Knoxville Skyline from the South Knoxville Bridge, June 2017
It may be the most asked question in Knoxville at least for this young millennium, second perhaps only to, “Can I have money for the bus?” Metro Pulse used to keep it posted as a never-ending source of conversation, if not amusement. But what’s the answer? It’s complicated.
A lot depends on who you ask. Is it someone who works downtown, lives downtown, visits downtown occasionally? Is it a recent resident fresh from the suburbs or someone who’s lived downtown for twenty or more years? Is the person wealthy? Homeless? Old? Young?
And there are more factors. How well does the person answering the question understand urban development and a host of related topics? Is the person focused on traffic-related issues or pedestrian-related issues? Does the person ride a bicycle? Do they own a business? Is the person a developer?
Easy answers like, “We need a grocery store,” are often heard voiced by residents or prospective residents – “I’d move downtown if there was a grocery store.” This kind of answer did come up, but until something other than capitalism is instituted downtown, no one can simply decree that it will be so. Downtown will get a grocery store, cell phone store, men’s clothing store, hardware store, etc. when someone thinks they can make money providing that service.
Given that every constituency and people of varying levels of engagement and understand might answer that question differently, it is commendable that the Central Improvement District Board brought in a facilitator to lead a discussion on the topic. The focus was, “Enhancing Downtown Living,” but it brought out a mix of all of the above and the varying concerns of each.
Questions were posed before the session to prompt the conversation:
1. What has been some of your great experiences in downtown?
2. Think about other downtown districts in which you have worked or have visited. What are some of the best experiences you remember and why were they positive?
3. What do you look for in an urban housing opportunity? What are your highest value features and experiences?
4. What do you look for in a place to work or to run a business? How are these similar to or different from our downtown business opportunities?
Rick Staples, downtown’s state representative was on hand, as was Rick Emmett, Knoxville’s Downtown Coordinator, as well as representatives of the CBID Board. Each of these chose to listen while others voiced their opinions and concerns.
The discussion began with identifying the various groups, from city government to utilities, from churches to HOAs, developers and more, who are the parties capable of getting things done. None of the groups can do it all and, often, groups need to work together in order to help the city progress.
After voicing concerns and desires for downtown, the group of about forty was divided into working groups to identify priorities. Each group then looked at the others’ worksheets and indicated which priorities they supported. By the end, there were multiple opportunities for themes to be expressed and to gather support.
So what came of it? While it was all over the map, there were central points which were reiterated. Walkability and connectivity are highly valued and virtually the entire room raised their hands when asked if that was a factor in their decision to move downtown. As a group, stronger connections of downtown to the river, the World’s Fair Park and the ring neighborhoods, rated high on a list of priorities.
What does that mean? It means safe corridors for walking. It means less intimidating roads to cross. It may mean an elevator and better signage to the river. Extended trolley routes to follow growth were mentioned with Happy Holler and the south waterfront being suggested route extensions.
Much of the conversation centered around safety. A recent fight on Market Square was mentioned – along with the fact that no police were present. Business people expressed concern for the safety of their employees as they walk to their cars at night. While audience members mentioned they don’t feel safe walking late at night, the facilitator noted that she lives in the suburbs and doesn’t go out walking late at night in her own neighborhood, seeming to indicate that issue may not be location specific.
Cycling was mentioned often and in different contexts: We should have more bike lanes. Cyclists are increasingly dangerous to pedestrians on the riverwalk. Cyclists should stay off the sidewalk (where it is actually legal for them to ride). Parking spaces should be removed from Gay Street to provide for bike lanes and make for a more pleasant sidewalk dining or walking experience (though Jeff Speck, for example, says parallel parked cars are an aid to a pedestrian sense of safety on the sidewalk).
There were many additional topics garner some level of support, such as more affordable housing options, water features, seating and public restrooms around the city. Noise in the city was a repeatedly voiced concern, including noise from tour buses running all night, construction equipment being delivered at 4:00 AM, construction work starting before the designated hour, leaf blowers at all hours of the night and more. Concern over panhandling and homeless behavior (harassment of young girls was particularly mentioned) was expressed.
It’s a long and not-comprehensive list. You can click the pictures to enlarge each of the response sheets and see how many positive marks they garnered from other groups. What will come of it? Probably nothing unless we all work together to make it happen. Someone mentioned the Urban Land Institute’s visit three years ago that resulted in recommendations on which there has been little-to-no progress. (Full report here)
Still, as Bruce Anderson, Chair of the CBID Board noted, we wouldn’t have imagined having this conversation twenty or even fifteen years ago regarding our downtown. The fact it has come so far that we hold conversations to determine what the primary problems might be indicates that we are no longer simply fighting for survival, but rather trying to improve something that is pretty special.
So what would your answer be to the above questions? What does downtown need?