Old Urbanism

Encouraging community on the fairway or by the expressway

Ordinarily, I don't follow the news out of Oak Ridge, so if a friend hadn't sent me a link to the article in the Oak Ridger, I might have missed out on a rather interesting development. A group of developers, according to the article, is about to build a residential community on The Atomic City's old South Hills golf course. But the real surprising part is that, rather than build a few high-dollar houses overlooking the bunkers, greens, and tees, they're getting rid of the golf course altogether. In its place, they're laying out a traditional neighborhood development along New Urbanist principles, mixing a dense grid of single-family homes and townhouses around a small commercial core. And, while the old-fashioned, dense development model does leave a large amount of the site as open green and recreational space, there's not, best I read the plans, so much as a par four in sight.

Now, all by itself, a golf course going New Urbanist is enough to get my attention. It's yet more evidence that, in these days of high-priced gas and even higher-priced downtown condos, there are some strange shifts afoot in the real estate development paradigm. Next thing you know, they'll want to build a "downtown" in Farragut.

But the fact that the developer is going to build bungalows on the back nine isn't entirely why my friend forwarded the link. A neighbor from my old ‘hood of Parkridge found it particularly amusing when the Oak Ridger referred to how one of the developers, "intrigued by the idea of building a neighborhood that is designed to encourage community…went back to his roots growing up on Magnolia Avenue in Knoxville." Said developer had to "go back," of course, because he now lives on the lake. Interesting, isn't it, that the neighborhood "designed to encourage community" is the one he, or possibly his parents, fled?

Sadder still is how, just as that flight was revving up, Knoxville was hell-bent on destroying a good bit of that community-encouraging design. Heck, Knoxville didn't even wait around for the interstates to start tearing up its inner city. Instead, the town tore out the streetcar tracks in the middle of Magnolia, widened things a good bit, and turned the old boulevard into something called the Magnolia Expressway, anchored on one end by the nifty for the ‘50s over-under interchange at Asheville Highway and Rutledge Pike and on the other by a flyover that blew by Regas and through McAnally Flats. (Cas Walker was involved, which may explain why a ramp dumped drivers at the doorstep of his Western Avenue store…)

Within 20 years, the entire thing was obsolete, but not before Magnolia ceased being a street of stately mansions and middle-class homes and became a strung-out commercial strip, soon to be largely abandoned as commerce sought a faster route, blowing by nonstop a few blocks north on I-40.

What to do with an old commercial strip that currently sees little commerce has become something of ongoing concern in Knoxville. Currently, there are plans perking in various stages for Central and Broadway, Cumberland and, within the South Waterfront plan, parts of Chapman Highway and Sevier Avenue. Now the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the City's Community Development Division are collecting input and presenting some preliminary ideas about Magnolia. I'm impressed by what I've seen so far, a mix of zoning concepts acknowledging that downtown Knoxville needs to grow to the north and east but also respecting the spirit of the grand old boulevard that Magnolia once was. There's even talk of replacing those old ‘50s flyovers at Asheville Highway with a roundabout. How's that for shift in the development paradigm?

What's next, a streetcar?