insights (2006-37)

Downtown Design Guidelines are Coming

The Metropolitan Planning Commission and the city administration are making commendable progress toward adoption of design guidelines governing downtown development. The MPC’s web site (knoxmpc.org) contains a proposed set of guidelines that will be the subject of a final round of public comments at a workshop set for Monday Sept. 18 at 5:30 p.m. in the Small Assembly Room at the City County Building. Barring an outpouring of objections (and MPC staff members involved aren’t presently aware of any) it’s envisioned that the guidelines will then be adopted by MPC and City Council in October.

The guidelines place a heavy emphasis on aesthetics (i.e. the look of the downtown area) especially from the vantage point of pedestrians. Indeed pedestrian-friendliness has been a watchword governing their formulation from both an aesthetic and functional standpoint.

“The thing we’ve focused on the most and heard the most in our workshops is optimizing the pedestrian experience,” says City Councilwoman Marilyn Roddy, who is one of seven members of a mayor-appointed steering committee that has overseen the formulation process over the past eight months. Its other members include architects Trey Benefield and David Collins, UT’s dean of architecture and design John McRae, KCDC director of redevelopment Dan Tiller, and developer/property manager Joe Petre.

The proposed guidelines address both enhancements to what’s referred to as the public realm and criteria for private development with more stringent standards for renovations of historic buildings.

In the public realm, the proposal sets forth “general principles” that start with: “Consider pedestrians first, then transit, then the automobile in designing and developing downtown places.” It then enumerates specifics that include:

• Prioritize pedestrian safety and comfort through public amenities, such as pedestrian-scaled lighting, benches and trash receptacles.

• Require sidewalks and crosswalks that are accessible to all and are aesthetically pleasing.

• Create standards for sidewalks (including size and materials) which establish a sense of visual continuity.

• Widen sidewalks to accommodate street trees and amenities with a minimum five-foot clear pedestrian passage.

• Establish a “furnishing zone” in which the sidewalk furniture creates a buffer for pedestrians from vehicular traffic.

And the list goes on. Just where wider sidewalks and more streets could be accommodated isn’t clear on the face of the proposal, especially given the fact that much of downtown’s core is already developed almost to the hilt with sidewalk width governed by existing building setbacks. MPC’s coordinator of the guideline-setting process, Anne Wallace, suggests that Henley Street, State Street and Central Avenue could be prime candidates “where there are large areas ripe for development.” A separate streetscape-planning process for the 100 block of Gay Street envisions planting more trees along that lengthy block by protruding them into the street (but at the sacrifice of some on-street parking spaces).

Where private development is concerned, the proposed guidelines place a premium on “building that should be consistent with the character of Downtown as an urban setting and should reinforce the pedestrian activity at the street level. Creating pedestrian-scale buildings, especially at street level can reduce the perceived mass of buildings. The use of ‘human-scale’ design elements is necessary to accomplish this. Human-scale design elements are details and shapes that are sized to be proportional to the human body.”

There are also admonitions to “avoid blank walls at the street level” and to “require a transparency standard for windows at the pedestrian level”. (But those would only be prospective in their application to new buildings.)

Building heights and setbacks are also addressed both with respect to any new construction in a historic district and as renovations of existing buildings. The guidelines stipulate that “new construction cannot be taller than the tallest neighboring building” and “must maintain…the setback of adjacent historic buildings.” Those elements could become controversial, as could a prohibition against increasing the height of an historic building.

Developers Buzz Goss and David Dewhirst are already well along with plans to add two additional floors of condominiums to the four-story former J.C. Penney building on Gay Street. And Goss insists the proposed height restriction “has got to go” because “the profitability of downtown residential development is becoming more and more squeezed, and it doesn’t make sense to do anything if you can’t add to a building.” A possible compromise might be to allow additional floors if they are recessed so that only the historic façade is visible from street level. Developer Wayne Blasius has already gotten clearance to build a penthouse on top of what’s become the Mast General Store building.

Still, after some deliberation on whether the guidelines should be voluntary or mandatory, the steering committee is recommending the latter. A new Design Review Board would be formed to enforce them. The committee also contemplates the application of Historic Overlay (H-I) Zoning to the Gay Street Historic District that extends from Summit Hill Avenue to Church Avenue.

Under H-1 zoning, architectural style, building materials, window treatment and other features of a building would be much more tightly regulated then under the guidelines applicable to the rest of downtown. But H-1 implementation would be left to a separate process conducted by MPC’s impresario of historic preservation Ann Bennett, whose credo has always been to seek the consent of property owners rather than confront them with a fiat.