I’ve found that people have widely divergent views of the kind of place they like to live in the city. Some like to live in an expensive, refined and completely developed area. Others like their part of town to be a bit more edgy and less polished. Often on this website we talk about urban design and, as our conversations often reveal, our understanding of what constitutes good urban design varies quite a bit. Who defines good urban design for those of us who only have a vague notion of the concept?
One such group is the East Tennessee Community Design Center. I’ve mentioned them numerous times, most recently writing a full article on the group when Wayne Blasius was named Executive Director, last February. According to their website, “ETCDC is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to make East Tennessee a better place to live and work by bringing professional design and planning assistance to community groups and nonprofit organizations. East Tennessee Community Design Center receives pro bono design assistance from area architects, landscape architects, planners and other professionals.”
Many of the touches around town that involved design on a large or small scale started with a proposal or rendering of a possibility by the people at the center. For example, much of the work planned for and underway in the Old City started with suggestions and input from the design center. When requests for proposals went out for Knoxville High School, it was with the backdrop of a study by the design center to look at best uses.
Recently, the group turned its attention to Parkridge – the area to which I referred in Friday’s article about Downtown Yoga. It sits on the edge of the neighborhood which is bounded by Hall of Fame on the west, Cherry Street on the east, and I-40 and Magnolia to the north and south respectively. It lays claim to about 600 historic homes and I most recently wrote about the homes last October (here and here).
But it is also an area with blocks that have fallen into some disrepair or have had buildings torn down. The 1500 block of Washington Avenue, and adjacent areas in particular, has a number of issues in what used to be a retail center for the area. Trash accumulates on the street (there are no trash cans), the sidewalks are broken and have numerous cut-throughs. Parking lots line much of the area and a KUB sub-station fronts a portion. One could look at it and see a forlorn city-scape, but the ETCDC is trained to look at such areas for potential.
Recently, residents asked the city to consider what might be done to improve the area and the city contacted the ETCDC. They secured a community development grant to look into the situation. The group talked to the businesses currently located in the area to get their input and came up with a design which would not only beautify the area for current residents and businesses, but would increase the likelihood of attracting new businesses.
What did they recommend? Leslie Fawaz of the center offered to explain it to me recently. Some things are pretty simple: narrow the streets and plant trees on either side, for example. The area is slated for a greenway connection, so making it more conducive to that seemed logical. Facades could use some improvement to make them more appealing and less industrial. Parking could be shifted to the rear of some buildings and entrances to parking lots could be taken off main roads – which makes sidewalks safer and more appealing.
Crosswalks could be beautified – which should also make them more safe. The businesses in the two block area were at least receptive to having the conversation. KUB agreed the design – for purposes of discussion – could include an attractive wall around their substation with a welcome sign to the neighborhood. An empty lot could become a container park – which have become very popular elsewhere and includes using shipping containers as temporary enclosures for small businesses.
The area already includes Abbey Fields, which I profiled last March. Standard Knitting Mills, which has been discussed at length as a possible site for redevelopment, sits just past that project. It’s not hard to imagine Standard Knitting Mills filled with residents and businesses and connecting easily to the area in question. An urban node would be renewed with businesses to support the growing community. With the Magnolia Avenue project just a few blocks away, could the city find a way to make some of these suggestions a reality?