Islands in the Stream
by Frank Cagle
I am certainly sympathetic to efforts to expand downtown Knoxville to connect with neighborhoods like Fort Sanders, Fourth and Gill and Park Ridge. But I think it is a common misconception that Knoxville’s downtown suffers from being circumscribed by the river, the UT campus and Interstate 40 and thus cannot be all that it could be because of its size.
Before I washed up on the shores of Fort Loudon Lake in 1982, I spent the 1970s working my way up the river. I worked at Alabama newspapers in Florence, Athens, Decatur and Huntsville. As a reporter and editor I was intimately involved in covering urban renewal, as all these river towns were faced with shopping centers and malls on a bypass at the edge of town threatening the extinction of downtown retail department stores. Each town responded differently, and each had a unique set of problems. But each town had the same story. In every town the shopping mall killed downtown, and millions in federal funds and elaborate schemes could do nothing to stop it.
Over and over again towns painstakingly built up a block of incubated businesses, backed with infrastructure improvements like cobblestone streets, in a vain attempt to have an infusion of success spark development on the next block, and the next block. But to the passing observer (i.e. shopper) the island of struggling commerce was surrounded by a wasteland. There were just too many empty buildings. Too many blocks of ugly surrounding the struggling tree being fertilized to grow in a metaphorical Brooklyn.
If you look at the most successful cities in the world, Manhattan and Hong Kong have to rank in the top five. It is no coincidence they are located on the circumscribed area of an island. Space is at a premium. Every square foot is precious. Every economist will tell you that scarcity creates opportunity—and value. The defined area of Knoxville’s downtown, while long a wasteland, also constituted a treasure in plain sight.
There are people that have complained for years that Knoxville never had a master plan. Knoxville has had a master plan in broad general terms since the 1960s. It began with the TVA Towers to anchor the north end of downtown and the City County building to anchor the south. The south end was to be the center of government buildings and office towers. Thus the First Tennessee building and Riverview Tower, built by the Brothers Butcher. Chris Whittle built his sprawling campus next to the downtown Post Office.
Down on the river, a master plan for riverfront development cleaned up the waterfront and created a restaurant and park district tied into the UT campus. State Street was designated as the parking district, with parking decks from Dwight Kessel through First Tennessee to State Street.
The TVA towers at the other end of downtown opened out onto Market Square and Krutch Park. The World’s Fair site has its own master plan with the convention center, the Candy Factory and the city park surrounded by restaurants.
These anchor islands in downtown were waiting for something to happen in between, mostly on Gay Street. If you developed a rigid and inflexible master plan and someone—anyone—had come along and decided to invest some money downtown, would Knoxville have required them to follow the plan? In the real world anyone willing to invest in a moribund downtown Knoxville would have been able to do it—hang the master plan, screw the zoning restrictions and if you wanted a street to be one way, two way or a ménage a trios, we’d work it out.
If there had been a master plan set in stone, do you imagine it would have foreseen Gay Street having its highest and best use be—residential development? Every urban renewal pipe dream in Knoxville for 40 years has been about bringing retail business back to Gay Street. But the free market had other ideas.
Once development started on the north end of Gay Street with the Sterchi building, and condos deals began to fall like dominos, every block between the developed islands became valuable. There are buildings in downtown Knoxville that are not the most graceful and architecturally pleasing. But they occupy valuable space in a limited universe. They are being developed.
If you go to a city with an unlimited number of buildings, especially if they lie along a long and broad avenue of some miles, you will find them still struggling. Those broad avenues really look empty without any people on the sidewalks.
Downtown Knoxville is not small and circumscribed. It’s just cozy.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at email@example.com .