Thursday, March 18, 2010

bring back commerce & vine

The following map continues to amaze me:

First, half of what was downtown Knoxville is gone. Central Street was actually central. Second, what I'd like to talk about today, is that we had an orderly grid system at one point. Despite that fact that we've done our best to ruin its efficiency by chopping it up and plaguing it with one-way streets, the downtown grid continues to serve and provide our city's best streetscapes... with one particularly glaring exception.

You may notice there is no big squiggle across the top of the map. I'm not talking about I-40, the Mother of All Squiggles, but its far less useful cousin Summit Hill Drive. Born of an era when traffic engineers obsessed with getting from Point A to Point B as fast as possible, Summit Hill frolics across northern Downtown, jumping from grid section to grid section. The curvy four lane brazenly ignores downtown, getting drivers through perhaps 5 seconds faster. Even the name "Drive" implies its suburban era heritage, when downtown was a thing to be avoided and gotten by quickly.

The traditional urban streetscape has returned to downtown, with sidewalk cafes and small shops and people living above. Streets that were built around this idea are flourishing. But this 1960s anachronism works against the grain. Why is it that the "treble clef" square is always empty? Why are there almost no street level businesses on Summit Hill? How can we activate this important part of downtown?

I say: restore the grid. The streets that were minimally affected by the "urban renewal" of the 60s have been the quickest to bounce back. Let's salvage the streets that were chopped up. Let's do something like this:

Summit Hill's path is pretty set to the west, but as it descends to Central Street we have a chance to make something beautiful. Streets that used to be prominent, Vine Ave. and Commerce Ave., would become important again. The buildings at the sides of the square would no longer be isolated by odd triangles of leftover space. Imagine a cafe like on Gay Street, but across the street is a park like Krutch, but larger. The edges of the park would have parking to replace all that is lost and then some. Don't worry, we can keep the median trees in the park- they look so nice at Christmas.

Imagine this: in the park we could build an open shed that would be a permanent home for the Farmers Market. The Market House will never return to Market Square now, but we could make something like it in a new place. Vendors could back their trucks up to it just like they used to and sell their products rain or shine.

Or maybe something else?

A lot of potential is being wasted on what could be one of the great urban spaces of Knoxville. The greatest hinderance is the highway that roars through the middle of it. I've told you what I think we should do. What do you think?


bupperoni said...

lots of interesting ideas, but i'd like to make one correction about your interpretation of the original grid: i believe most of the streets were originally one-way, alternating east and west, or north and south.

even the recent resurgence of downtown development has changed streets from one way to two. Just ten years ago clinch & church avenues were one way, as was walnut. market's one-way direction was reversed just a couple years ago, to drive traffic (and unfortunately i don't mean the foot type) toward market square.

want to get really depressed & frustrated about what we've lost? talk to bob booker about what creating summit hill and the urban renewal of the 50s and 60s (which included the interstate, the coliseum/auditorium and police headquarters) did to the thriving african american community that existed east of central street. not only were homes and businesses simply razed, but schools, libraries, churches. it will make you shudder.

thanks for posting!

Skib said...

I like the proposal. And it looks like it would turn Commerce Dr into a useful road again. With the potential construction of that empty lot on State St, this idea would bring useful traffic that way as well.

The Modern Gal said...

I'm torn. I love your ideas, especially the one about making a permanent home for the farmer's market. But I also find Summit Hill useful in the times that I do need to get from Point A to Point B in a hurry, usually related to work somehow. I like the idea of restoring the downtown grid, but if people really, really aren't going to be stopping, then I don't mind them not being on the downtown grid because it means less gridlock, and I hate gridlock more than any other traffic problem in the world. Summit Hill really is the only through east-west street aside from the interstate.

Two other observations: why is the now-LMU law school labeled Knoxville City Hall on the second map? and where is the treble clef? Is it temporarily on holiday while the 100 block work is being done?

Sean Alsobrooks said...

I love the idea and am all for it! More walking, less driving, more business along the street - love it!

Art Wagner said...

Thanks for a great proposal!

It's amazing how quickly people were lured into the "drive fast thru it" state of thinking that Summit Hill created. As you indicated, those triangles of wasted space and a discouraged street level presence created an invisible barrier for pedestrians and the spread of street level vitality. Even the open space has been a waste.

After the naysayers stop screaming bloody murder, perhaps this can be the basis for a real discussion of dealing with Summit Hill. After all, if NYC can make Times Square a pedestrian only area, then Knoxville can surely recover from its bad planning.

Anonymous said...

I've only bacame familiar with in the past several weeks, and I really love the articles.

But reading various articles, I've noticed at least one in which the author wanted to get rid of I-40, another lamenting the existence of Henley Street between downtown and UT, and now this one wishing do do away with Summit Hill Drive.

Should we just turn everything between I-640 and the Tennessee River into one big park with walking/bicycle trails?

Anonymous said...

Real urban planners learned a long time ago that building a highway or other fast road through a neighborhood or gridded area is a sure-fire way to destroy it. For example, look what happened when Robert Moses built the Cross-Bronx Expressway through the Bronx. It created one of worst urban wastelands that the U.S. has ever seen--and one that New York City has taken years to get over.

One has only to look at Summit Hill to see the same mistake. Few pedestrians use it for there is nothing at street level that is useful or an attraction. Obviously, there is little to be done with the segment from Henley to Gay, but the open space between Gay and Central needs some kind of treatment to make use of the space.

I understand the city has some plans for it as part of the 100-200 block restoration, but it would be interesting to re-open the discussion about a more urban use for that area.

Andrea said...

I adore your ideas! I would love, love, love a huge open air market in that spot. I recently moved to Sterchi Lofts and I often feel disconnected from the rest of downtown because of Summit Hill Drive. But then, maybe that is the construction. I know that Old City is just around the corner, but I feel I'm a little old for the club and bar scene. I would love more shops and restaurants on this block like they have in Market Square and the theatre district. I hope someone out there is listening to your post and the comments!

Skib said...

Turning the "square" into another cluster of buildings would be another option. There is definitely a limited # of buildings within Downtown/Old City. I believe a permanent farmer's market would be better situated between State & Central (across from the new dog park). Also, extending Walnut and a few other roads into Jackson would be interesting as well.

Unknown said...

the little block of buildings (200-206 w. summit hill) that you pointed out as good possibilities for cafe/pub/store is the only thing remaining of old commerce avenue. it's funny you brought this up right now (and i thank you for it!). recently i was doing research on those buildings, but primarily the tallest one, known as the deaver-kennedy building, which today has william r. moore signage and white paint obscuring its former appearance. maybe knox heritage will consider it a good candidate for the 2010 'fragile fifteen'; i submitted this as a nomination. along the state street side of the building there are broken windows with chunks of insulation protruding.

in the book 'knoxville: a postcard memoir 1900-1930', elena irish zimmerman wrote that "summit hill drive was created for better access to tennessee valley authority headquarters". that seems a little bit unnecessary now.

Knoxarch said...

The masterplan for downtown Knoxville done a few years ago by Crandall Arambula had this block "repaired" as well. It always seemed to me that there was something metaphoric in the way the east side of the 200 block of Gay Street had been replaced with a giant "X" of Summit Hill Dive and the crooked leg of State Street.

- The treble clef sculpture was removed recently as it was deemed by the city to be too costly to repair. I haven't looked lately, but the pedestal with all the dedications and sponsors is probably still there, as some sort of odd tribute to the city's inability to sufficiently maintain public property.
- City Hall is labeled such because from the 1920s until the City County Building was completed, the building housed City Hall. Even when the Chamber Partnership occupied the building later, it was still referred to as "Old City Hall." Prior to this period, City Hall was at one end of the old Market House, and the Building on Summit Hill was the home of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum (now Tennessee School for the Deaf). To my mind, since it was an Asylum for 80 years, and City Hall for only 60, we ought really to be referring to it as "Old Asylum" or something. Insert lawyer joke here.
- It's extremely doubtful that downtown's streets were "originally" one-way. The original grid of the central part of downtown was laid out in 1791; it would have been remarkably prescient of James White to foresee the automobile.

bupperoni said...

Knoxarch, you are right and I was wrong. I asked someone who would know and he told me streets were originally two-way. I'll take my lumps now. :)

Personally, I don't see the problem of alternating one-way streets. It has worked for scores of years in New York City. Knoxville's problem with that pattern is that downtown has been cut up, truncated, or amputated which has pretty much ruined the grid concept.

Good discussion above!

Doug McCaughan said...

I like the idea. Before it were implemented, don't we need to ask why the "permanent" indoor farmer's market near East Town Mall, excuse me, Knoxville Center, is now a Target? And why, other than the Market Square renovation (which I like), did we do away with the covered farmer's market in Market Square?

B said...

I assume your talking about the Market House? Part of it was burned down by a kid and so they decided to tear down the rest instead of fixing it. It is interesting because even though we lost a large part of Knoxville's history through that, the openness of current day Market Square is pretty nice. At least I think so.

ck said...

Bupperoni: Alternating one ways could work if they're consistent- no two way to one way changes (like the confusing Walnut/Clinch intersection). But CNU has shown that businesses are 50% more likely to survive on two-way streets- which I think you can anecdotally confirm around downtown. Look for a post on this subject soon!

Modern Gal: I think 5th Avenue could suffice as an alternate east-west shortcut through the downtown area.

Anon #1: I'm not against automobiles in general, I'm just advocating a fine-grained solution to automobiles in the city center. Huge traffic conduits (like James White Pkwy.) don't work well down here.

B: I think Doug was referring to the 1980s shed that used to be where the stage is. Ironically, no one used it then- the Farmers Market only got rolling after it was torn down.

I'm conflicted about Market Square- on one hand, I love the open European piazza vibe it has going on now, but at the same time I'm ready to rebuild the Market House and bring back one of Knoxville's lost treasures. So I thought this would be a good compromise- use a Market House to activate another square and let Market Square remain open.

bran said...

this is something that's been on my mind for a long time. i've even thought about having vigils for the dead and lost streets.

KATbike said...

Magnolia is a through street. Everyone forget about it. It runs right next to the interstate and from broadway to hall of fame with only 2 lights. Also, it would populate a 'sketchy' area potentially making it not as 'sketchy' as it has been. In the small space on Summit Hill there are 5 lights between broadway and hall of fame. Though the 5 lights are probably a good thing considering how fast people go and how dangerous it already is to cross the street. Around 3 weeks ago someone was hit on Summit Hill and died hours later. Also with all of the redirecting traffic downtown, Main/Cumberland and Church run straight through to Hall of Fame. If anything, this weekend (BigEars) only shows that Knoxville needs to expand the downtown lifestyle. Market Square was full everyday all day with people. AC entertainment is booming and I can only imagine they will stay on course with the booming. Sundown in the City is HUGE as well as the Farmers Market that now stretches into Krutch park. Not to mention that all of this restores a sense of community and engagement to a culture that has all but lost it!

This is a good idea and though it will most likely not happen, I'm glad that others are thinking in that direction!