insights (2006-47)

The Transit Center and the Viaduct

The city’s selection of the eastern end of the soon-to-be-rebuilt Church Avenue as the final resting place of the dilatory Transit Center makes as much sense as any.

In the last decade, KAT has greatly expanded its public-transit services, both through KAT buses and free trolleys. The system has earned national recognition for its improvements. Ridership is higher than it’s been in memory.

Still, Knoxville hasn’t seen anything approximating a public-transit center—just a covered place where people wait for buses, equipped with minimal facilities—in decades.

People who rely on buses for transportation between different parts of town have to transfer downtown. When traffic delays a bus, a layover downtown can be significant.

An elderly woman who lives in East Knoxville and works in West Knoxville told us that every time she boards a KAT bus, she faces the possibility of having no access to a bathroom for as much as two hours.

Worse still is the fact that riders, among them handicapped and the elderly, have to wait in all kinds of weather, including the cold, the wet, and the very hot, for the bus. Much attention has been given to the homeless in recent years, but our neglect of the carless—the working poor, handicapped, and others—borders on the cruel.

Some have questioned whether we need a transit center; we can assume those people haven’t studied the situation. A new transit center is essential, and it’s embarrassing that a city of this size has gone so long without one.

Meanwhile, the transit center, first proposed years ago, has moved around downtown like a chess piece in the hand of someone who’s pretending they know how to play. It would have been great if it had gone in at State and Clinch and helped pay for the cineplex; but after several torturous attempts to force the two together, the two began to seem irreconcilably different.

It would have been apropos to have it at State near Wall, where the last public bus-station arcade was, half a century ago, with access to Gay; it got resistance from the developers of upscale condos nearby.

It would have seemed ideal on Depot, a place that could one day accommodate rail; that will never be the case with the East Church spot. The prospects for both local light rail and restored inter-city passenger service are still worth pursuing. But at the moment, they both seem so distant that whatever transit facility we build now will be aging and perhaps in need of replacement by the time any sort of passenger rail arrives.

The current stand-in for a transit center—bus drivers call it the “transfer point”—on Main Street in front of the City County Building is certainly convenient to riders, and space there might have accommodated a small bus station. But some complain that the long line of buses there for the lineup every 30 minutes interferes with traffic and parking.

The East Church site is an easy walk (or, already, a free trolley ride) from the core of downtown. And it’s far away from the most-traveled streets to minimize congestion.

If done right, it can also be a small step toward improving a stubborn urban-design problem.

Visitors often comment on how geographically small downtown Knoxville is. The downtown for a county population of almost half a million is barely half a square mile.

Partly due to its bluff-top geographical location, an advantage when it was a frontier capital of 300 citizens who lived in fear of spring floods and Indian attacks, downtown’s still insular. Most of the arteries climbing to the plateau of downtown from all directions pass over long bridges or viaducts. Hence, downtown’s surrounded by a dead zone, a sort of DMZ of concrete that allows no commercial development and discourages pedestrian traffic.

Downtowns live or die by pedestrian traffic, and pedestrians are proven to have an aversion to walking on blocks that have no buildings or businesses, things to look at. They stop walking when the buildings stop.

Several years ago, Worsham Watkins proposed one solution to the problem from the west side, a new bridge across Henley Street with buildings on it. It first drew enthusiastic comparisons to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. When it was clarified as something like an enclosed mall, something more ordinary, some of us lost interest.

In fact there are precedents in Knoxville history for putting buildings on bridges. The Broadway viaduct, built in the 1920s, was long home to the headquarters of H.T. Hackney, the major grocery wholesaling firm, as well as other businesses, built right onto the bridge.

A few years ago, the prominent Portland-based urban-design experts Crandall Arambula, hired by Nine Counties. One Vision., came to Knoxville to identify problems and recommend solutions. One problem they noted was the vacancy of the Church Avenue viaduct, 250 yards of nothing, which would otherwise seem an important link to several major downtown attractions, like the Coliseum, the police station, the Marriott, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and the James White Fort replica; they’re all almost downtown.

Crandall Arambula recommended a redesigned Church Avenue viaduct with landscaping and construction—trees, perhaps even buildings—right on the bridge. Many Knoxville boosters watched with some wonderment at that surprising image of the future, though perhaps suspecting it could never happen here.

And it looks like it won’t. TDOT will close the Church Avenue Viaduct in early December and begin demolition right away, with construction of its replacement to be completed next September. With plans formulated through the city, it will feature a bike lane and, though the 1937 viaduct’s distinctive art-moderne design elements will be hard to replicate, the replacement will include “architectural features” perhaps similar to the concrete banister on the new Gay Street viaduct. Otherwise it’ll be a conventional bridge. TDOT spokesman Travis Brickey suspects that construction of buildings on bridges is never done anymore, and he suspects regulations would prohibit it. “Safety is our number-one concern,” he says.

However, if designed well and built down to the viaduct, and even over some lanes of the James White Parkway, as some suggest, the transit center could at least close that troublesome gap a little.