1 Riverwalk and Regal Cinema Headquarters with Knoxville Skyline, September 2018
The Downtown Knoxville Alliance invited Mayor Kincannon to address downtown residents via Zoom at their quarterly resident’s meeting. For about an hour she answered questions and shared thoughts about the state and future of downtown. She was joined by Rick Emmett, Captain Don Jones from the KPD, and Eric Vreeland Deputy Director of Communications for the City of Knoxville. The meeting was moderated by Michelle Hummel.
She began by expressing thanks for downtown businesses and residents focusing on the positive during the pandemic. She pointed out that the city make changes during the pandemic to support downtown businesses, such as changes in take out policies, pick up spaces in front of businesses and outdoor dining on Market Square. She singled out Downtown Pharmacy for their help with distributing the vaccine. She also reported that a memorial would soon be added to downtown, remembering the 600 people who died and their families, but also to the sacrifices of first responders, health care workers, and others.
She discussed the stadium sports authority approved and called it a “stellar group.” She said she is increasingly convinced the stadium project will benefit the public economically and in other ways. She emphasized it will be a public park when events are not scheduled and that, in addition to baseball, the city intends to have a soccer team using the facility. The newly formed sports authority will have its first meeting next Thursday, May 20.
She mentioned the budget, noting the social worker who will be hired to work with KPD and the homeless population. She called last year’s budget “austere,” but said she was pleased we made it through the worst of the pandemic with all services continuing and no one furloughed. She said this year’s budget represents a return to “investing in the future.”
Questions were raised by residents about the noise from street rods and dirt bikes in the downtown area. The dirt bikes often show up in the early morning hours and ride throughout downtown garages. Captain Jones said they have been difficult to stop as they are willing to hop sidewalks and perform other dangerous maneuvers to evade being caught. They have no tags to trace. He said they have recently diverted resources to the demonstrations, but hope to soon return to this focus. He said they had even borrowed the Knox County Sherriff’s Department helicopters to no avail.
For this or any other pressing issues, he asked that downtown residents call the non-emergency number (215-4010) or to call him directly (215-7207). He pointed out that a call when it is happening is potentially more helpful than registering a complaint at a later time.
The issue of scooters blocking sidewalks was raised. Mayor Kincannon and Rick Emmett acknowledged they can be a hazard to those with limited mobility or vision. The mayor encouraged everyone to get the MyKnoxville app, on which you can not only look up fun things to do, but you can also share concerns. She said they are considering designated spots for the scooters and Emmett said this summer that may become permanent. They are considering removal of 15 parking spaces scattered around downtown for the storage spots. He also pointed out that each scooter has a phone number that you can call to report one blocking the sidewalk. He said he moves them everyday, himself.
Asked about new developments, she said the Knox County School offices will be vacating the Andrew Johnson Building this summer and moving into their new space at the TVA Towers and that UT Systems will soon follow. She said she expects the new office residents to help support downtown businesses and pointed out that the towers have been sparsely inhabited for years. Rick said he has had conversations about possible development for nearly every parking lot or other available spaces.
Concerns were expressed regarding parking, particularly as it relates to a new stadium. Mayor Kincannon repeated that the city feels there is adequate parking around the city to accommodate a sell-out crowd of 8,000. She said they like the idea of the crowd parking all around downtown because of the wider potential economic impact.
She also pointed out that the Trolley will carry people from all over downtown to the vicinity the stadium and said there are no short-term plans to build more parking garages and that if they are, they would need to be on the periphery of downtown or behind facades of new buildings which contain commercial or other uses that face the street. She and Rick Emmett pointed out that all garages downtown are now “smart” garages and that the Downtown Knoxville website (it drops down from the “Live Parking Availabilty”) tab at the top of the front page)provides real-time parking availability information. Rick pointed out there are additional spots for private lots to the east of the stadium site.
The issue of the homeless impact on downtown was raised. Some residents expressed the opinion that there are more discarded needles and there has been more noise during the pandemic. The mayor acknowledged she has noticed the same things and said we want to treat the homeless population well and get them into shelters. Regarding the breaking up of camps, particularly the one on Blackstock, she said they had become dangerous and unhealthy.
The city is focusing on investments in affordable and transitional housing, as well as permanent supportive housing. She said additional supportive housing is under construction on Fifth Avenue. She emphasized that the way to help them is to direct them to services, not to give them handouts, which she said perpetuates the problem. She said that she feels residents know this, but that visitors to downtown do not. She also said she feels the ratio of homeless to others shifted during the pandemic, but as people return to downtown it will return to similar to pre-pandemic.
She said, “It’s a good time to be in Knoxville,” making the point that more people can move downtown and work from home or coffee shops as remote work becomes more acceptable. She and Rick expressed the opinion that many office workers will return as there is no substitute for in-person meetings. He said he is having conversations with several companies which are interested in moving downtown.
The mayor said the next big change she sees for downtown is the move of the police department, fire department headquarters, city court and others move to their new headquarters at the previous site of St. Mary’s Hospital. With a Science Museum planned for their current location, she feels development will proliferate in the area. She also mentioned the shift of James White Parkway to a split between automobile traffic and pedestrian traffic as a piece of that whole. She said the city’s role is to “set the table,” for private development.
The struggles with river development were discussed, with the difficulty of access because of the bluff on the north side being a primary obstacle. Neyland Drive and the fact that most of the property is privately owned is also an issue for north side development. Mayor Kincannon said that as money comes through federal for infrastructure, maybe some options will open up. She acknowledged that other cities have activated their riverfronts to a much more successful degree.