insights (2006-07)

Downtown Design Guidelines Needed

The city has at long last started addressing the need for downtown design guidelines encompassing both improvements in the public realm and the realm of private development. A recently appointed, seven-member Downtown Design Guideline Steering Committee has held two formative meetings leading up to a public workshop at which a panoply of possibilities will be discussed.

The workshop will be held at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 7in the auditorium of the East Tennessee History Center at the corner of Gay and Clinch. Everyone with a stake in how downtown redevelopment proceeds is encouraged to attend.

It would have been great if this process could have been set in motion several years ago when downtown redevelopment was still in a nascent stage. That might have served to accelerate much-needed public improvements, such as new sidewalks and street lighting on the 100 block of Gay Street that will be disruptive to install now that the block is teeming with new residents and commerce. It might have even averted such urban design blemishes as the dark glass that shrouds the ground floor of the otherwise resplendently restored Miller’s Building.

But the impetus for holistically addressing downtown’s form and function came only when the consultants Crandall Arambula from Oregon proffered a grand design as part of the Nine Counties. One Vision process two years ago. That impetus morphed into a statement of Civic Vision adopted a year ago by a mayorally appointed Downtown Advisory Committee. Its “Guiding Principles” included steps to “devise and apply appropriate urban design standards and guidelines.”

Formation of the steering committee can be viewed as an outgrowth of that mandate. Its members include architect David Collins, who is also a county commissioner; City Council member Marilyn Roddy; UT’s dean of architecture and design John McRae; KCDC’s director of redevelopment Dan Tiller; developer and property manager Joe Petre; and landscape architect Trey Benefield.

Supporting the committee’s work are the Metropolitan Planning Commission’s veteran planner Mike Carberry and its guru of historic preservation Ann Bennett. Mayor Bill Haslam’s deputy for downtown, Jill Van Beke is also front and center. They, in turn, are referring to design guidelines already in place in such progressive cities such as Austin, Boulder, Lexington and Louisville, to name just a few.

Where the public domain is concerned, the committee can be expected to address everything from streets and sidewalks to lighting, planting, signage and other amenities. On Gay Street, for example, Van Beke envisions consistent extension for its full expanse of the distinctive brick sidewalks and decorative street lights that now adorn the four block stretch from Summit Hill Avenue to Church Avenue.

Where standards governing private buildings are concerned, the going can be expected to get much stickier. Carberry and Bennett envision a two-pronged approach under which restrictive guidelines would apply in designated historic areas, whereas much more flexibility would be allowed elsewhere.

Bennett feels strongly that H-1 overlay zoning of the sort now in place on Market Square should be extended to the Gay Street Commercial Historic District that runs from Summit Hill to Church. Without restrictions on demolition or alteration of buildings that compromises their historic character, she’s fearful that the district could lose its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. That loss would eradicate eligibility for historic tax credits that have been a big contributor to financing several restoration and preservation projects. But Bennett acknowledges that consensus among property owners and other stakeholders is needed for protective H-1 zoning to be adopted, and even Gay Street development partners are divided on this issue. David Dewhirst and Buzz Goss are collaborating on conversion of the former J.C. Penney building into condominiums on its upper floors, with Dewhirst favoring H-1 zoning and Goss opposing it as too restrictive (even though he’s preservation minded).

It’s believed that everyone involved agrees that guidelines outside historic districts should allow for a variety of architectural styles and building materials and otherwise be more flexible, perhaps even voluntary. But Carberry places a premium on how buildings face the street and abut the sidewalk, primarily in the name of pedestrian friendliness.

A cardinal tenet of good urban design is that blank walls are to be avoided, especially on streets where fostering retail activity is a primacy. The same blocks of Gay Street that comprise its historic district have been singled out by Crandall Arambula as downtown’s most promising locus for retail revitalization. But what’s needed in their estimation is a continuous strip of storefronts that engage the attention of pedestrian shoppers traversing it, much as they would in a mall.

The Mast General Store that’s due to open later this year at 402 S. Gay St. represents an anchor for such a retail strip. Dewhirst and Goss, who own the property on either side, are intent on extending it with retail on the ground floor of the former J.C. Penney building to the south and in a new building they’re planning to construct to the north in the 170 foot wide “hole” that now exists in Gay Street’s front.

Yet plans for downtown’s new transit center on State street that has been proceding in seeming isolation presently call for a 70-foot-wide Gay Street entrance in the “hole” connecting to the State Street facility at a lower elevation via a pedestrian bridge over a parking garage. The faux brick and glass façade that’s proposed for this grand entrance may constitute a monument to public transportation, but it flies in the face of optimizing downtown’s retail potential.

If the steering committee does nothing else in the near term, it should move with alacrity to help prevent this travesty. A Gay Street entrance to the transit center of the same 20-foot width as the pedestrian bridge could run through the middle of the new building that Dewhirst and Goss are planning with arcade-like entrances to shops on either side.