Massive Federal Grant Aims to Help Stitch the City Back Together

Map of Planned Projects
Map of Planned Projects

Knoxville continues to leverage federal funding to complete projects inside the city. The latest represents one of the largest outlays of federal money to the tune of $41.6 million. The over-arching goal of the various plans included is to reconnect downtown to other parts of the city with a focus on re-connecting east Knoxville. While the river to the south creates a natural obstacle to connection, highways to the east, north, and south form man-made barriers.

The separation of east Knoxville from downtown has roots in urban renewal which removed large swaths of African American businesses, homes, and churches to build James White Parkway, Summit Hill Avenue, and the complex on the hill including the Civic Auditorium, Civic Coliseum, and Safety Center (and related parking). The funding, awarded through the Infrastructure and Jobs Act in response to a grant application from both the city and the Knoxville Community Development Corporation (KCDC), intends to “begin the restoration of cultural and economic opportunity to communities impacted by urban renewal initiatives.”

With work targeted to begin in 2025, the plan calls for seven different phases adding almost ten miles of additional connections.

Of the grant and the planned projects, Mayor Kincannon said,

This is an example of the transformative effect of President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the tremendous impact it has on local communities. The City of Knoxville and KCDC are committed to historical investment in an area that historically has been deprived of sufficient economic opportunities to thrive.

Behind the grant and the federal funding is DOT’s “Neighborhood Access and Equity Program funds plans that reconnect formerly displaced communities, improve access to daily needs and foster equitable development and restoration.” Much of the reconnecting in this case will be via greenways. The system will expand “to link East Knoxville, Morningside Park and the Old City to the Urban Wilderness, Baker Creek Preserve and neighborhoods of South Knoxville that were separated by past infrastructure projects, including the James White Parkway, that affected predominantly Black neighborhoods in downtown and East Knoxville.”

Speaking of those greenway expansions, KCDC Executive Director and CEO Ben Bentley said,

The greenway expansions funded by this grant will offer residents of East and South Knoxville sustainable connectivity to improve overall quality of life. The civic infrastructure also will reestablish critical links that improve access to education, economic mobility and recreation. The improvements made possible by this grant will enable the creation of multi-modal transportation pathways that reconnect underserved communities and form the foundation for increased walkability and non-vehicular development patterns for the next hundred years of Knoxville.

The map included above indicates the locations of the various projects (click to enlarge) and far more detail can be found inside the grant application. Included is a greenway to connect the Old City to the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum, which will pass through a range of neighborhoods in addition to Harriet Tubman Park. Additionally, a “Cultural Corridor will connect Summit Hill Drive, Dandridge Avenue, Hill Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard . . .” Along the way, this connects schools, churches, the Family Justice Center and several affordable housing locations.

Councilwoman Gwen McKenzie represents the district (including downtown) and of this portion of the plans, she said:

The connectivity will provide equitable access for East Knoxville residents to new economic centers and the downtown area. Also, we are working alongside the Beck Cultural Exchange Center to create a pathway that includes markers, maps and monuments to illustrate some of Knoxville’s African American history which was impacted by Urban Renewal.

Precisely what is included along the corridor remains to be determined, but ten historical sites have been identified, “including the only remaining ancestral home of renowned artists Beauford and Joseph Delaney.” Through exhibitions and “digital storytelling” the city hopes to tell the story connecting the history and culture of the locations, now vacant, which once included a “thriving black community.”

Other pieces of the plans include better connections of east Knoxville to the stadium and the Old City, as well as to the planned Science Center. From that area, work is expected on the connection to South Knoxville, including the Urban Wilderness and Baker Creek Preserve, via the South Knoxville Bridge. This includes the long-awaited walking and bike paths across the bridge.

Even at that large amount, the grant does not fund all of the projects, covering only about half the expense involved. The remaining portion falls to the city and “is covered by previously expended or allocated funds.” As noted above, work will begin next year and the projects will be completed in phases dictated by “project readiness.”

The Grant is Announced (Photo provided by Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation)

The photo above includes from left: KCDC board members Bob Whetsel, Felix Harris, Scott Broyles and chair Kim Henry; KCDC Executive Director and CEO Ben Bentley;
Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon; Knoxville City Council members Tommy Smith, Gwen McKenzie and Charles Thomas; African American Equity Restoration Task Force Chair Tanisha Fitzgerald-Baker; Beck Cultural Exchange Center President Rev. Reneé Kesler; and Knoxville City Council member Lauren Rider.