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Rough Landing

In search of the missing pedestrian link

by Jack Neely

Afew years ago, I did some research for the historical markers on the Volunteer Landing project. I was tickled to help. For years, I'd dreamed of restoring downtown's traditional connection to the river. There was a time when nearly every north-south street in Knoxville led to the wharves where once you could buy wholesale fresh off the boats, to the excursion steamboats, to the fishing docks. The riverfront invented downtown, and Knoxville.

For most of my life, though, we've tried hard to pretend the river wasn't there. An appealing riverfront park seemed like just the thing to bring it back.

Considering the obstacles, I think they've done a good job with the site. I like the riverwalk, the boat docks, the footbridge over First Creek. My kids have played in those wacky fountains and on the nautical playground. I enjoyed seeing an outdoor play down there last summer; it seemed an ideal stage. The two restaurants down there are well-designed for their locations, and the Gateway Center may be the most pleasant gift shop I've ever been in. I like the ducks and the carp and even some of the flotsam: this week at the mouth of First Creek, an ancient wooden rowboat half-sunken in the mud, waiting for somebody to paint a picture.

But I don't go down to Volunteer Landing much, at least not from downtown. A fancy pedestrian bridge spans Neyland Drive, but getting there entails crossing two busy parking-garage driveways without crosswalks, one of them blinded by a retaining wall. Drivers accustomed to driving 50 mph on Neyland try to gun it up the hill to veer into the parking garage without losing momentum. I use it occasionally, but I shouldn't. More than once, I've nearly been hit. I often get startled glares just for crossing by foot. It's not safe.

I brought up that concern a couple of years ago with some of the planners; once the Gateway Center was finished and the road construction was done on the east end of the site, they said, there would be other "enhanced pedestrian links" several blocks to the east of that bridge, from East Hill Avenue. They showed me a map with lots of circles and squares. "It will be easy to get there" they said. "We're taking care of that."

I figured they were all finished by now. I hadn't tried the new Riverside Tavern yet when I proposed meeting my family there Friday right after work. I got some money at my bank on Gay Street. From there I could see the restaurant, hardly three blocks away. So rather than walking all the way back to Walnut and daring the rush-hour parking-garage traffic, I strolled by Blount Mansion and down the sidewalk on the old Hill Ave. viaduct, to the Gateway Center.

There, I looked around and found nothing I would consider a "pedestrian link." No steps, no ramps, nothing I could see.

Reluctantly, I decided to just take the Gateway Center elevator down, wondering if that was someone's idea of a "pedestrian link." It seemed a little silly to call an elevator for such a short trip down. As it turns out, I didn't have to. The door to the elevator was closed and locked.

I looked around for the alternate pedestrian route, the elusive pedestrian link I'd been assured about, years ago.

Finally, I found it. Here's what you do. You climb over the three-foot metal railing. Then you clamber down the steep ferny embankment. Be careful, because at the bottom of the grass and ferns is the top of a seven-foot concrete retaining wall. When you leap down from the wall, you'll land on a narrow, winding two-lane asphalt driveway, a blind curve around a building. Don't look for a sidewalk or footpath, because there's not one. When you hear the squeal of tires, cars show up suddenly. Be prepared to yell loud.

Arriving at Volunteer Landing, I picked ferns out of my hair and read the sign on the Gateway Center. The elevator was closed because the Gateway Center had closed at 5 p.m. (In warmer months, it will be open as late as 6.) My promised pedestrian link between downtown and the riverfront, I assume, depends on the elevator. And the elevator is closed most of the time. It's that kind of logic that makes my hometown so endearing.

I finally got to the Riverside Tavern, which is a nice place. I suspected I was the only one there who didn't arrive in a car.

The funny thing is, I've heard folks complain that Volunteer Landing's difficult to get to even by car, especially from downtown. One likened it to the high-speed corridors of the Death Star, with blind convergences and necessary multiple lane-crossings. If I had a quarter for every complaint I've heard about people driving a mile or more out of their way because they missed the turn, well, I could treat my family to salmon dinner at the Riverside.

One of those lost drivers was a well-known urban-design writer from Nashville. She asked me why they didn't just forget about whatever James White Parkway was supposed to promise, and lay out some regular crossable streets and sidewalks from downtown down to the river, maybe lay out a whole new grid to replace the neighborhood abolished by urban renewal 40 years ago. "Vols traffic?" I offered weakly, knowing that couldn't be true. No city would give up 30 blocks of potentially lucrative downtown real estate just to hasten the evacuation of Knoxville after each football game.

In kowtowing to high-speed traffic from the interstate, Volunteer Landing has turned its back on downtown. Reconnecting downtown to its riverfront was the best reason for spending all that money on it. Without much better pedestrian access, it's not nearly finished.

March 9, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 10
© 2000 Metro Pulse