedestrian friendly with free standing show cases that block the view of the surface parking and extend the retail frontage


Henley St. definitely needs to be reconfigured – particularly at the intersections to make it safer for pedestrian crossings.  One lane of traffic might be eliminated – but not for parallel parking  as that may be too dangerous due to the heavy traffic coming in from the interstate.  A better solution may be landscaping or a bicycle lane.

The east side of Henley St. might be a good location for large retail that would serve both downtown as well as the region, having good exposure to the regional traffic of Henley St.  The slope of the Supreme Court Site would lend itself well to this concept by having the large retail space located on the Henley St. level and the ground floor of the above mixed use project on the upper street level. This is not a good location for a performing arts center as it would not benefit any of the rest of Downtown

The ULI report suggested that the auditorium/coliseum site may not prove worth saving, which would open a significant development opportunity adjacent to downtown.  Creating a residential community could include some housing sites that would probably be successful downtown, including micro-apartments, senior living communities, and townhomes with small gardens.  The Marriott Hotel in order to remain competitive needs a uniqueness that might be addressed by adding a state of the art health facility and spa, and renaming it the “Knoxville Athletic Club” a Marriott Destination Resort Hotel.

We believe this plan would be the most beneficial to downtown businesses and support visitors and residents as well.  We suggest that the city prepare a plan for  Corridor from the Bijou to the Old City while considering the involvement of the local design community in taking this plan to the next stage.  If this concept is adopted, it becomes significantly easier to evaluate the individual development projects and their role in contributing to the overall vision of downtown Knoxville.  Attached is a plan for the corridor from the Bijou to the Old City, showing potential development sites for uses that would generate more pedestrian activity downtown.  There’s also a rendering of an example of the kind of improvements that would make downtown more walkable.


  1. Dorothy stair says

    What about the South end of Gay? Are there any plans to connect the development on the south waterfront with activity downtown?

  2. Bill Lyons says

    Our plan has been to work with KAT to extend the Gay Street Trolley over the Gay St Bridge to add to the connectivity between the core of downtown and the South Waterfront. Of course we made sure the last Gay St. Bridge redesign improved bicycle and pedestrian usability. The goal, of course, is as seamless a connection as possible, especially without the necessity of using a car.

    • How far will the trolley go? Just to the Baptist Hospital site? Or will it go to the new Suttree Landing Park?

    • Also, the Gay Street bridge is not currently bike friendly with the restriping it received when HSB was closed. Will it be restriped to include bike lanes/shoulders again?

  3. David Denton says

    In the extended version of this suggested plan, we make a recommendation regarding this matter. It would be possible to construct an elevator that would be adjacent to Calhoun’s restaurant, connecting the waterfront to the Gay Street Bridge. The elevator structure could be of architectural interest and include a cantilevered overlook like the one over the river near Pigeon Forge. Extending through the trusswork of the bridge, this could be a fun and visually interesting experience.

  4. Kristi Gordon says

    Great plan overall. I don’t know if this is in the larger description, but I would love to see some kind of subsidized studio arts district to support emerging artists, like they did years ago in Providence,RI, or what has developed in the River Arts District in Asheville.

  5. Many thanks to David, John, and Bobbie for giving us a more detailed look at their ideas for downtown Knoxville’s future, and to Urban Guy for providing the forum and impetus to keep the conversation going. I’ve read the entire proposal and agree that it is vital to finish what has been started in the downtown entertainment and shopping core. Anyone who walks our city daily can see how much is left to be done before moving the focus farther afield. I also agree that any viable plan should be focused on walkability and increasing foot traffic to benefit existing and future businesses in the corridor. It makes no sense to solve any development problem by undercutting downtown’s commercial and residential pioneers, thereby creating another, perhaps far worse problem. I look forward to an interesting and energetic discussion of these issues on March 30.

  6. Bill Lyons says

    FYI. The ULI meeting has been changed to March 30th at 5:30 at the East Tenn History Center. We had to do this because of difficulty finding an appropriate site downtown and because the 19th fell during spring break. I hope all can attend and that this does not unduly inconvenience anyone. Thanks.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      I missed this memo. There was a memo, right? Thanks, Bill. I’ll change it above.

      • Alan, is it possible to change the date in my post above? I don’t want to mislead anyone about the meeting date. Thanks.

      • Bill Lyons says

        It was announced at the Tuesday City Council meeting and media was present. However,.with all the weather interruptions it may not have otherwise gotten out as quickly as it should have. Randy’s comment served as a reminder to make sure everybody participating here got the reminder. We will continue to spread the word. Thanks.

  7. I appreciate the thought and effort that’s gone into this proposal, but I have to take issue with one of its central premises: the idea that new development should be concentrated in the area that has already activated: the “Corridor” centered on Gay St. I understand the importance of intensifying development in this key district, but I think the original report correctly points to an opportunity to extend development other areas of downtown, especially westward, toward Fort Sanders.

    Admittedly, the relationship of Fort Sanders to Downtown is a fraught one. There are physical barriers (topography, lack of pedestrian connections), demographic barriers (students versus urban professionals) and perhaps even cultural issues. But the solution, in my view, lies not in further cementing the divide, but rather in working to integrate downtown and Fort Sanders into a contiguous, unbroken urban core.

    I’ve often been struck by the fact that Fort Sanders is in many ways more “urban” than downtown proper. Fort Sanders probably has the highest neighborhood population density of any area in Knoxville, with the possible exception of the 100 block of Gay. Fort Sanders has vibrant pedestrian traffic, even during off-peak times when downtown is dead. FS has full service convenience stores and scattered site retail with extended hours, which downtown lacks. It has a pharmacy that’s open evenings and weekends. It has a grocery store (Publix). It has an decent mix of dining options, including to-go and short order places, while downtown basically only has sit-down table service. All these are amenities that contribute to a legitimately “urban” environment.

    To be sure, I recognize that some of these differences are due to the student population that dominates Fort Sanders. And of course I recognize that much of the apartment-style housing in FS is of abysmal quality, and retail offering are centered heavily around fast food. So obviously I don’t want to see Gay St model itself after the Strip. But downtown still has something to learn from Fort Sanders, at least in terms of form. Filling in the Henley St and WFP areas with all kinds of mixed-used development would go a long way toward bridging the current divide — real and perceived.

    By way of illustration, the extended version of the above plan suggests that even the art museum is too far away from the Corridor to attract visitors. But the distance as the crow flies is barely 1/4 mile. And even with the awkward routing via Clinch St, the distance is about 1/2 a mile. That distance wouldn’t be a serious obstacle in a more functional, integrated urban context. The real problem is that the areas on the far west side of downtown (Henley, Locust) currently lack the sort of the development that might render them attractive to pedestrians. and the only means of traversing the WFP divide is the Clinch St bridge or overpass. But again, this is a problem that can be remedied through pro-active development. It is not one we must resign ourselves to. Locating the Clarence Brown theater in the old Courthouse or possibly in the old expo center — as the original report suggests — could help make that connection, given that its support draws heavily from both downtown and Fort Sanders.

    In short, I recognize that the ULI did not benefit from insider knowledge of Knoxville, but I think their gestures toward extending the boundaries of the activated downtown core are essentially correct, and would hate to see that element written out of the final plan.

    • I agree that the focus of efforts does not need to be reinforcing the successes of Gay Street and Market Square. We have to spread support to other areas of downtown, such as the relative successes if Union Avenue, and potential on Walnut, Locust, and State Streets.

  8. David Denton says

    I absolutely agree with you about the importance of the connection to Fort Sanders. Although we discussed it among ourselves, we failed to include it in the plan report. This is our thinking on that subject: We believe that the best way to connect to Fort Sanders is to build housing around the World’s Fair Park that would include retail and services such as dry cleaners and cafes, that would be for the residents. In effect it would create a village that would be beneficial to Fort Sanders. The Park would be enhanced with amenities also for the residents. A theater only activates the neighborhood in the evenings, which would be more beneficial to the restaurants downtown than it would be to the residents of Fort Sanders. Streetscape improvements for about three blocks from the Park along Clinch would also help make a connection and designed in such a way that the Park and village feel like the entry to Fort Sanders. These streetscape improvements could also include the bridge.

  9. Chester Kilgore says

    Did he say locating the Clarence Brown Theatre in the Old Courthouse? What does that even mean?

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      I think the idea is having the Clarence Brown Theatre on the site of the Old Supreme Court Bldg.

  10. David Denton says

    I appreciate the concern being expressed about filling out the core of the downtown vs. connections to the neighborhoods. They’re both important to the future success of downtown and ideally would be happening simultaneously. Financial considerations will make that difficult and priorities will have to be established. Hopefully the process of developing those priorities will stimulate a conversation in the community about these issues and from which some vision may develop. It would be great to hear more about what others have to say on these issues.

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