Seven representatives of the international planning organization known as the Urban Land Institute sat on the stage at the Bijou Theatre this morning and offered, to a crowd of several hundred, including most of the architects, developers, and politicians you’d expect, their impressions of the city’s problems du jour. After five days of intensive study, and meeting with 143 community representatives, they discussed five problem areas currently perplexing the city: World’s Fair Park, and proposals to build on parts of it; west Jackson Avenue, including the sites vacated by the burned and demolished McClung Warehouses; the Civic Coliseum and Auditorium; the old Supreme Court site, which seems to have buffaloed one developer after another; and adjacent Henley Street, which for many years has been described as a barrier between downtown and the UT/Fort Sanders area, as well as a deterrent to development.
World’s Fair Park should be “off limits to development,” including Clarence Brown Theatre’s proposal, they advised. Henley Street needed to be fixed to make it better for both pedestrians and businesses, the sooner the better. West Jackson was “low-hanging fruit,” and they proposed that inevitable development be carefully coordinated. The east side of downtown, including the neighborhood of the Civic Coliseum, was grossly underdeveloped, and could be restored by reversing the bad choices of the urban-renewal era. And the Supreme Court site showed potential for major mixed-use construction.
Leigh Ferguson, longtime Chattanooga developer and a leader of that city’s dramatic turnaround several years ago, and now downtown-development coordinator in New Orleans, chaired the presentation. The jocular, easygoing Ferguson was one of only two who admitted to any experience with Knoxville before this week. Other members, architect Angelo Carusi of Atlanta (a UT grad, he’s the other who knows his way around); Nick Egelanian of Annapolis; Mary Konsoulis of Alexandria, Va.; Ed Starzec, of Boston; Julie Underdahl and Andrew Irvine, both of Denver, spoke in turn. Irvine is an architect originally from Australia, whose colorfully language made him a crowd favorite, even as he occasionally cut to the bone.
They generally liked downtown, a marked contrast to their predecessors in 1998, when the city invited a different ULI group to recommend siting for the Convention Center. That previous group was frank about the fact that Knoxville might not have enough appeal to attract major conventions.
The new consultants (who included none of the previous visitors) seemed especially impressed with the round-the-clock liveliness of Market Square, and the fact that it wasn’t driven just by tourists (Irvine even remarked on the “beautiful alley” adorned with murals, behind the Square’s east side); Gay Street’s “Theater District”; and the downtown residential market, which they said was at “full absorption.” The major Marble Alley residential development is needed, they say, and will be fully absorbed, too. Several used the word “unique” to describe it, and Eglanian referred to the “authentic texture and real heritage” of downtown.
They expressed concerns about downtown’s declining office market, and the middling hotel market, with relatively low room rates ($76) and only 60 percent occupancy. The called out the striking exception of the Oliver, in the renovated 1876 Kern Building on Market Square, which has room rates over $100, and virtually 100 percent occupancy. They seemed surprised at the amount of retail in the suburbs, especially at West Town and Turkey Creek, which they said went beyond what might be expected for the market, and a challenge to downtown retail. The warned about the “Civic District” dominating the southern part of downtown, which, lacking residences and focused on M-F, 9-5 office work, might invite crime because it’s not watched closely at night or on weekends. They also remarked on downtown’s very poor connections to the redeveloped riverfront. Underdahl remarked on downtown’s gaps of underused land, especially surface parking lots, and noted that downtown had long to go before it was finished, and that it still lacked many basic services, including schools. “Innovation is rampant in the downtown industry,” she remarked, and had heard some frustration in Knoxville that just as we arrive, other cities keep raising the bar for what a downtown can be.
And they regarded James White Parkway as a major problem, as wasted space and a significant barrier on the eastern edge of downtown, implying that as far as they could tell it was built for game-day traffic, only a few days a year–while praising the KAT transit center as a successful attempt to remediate part of it. In general, though, Irvine remarked, Knoxville’s “exquisite downtown is dressed like a tramp on the east.” And even if Knoxville’s determined to maintain that much acreage for the benefit of Vol fans seven days a year, at least they should have a good impression of downtown while they’re racing to and from the game.
The Coliseum area is grossly underused, they observed, and recommended undoing urban renewal by redeveloping the swaths of empty space around it, including the police station. They didn’t make a recommendation on whether to keep the building, but the morning’s biggest surprise may have been the suggestion that many of the Civic Coliseum’s shows be moved to a new facility more integral to downtown, specifically the Supreme Court site between Henley and Locust–with pro hockey games to be placed at still another unbuilt facility, perhaps on the northern fringe of downtown.
They recommended the city complete the long-envisioned (and according to them, funded) greenway from World’s Fair Park to the Old City, along the old rail yards. Irvine recommmended the city engage with the railroads about right of way on the seemingly underused expanse of freight yard, several of the tracks built to serve wholesale houses that are no longer there.
Like the 1998 group, they recommended unearthing Second Creek and doing something about the train tracks through World’s Fair Park (both proposals that local experts said, 16 years ago, were nearly impossible). Irvine also brought up the idea of “daylighting” First Creek, as part of a full redeveloped east side of downtown. It was buried beneath James White Parkway in the 1960s. “People love water,” he said. “Looking at water, hearing water.”
Starzec remarked that Henley is a major problem for pedestrians, that when their own members attempted to cross it on foot, they had to wait through two light cycles, and that the structures along it had “turned their backs to the street.” He and Carusi recommended devoting one lane on each side of the wide road to parallel parking, extend the new Henley Bridge bicycle lanes down Henley itself, and “cultivate the edge” of downtown by bringing buildings and activity to the street. They recommended an Request for Proposals for the Supreme Court site, soon, because the option expires next August, perhaps to include (the aforementioned surprise) a performing-arts venue that might appeal to the UT community as well as replace some events currently scheduled for the Civic Coliseum.
But not necessarily Clarence Brown Theatre, which one speaker vaguely suggested being rebuilt on a site on the eastern side of World’s Fair Park’s fledgling arts district, perhaps with the MUSE children’s museum on the other side.
The “low-hanging fruit” of Jackson Avenue needs a “master developer” to take the lead on what could be a major mixed-use attraction. Carusi took a stab at sketching a collection of rather large urban buildings to almost one-up what was there before, with the late-Victorian McClung warehouses, with a mixture of offices, residences, retail, and other uses.
The recommended hiring a new director or two, perhaps via KCDC, to oversee downtown development and push it forward daily.
There were lots of questions, including the inevitable one concerning parking, which a Knoxvillian cited as the reason for downtown’s soft office market. “It’s not a God-given right to have parking,” noted Irvine, in his Australian accent. “The automobile has controlled our lives for so many years.” While admitting they didn’t study overall parking downtown in great detail, the committee’s impression was that downtown Knoxville has plenty of that–but that effective communication of where the parking is might indeed be an issue.
City Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons closed the discussion after an hour and a half, thanking the group, and citing Mayor Madeline Rogero’s response that her administration was “fascinated and challenged in a very positive way.”
The ULI will work on a fuller version of the report, to be published in weeks to come; some aspects of the report, including the power-point slides from this morning’s presentation, will soon by online via the city’s website.