A Conversation with Mayor Indya Kincannon: Anticipating Her Second Term

Mayor Kincannon at the Unveiling the Adolph Ochs Plaque, Market Square, Knoxville, September 2022
Mayor Kincannon, COVID-19 Memorial by Kelsey Montague, World’s Fair Park, Knoxville, May 2021

In August, Mayor Kincannon won the primary for a second term as Knoxville Mayor. Winning 58% of the vote in a four-person field, she avoided a runoff by crossing the 50% threshold. In a continuation of our conversation, I asked her to turn her attention toward the next four years. What might we expect? Where is her focus? As with the last installment, I have edited out my questions and edited her responses for brevity and clarity.

Here is Mayor Kincannon in her own words:

Housing is going to continue to be a priority in my second term. We’re planning a housing summit in December to hear from community members and stakeholders to hear what we can do. We’ve worked on housing for decades, but we clearly need to augment that. What are some innovations? Can we add more resources to certain programs or . . . innovations in new areas whether it is in homelessness or permanent supportive housing. How can we incentivize more development along the corridors?

You can’t mandate missing middle housing in the state of Tennessee . . . private property owners have a lot of control over their property and we’re not going to change that in Tennessee. The proposal we have set forth . . . we chose to limit it to TDR (traditional neighborhood residential) because it has the sidewalks and infrastructure that can enable greater density. If there is the support to expand it beyond that, I would certainly be open to that.

I think there is a misimpression that I think middle housing will solve our housing crisis. We need more multifamily, more density along the corridors, which is already allowed thanks to re-code, but not many property owners along the corridors are taking advantage of that, yet. We are looking at some ways to facilitate more development along the corridors, along with middle housing, along with cottage courts, along with pre-approved site plans for middle housing, the homemaker program, which right now is just for single-family detached housing.

You have to start somewhere, and these things take vetting, community input, and expertise . . . to make sure we add this gentle density and walkability without going to such a level that it won’t get the support of the community. There are different perspectives, not on the need for more housing, but on how far and how fast to make land-use changes to enable that.

Mayor Kincannon, Caswell Park Unveiling of Electric Buses, Knoxville, September 2021

I’m proud of our sustainability progress. We’re electrifying our fleet . . . but even if we said ‘all future vehicles must be electric’ we couldn’t do that because they aren’t available on the market. Many of our vehicles are heavy-duty work vehicles and there is an even smaller availability there. We have smaller vehicles, but construction vehicles aren’t as available. We have a ‘green fleet’ policy we adopted since I became mayor, even as we try to buy electric where possible, we are also looking for other lower-emission vehicles.

Eighteen of our seventy-plus buses are electric. I can’t wait to get the whole fleet electric. They are so much quieter for passengers and pedestrians. We have been able to do that thanks to federal grants. We have more free EV charging stations around the city and we’re putting in some super-fast charging stations for the public soon. Sustainability is also about building walkability, that is safe, and that has things to walk to. Housing, land-use, and sustainability are intertwined . . . we’ve moved forward with the Urban Forest Master Plan and KAT Reimagined and they are both key to our sustainability efforts . . .

The Urban Forest Master Plan isn’t just about more trees, it’s about better trees, trees that can survive in the city and in the current climate and about equitably planting and maintaining them. We just got a grant from the federal government, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act of $1.7 million in partnership with Trees Knoxville to, not only plant more trees, but to train more people from the city to be arborists because planting the tree is just the first step . . . we need to give people the information they need and career opportunities to maintain those trees. UT also got a grant through the IRA to focus on tree infrastructure in parts of town that have a lot of heat zones.

Another priority I look forward to working on is Vision Zero, our plan to eliminate traffic deaths by 2040. We have too many people dying from crashes in our city, whether it is vehicles hitting pedestrians, vehicles hitting other vehicles, hitting bikers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cause much outcry . . . but we don’t have to accept it. The plan is passed and hopefully we’ll be able to execute that in my second term. Everyone is a pedestrian at some point. It’s not about getting people to abandon their cars, but about making sure that once they get out of their cars they have a safe place to walk.

I want to do more demonstration efforts, trying some short term, inexpensive projects with something more than a cone, but less than a million-dollar project to see if we can impact safety by design. Maybe it is more prominent, raised crosswalks, painting on the streets, bulb outs. I just got back from a conference in Boston, the Mayor’s Institute on Pedestrian Safety, working with Smart Growth America and AARP . . .

Mayor Kincannon at the Unveiling the Adolph Ochs Plaque, Market Square, Knoxville, September 2022

We don’t want it to be top down, we want it to be ‘here’s how this community wants to use this space for getting on the bus, for biking’ . . . How do we make it so that it is truly safe? . . . I hope to hire someone whose job is implementing and operationalizing Vision Zero, both for long-term capital projects, as well as smaller demonstration projects.  (Ed. Note: The first, high profile demonstration project was announced this week as an experimental closing of the 400 block of Gay Street four four weekends. For background, see my suggestions made in the recent Parading Cars, Parking, Pedestrians, and Public Space.)

As far as downtown goes, we’re awaiting recommendations about getting our operations in those areas to reflect that downtown is very busy and active, creating a lot of traffic and a lot of trash and so our operations and policies need to reflect that. That could include more pedestrianization and other things. Those are in the works. Those are all growing pains and a nice problem to have. Other cities ask, ‘What can we do to revitalize our downtown?’ and we don’t have that problem. We need to update our practices to recognize that downtown is a busy, bustling place where people like to walk, park, shop, and enjoy this beautiful city.

Public safety and core services is what people expect, want, and need. When they call 911, they want police and fire to respond and be well trained and get there . . . they want the streets paved, the sidewalks maintained, to maintain our existing parks and greenways and to add to that connectivity. Those are going to continue to be work we do.

A big goal is to get our police department up to a fully authorized force . . . We have academies going right now . . . There are a lot of people who are eligible to retire and if they all chose to retire, that would be a big challenge. We are having good success with recruitment and retention for the time being in part thanks to the big raises we were able to adopt in 2022.

The other aspect that will be a focus a focus on great spaces. No one goes to visit a city and says, ‘Oh they had amazing parking lots!’ Instead, they say, ‘Oh they have amazing plazas and public spaces and we loved walking the Highline, or we loved exploring this park beside a stadium.’ Public spaces that are free and open to all and make them amazing (will be a focus).

Mayor Kincannon, State of the City Address, Vermont Avenue, Knoxville, April 2023

Market Square is already a big success, but the upcoming spaces we are working on include the stadium, but not just inside the stadium, but all the public spaces in and around it. The pedestrian bridge if we are fortunate to get funding for that. McClung Warehouse, we are going to be hosting a public input session on that and the future of that property in November. (Ed. Note: November 16, 4:00 – 6:30 pm, The Standard) It’s a priority. Also, Sanitary Laundry, Burlington, Chilhowee Park . . .

There is a lot of interest in Knoxville, including parts of town that haven’t seen a lot of investment. We’ve already seen the movement at the stadium. You’ve seen the transfers of property in and around that. That’s really positive. That’s not displacing anybody. It’s going to be more housing, more activity, more businesses. I’m hoping that in and around that area that already has sewer and stormwater and streetlights and sidewalks, that it will incentivize property owners to have an appropriate level of density for an urban area.

It’s the New Urbanist strategy: People are up against the sidewalk, it’s an interesting, engaging place to walk. Walking Gay Street is nice because all the buildings and windows and activity is right up against the street and sidewalk. Walking Happy Holler is the same, but once you leave Happy Holler on Central, particularly going north, it is less dense. So, density on the corridors, density around the stadium, and trying to see more investment.

I mention these great potential public spaces in part because those are public lands. Standard Knitting Mill? We don’t own that. We haven’t forgotten about it. We are encouraging the property owner to do something, but we only have so much authority. Like it or not, the market is what it is.

We can try on RFPs that encourage local developers because of the scope and size of it, but given our housing crisis, I’m grateful that these entities that have the wherewithal to build 2,000 units of housing on Cumberland are coming in and doing that. The sooner they get done, the better. If they are local entities that can participate in projects of that size, or some component of it, then all the better. If we can use those developments to support local, diverse enterprises, all the better.

Mayor Kincannon and Kim Bumpas, Criterium Pace Car, USA Cycling Championship, Knoxville, June 2023

We only have carrots. In Tennessee private property owners have a lot of authority over how they develop their property and who they hire to do so. I’m grateful on the south Waterfront that we have form-based code, so no matter who is developing it, they have to conform to that code. Cumberland is the same. We can try to have some control and design of things through our land-use policies.

I support local control and want to advocate for more local control. I also believe you get more flies with honey than vinegar and so I have and want to continue working with our (state) delegation in ways that benefit the people of our city. I don’t want to borrow trouble. We have to play the cards we’re dealt and right now the people who control the state’s purse strings are the super-majority Republicans, so I have found that it benefits the people of this city when we work with them, rather than (acting) as adversaries.

Of course, I’m going to continue to stand up where I can, to stand up for our LGBTQ community, to stand up for women’s reproductive rights, to stand up for common sense gun safety. That will never change. I don’t have a lot of leverage on that: We can’t pass ordinances on those things. It’s against state law. Letting people know where their mayor stands on things like that is important and I’ll continue to do that. I’ll also try to work with our legislature.

A lot of the federal dollars that President Biden has been able to pass through the bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act have gone to the state. If we are going to benefit from those, we need to work with the state. It’s important that we maintain a good relationship with our state partners. It’s a repeat game and relationships matter. There are certainly a lot of things I disagree with our state legislators on, but I try to find common ground and work with them for the benefit of Knoxville.

That’s my plan forward.