Friday, April 11, 2008

state street : downtown's lost opportunity

Gay Street is the undisputed "Main Street" of Knoxville, even if there is another street that claims that name. The city's redevelopment efforts on Gay should be applauded, as should the private developers and businessmen who have invested in the street that defines downtown Knoxville. As Gay Street goes, so goes the rest of downtown. And if walking down Gay is any indication, downtown's future looks bright.

But is Gay Street all there is to downtown? Many people, including downtowners, seem to think so.

It's not Downtown Disney with two dimensional false fronts. Gay Street still has a way to go, but it's time to look at downtown development holistically, to take stock of what we have and what we've missed. There is more to downtown than the average Knoxvillian assumes. If you are one of the "brave" suburbanites who venture to downtown, chances are you stick to Gay Street or Market Square. If you're feeling adventurous, maybe the Old City. But get this, Downtown is a district. There are a grid of streets that are each unique gems. In downtown you may round the corner and come upon a 100 year old stone cathedral, a quiet park with a fountain, a small corner cafe with seats in the afternoon sun.

But one street has almost no reason for anyone to go to it, though. And that's because there's almost nothing on State Street. Probably no other street has as many faceless parking garages, blank lots, and underutilized rundown buildings.
State Street has become a mere service corridor of Gay Street, the place where you park and go elsewhere. Most of the historic buildings are gone, with nothing but asphalt in their place. The crumbling rears of Gay Street's buildings are the only sign of life, symbolic of how the city has turned its back on what was once one of the major streets in Knoxville. Before First Creek was a superhighway, before the entire east end of downtown was demolished for 60's style urban renewal, State Street was at the heart of it all.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies this more than First Presbyterian's beautiful churchyard. Old trees hang over the graves of Knoxville's founders, in the middle of the little city they had carved from the wilderness. This block is perhaps one of the best in Knoxville, and nobody goes there.
On the same block are some old townhouses (of which there are very few left in Knoxville) have sat empty for a long time. Renovation work is currently on going, and hopefully people will soon actually live on State Street once again.
Across the street, a billboard indicates that Knoxville's tallest building may soon be on State Street. We can only hope that the new skyscraper addresses the streetscape and doesn't just add another mute parking garage. Shops on the ground level would certainly give new life to this end of the street.
I hope as Gay Street and Market Square fill up with successful businesses and residences that we won't think that our job is done. Places like State Street have been ignored for over 60 years, and the empty parking lots are what we have to show for it. The street is a blank slate for us to write upon, to make the kind of downtown Knoxville we want. As historic buildings fill up with expensive condos, we need to start building affordable apartments and townhouses for families, so that downtown doesn't become a rich-only/tourist district. Where better than on the broken asphalt of State Street? As downtown expands, we need to look at the opportunities we've lost, at the forgotten corners of our city, and start planning how to grasp them again.

[Sorry for the overlong sermon, hope you enjoy the pictures]


Mickey said...

This was great. I never really saw State Street in that light. It really is amazing to have an entire strip just one block from Gay that's just waiting to be developed. And this at a time when the city is trying to do just that.

Once again I can't help but think: here's another good, available spot that would have been a good home for a baseball stadium.

The Pol said...

CK you definitely hit on something here. And as much as we discuss downtown and it's potential this is a glowing example of it.

My recent post on my campaign blog was on this sort of thing (as you know) and as County Commissioner of Downtown will support the redevelopment of this wonderful street.

But first you have to help me get my web page looking decent, then we can rebuild state street.

Robert said...

WRITE IN KING! (sorry Cullin ... he's a really good writer)

ck said...

mickey- i don't know if you were sarcastically referencing it or that you don't know that that's EXACTLY what was proposed for all the open land behind mast general store. county gov't screwed that up though, and the smokies ballpark got built by the interstate in sevierville. it burns me up, especially seeing how chattanooga's ballpark is such a cool part of their downtown.

pol- start paying me and i'll work harder.

robert- thanks for the vote of confidence!

HEATHER said...

This was a great post. Coincidentally, this week I parked in the back lot of the Downtown Grill and Brewary and on the way out I noticed that lovely graveyard you mentioned. I don't think i had ever noticed it before. I hope this area gets revitalized soon. Thanks for bringing this to other Knoxvillian's attention!!


Mickey said...

Actually, ck, I wasn't in Knoxville during what I can only imagine was quite the fiasco when the team was moved out to Kodak. But whenever I'm out running or driving around within a one-mile radius of downtown and I see an empty lot or a decrepit warehouse complex, I always think of what could have been.

You say State Street was one of the proposed sites? What a massive blunder letting that get away.

ck said...

the city was all for it, but the county owned the air rights to the property. the air rights! the county got greedy and played hardball, no pun intended, the smokies said "screw this" and went out to sevier county.

we actually had a ball field near downtown until 1999- bill meyers stadium. It was where the little league fields are now in park ridge. downtown knoxville has a 100 year tradition of baseball, but now i have to drive twenty minutes to watch baseball. business as usual in knoxville.