The Missing Link: How to Connect the Parts of Downtown

A Possible Connection to the Arts District and Old City

Ed.: As has been the case in the past, David Denton joins us today with an exploration of a relatively simple way to connect the Arts District and Old City to the Gay Street/Market Square Area. Short of what we really need to do, restore the 200 block of Gay Street and tame Summit Hill, these ideas could serve as an interim until we have the will to do what is really needed. David, a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, is an architect and urban planner with over 30 years of experience in the field. He was born in Knoxville and grew up in Sequoyah Hills and spent most of his career in California. He moved back to Knoxville several years ago. Here’s David:


Many visitors to downtown Knoxville walking along Gay Street headed north reach Summit Hill Drive and unable to see what is beyond decide not to proceed further and turn back. This is unfortunate because those visitors miss one of the best parts of downtown and unfortunate for the businesses that so desperately need more foot traffic.

This is an exploration of ideas to address this missing link. For visitors downtown there are basically two separate areas: Gay Street / Market Square and Arts District (100 Block) / Old City. The Arts District and the Old City are relatively small areas. By connecting the two through graphics and other communications each would be seen as a larger area. Shown here is an idea of what a joint graphics might be like.

A Possible Connection to the Arts District and Old City

There are a number of possible solutions for overcoming the barriers of Summit Hill Drive. One is shown here, which is to construct a gateway that would announce the entry into the Arts District and the Old City. But even before reaching Summit Hill Drive there are some improvements that could be made to increase foot traffic to the north.

Wayfinding signs on Gay Street direct pedestrians east on Summit Hill Drive to the Old City. Not only is this an unpleasant walk along a very busy street but it also bypasses the Arts District and the 100 block of Gay Street. Perhaps the City should consider altering those signs to direct people to The Old City via the Arts District. There could also be banners on the sides of the existing buildings indicating the Arts District and the Old City beyond.

A Possible Connection to the Arts District and Old City

One of the detriments to foot traffic is surface parking lots adjacent to the sidewalk. One idea to consider is to front these parking lots with free-standing show windows that would maintain a continuity and visual interest and be rented by adjacent businesses.

Shown here are three different ideas for the direction that a gateway design might take visually. The suggestion is that the gateway would be constructed in the median. The emphasis of the gateway design would be on the sides that are visually most apparent walking along the sidewalks of Gay Street heading north. By placing the gateway in the center median the crossing would not seem so far and would also give a place of refuge when caught between traffic lights.

A Possible Connection to the Arts District and Old City

Another important element in creating this pedestrian continuity is the future use the Country Music Park which is currently not very well utilized and mostly by dogs. It does very little to attract pedestrians to cross Summit Hill Drive. Perhaps it’s not the best place for a park or maybe the park could be made smaller and include a free-standing structure of architectural interest that would include a country music themed cafe with outdoor dining, a sort of beer garden that would show people activity.

Hopefully some organization with primary interest in the Arts District and the Old City would organize to take on the task of examining how this missing link might be filled. Perhaps a design contest for the gateway would create interest and possible funding for such an undertaking.


  1. Kaye Bultemeier says

    Interesting ideas. It would be nice if some discussion is made of connecting the south end of Gay and not concentrating only on the north end connection. The south end connects to the waterfront and Gay street bridge takes you to the developing South side. Similar entrance to “Theater district” and “historic district” would connect the city.

  2. The biggest detriment to foot traffic in this area are the twits from Sterchi Lofts that use Country Music Park and the surrounding area as a dog toilet. Very few of these inconsiderate residents seem to understand they should pick up after their pets, even though there is a disposal bag dispenser and trash cans readily available. Perhaps the city should enforce the doggie-doo ordinances as aggressively as they do parking.

  3. MIKE COLLINS says

    As expected, David has some very valid, good ideas. Summit Hill Dr. is a tremendous barrier. I particularly like the notion of the sign “banner” over Gay at Summit Hill… a “gateway” feeling. Even better (but certainly a cost consideration), include as part of a gateway structure over Gay, paralleling Summit, with a pedestrian walkway over Summit Hill on one side (think walking bridge over Cumberland @ UT). As the city grows to the north, creating ‘attention magnets’ will have even broader value.

  4. I find David’s ideas very intriguing and creative and appreciate the time he has spent on developing these suggestions. Who in the City could address these possibilities?

  5. Signs and a gateway might have some impact. It has also been suggested that the crosswalks on Summit Hill be artistically painted.

    Unfortunately, I doubt there will be significant pedestrian flow from Market Square to the 100 block until the parking lots (on the 300 block and 200 block) and the poorly located “park” are filled with mixed-use buildings.

    • Oren Yarbrough says

      I completely agree. The work planned next door to the Mast General Building on the 300 block will be an important first step in pulling people north from Market Square. I have said for years that the parking lot used by Sterchi on the 200 block is one of the largest impediments from connecting across Summit Hill. If we had a building that was at least facing the park across the street it would help define the space better. Hell, even a liner building with a covered one or two story parking deck would be perfect and maximize the lot in a better way.

    • It should be noted that people do walk to the 100 block when the lure is strong enough. Every First Friday draws crowds to the galleries.

      Maybe additional programming/things to do are the real key?

  6. Agreed it feels too much like an expressway than a pedestrian friendly walk. Creating a gateway is a good idea. THH

  7. The Forest Service has a program where land can be swapped in a way that ends up with the Forest Sevice gaining land that better meets its mission and turning over to the private sector land that doesn’t. An arrangement where Knoxville gains park space elsewhere and the music park is developed (with some carefully thought-out restrictions) would seem to be a win-win for the city.

  8. I like the idea of the country music cafe/restaurant. However I noticed in one of the comments David made in an earlier post, he thought country music playing on speakers outside was a good idea, and I would have to disagree, being someone who is not the biggest fan of country music, having to listen to it walking across the street to the 100 block. It just seems super kitschy. But the cafe in general is a very unique idea and would likely boost tourism to the area.

  9. Brian Scott Pittman says

    I love it. That and narrowing, slowing down Summit Hill Drive.

  10. robert h thompson says

    in the middle illustration:
    the brick crosswalks across summit hill would be effective connectors as well as traffic calmers.
    but the big arts district signs atop the gateways would be distracting both for pedestrians and motorists.

  11. These are creative ideas, and I appreciate the motivation behind them. The small inner city in Knoxville is constrained by significant barriers on all four sides. The river could be an asset rather than a barrier if access were improved. I know that we are making slow progress in that regard. Henley to the west and JWP to the east are seemingly insurmountable problems. At the very least the obvious constraint imposed by Henley has been discussed repeatedly but it seems nothing ever happens to remove the obstacle. That leaves Summit Hill and the path to the north side Old City, the Arts District, and the rapidly redeveloping near North Knoxville. The suggestions made by Mr. Denton are good ones. But, I can’t help but seem them as putting a colorful band aid on self-inflicted gunshot wound. As Urban Guy and many others have pointed out, we need to resurrect the chopped out 200 block and calm Summit Hill if we are ever to resolve this issue. Foot traffic must proceed down Gay to the 100 block, then to the Old City and beyond to have any real continuity for walkers (and any real hope for retail in these areas other than bars and restaurants). Could the city not request proposals for redeveloping the 200 block?

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      It’s complicated. The 200 block has a swath of road across one end. It has a parking lot that was leased to residents on the 100 block for (I think) 30 years. I agree with the bandaid analogy, but I don’t think the political will is present at this time to do what really needs to be done: return the city fabric to its original state.

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