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Getting in the Flow

Knoxville: The Disconnected City

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

A couple of weeks ago, I was part of a focus group of downtown workers talking about the pluses and minuses of Knoxville's urban core. We were a small but diverse bunch, ranging from full-time downtown residents to Loudon County dwellers. There was a lot of interesting conversation.

But the comment that stuck with me the most was when a thoughtful, articulate woman who works in the Plaza Tower on Gay Street said she wished there were more good restaurants close by suitable for business lunching. "I mean," she said, "there's the Bistro, and sometimes we'll drive down to Riverside Tavern, but there's not much else."

What struck me wasn't the gist of her statement, but one particular word in it: "drive." I'm not sure exactly how far the Plaza Tower is from Riverside Tavern, but it's a distance you could measure in blocks, not miles. I walked it the other day in about six minutes. But when I asked the woman how many people in the tower ever go to the Tavern on foot, she gave me a puzzled look. "I don't think anybody does," she said. "I wouldn't."

"It's only three or four blocks," I said.

"I know," she said. "But they're difficult blocks."

She's right, of course. In that short distance, you have to cross Main Street, which is essentially a four-lane on-ramp to James White Parkway, and then traverse the Hill Street viaduct's narrow sidewalks while cars whiz by, before finally crossing Hill Street itself and navigating the winding sidewalk down to the restaurant (unless you take the elevator through the visitor's center, which is a confusing maneuver at best).

And all of that is easier now than it was when the Tavern opened, because at first there wasn't even a sidewalk connecting it to Hill Street. Riverside Tavern, which has thousands of people working in buildings within a short walking distance, was designed solely for automobile access.

Why is this significant? Because Knoxville's urban planning of the past decade—or rather, its appalling lack of planning—has produced several disjointed projects that are very difficult to get to. Try, for example, walking between the UT campus, our new convention center site, and Volunteer Landing. I know it's possible, because I've done it. But it's not easy. Between any two of those points, you have to cross major roadways (Cumberland Avenue, Henley Street, Neyland Drive) that are anything but conducive to pedestrian traffic.

Of course, it's not even easy to get to any of these places in a car. I've had people pull up next to me on Gay Street and ask how to get to the riverfront. I always have to overcome the temptation to tell them to get back on the interstate and try it from there.

But pedestrians are especially crucial to any kind of downtown revitalization, from loft apartments to big-bang projects like Universe Knoxville. What gives thriving downtowns their energy is the presence of people on the street—people who are much more likely to stop at any given store or restaurant or office because they're on foot and they have time to look around and notice such things. There are people who work downtown who have no idea how much is actually here already, because all they see of the city is whatever happens to lie between their parking lot and their office. In the buildings that house their own parking (not to mention their own restaurants), like Plaza Tower, the employees might as well be in Lenoir City for all their connection to downtown.

And connection is the key word. The way downtowns work is through connections—between people, between spaces, between demographics and cultures and races and classes. It's from those exchanges that cities generate energy and creativity, new ideas and new approaches. A city full of people in air-conditioned cars moving quickly along wide roads designed for maximum traffic flow is a city of disconnected citizens.

Our current leadership, both in the city and the county, public and private, is largely ignorant of these issues. They continue to see things in isolation, one project at a time, rather than as a series of related entities, a community circuit that must be connected in order to generate power. They think you can build the battery terminals, and energy will automatically flow between them. But until we invest the same amount of time, money and effort in the connections, we will be forever asking Chattanooga or Asheville or Nashville if we could maybe borrow their jumper cables.

October 11, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 41
© 2001 Metro Pulse