commentary (2006-27)

A Little Guidance

Deposit your two cents here

A Little Guidance

by Matt Edens

Sifting through the public comments gathered by the Metropolitan Planning Commission regarding proposed downtown design guidelines, I came across a few interesting responses. Some, such as “within one year have an upper-end grocery store within downtown,” have surprisingly little to do with design. And, as desirable as a grocery store might be for downtown residents, it’s quite frankly beyond the power of a planning document to deliver. While a plan can call for a particular use in a particular building, planners cannot magically produce tenants, no matter how much we might like them to.

Then there’s balancing the need for guidelines that will both improve downtown’s fragmented urban design and facilitate further investment and redevelopment. Overall, what I’ve seen so far from MPC, particularly the power-point survey that planners conducted where meeting attendees were asked to rate a series of images and respond to associated design questions, has been quite good. But there’s a fuzzy line between functional design and aesthetics in some of the public comments. My particular favorite is where someone suggested that we should restore Market Square’s storefronts to “recreate the 1890s.”

What that means, exactly, I’m not so sure. For starters, there was a mighty big building in the middle of Market Square during the 1890s. And even if we set that aside for the moment, recapturing a little of the fervent flavor of 1890s commerce would also call for an awful lot of gaudy signage on every storefront, announcing the latest advances in patent medicine in big, bold print. The typical Victorian commercial streetscape, as the photographic evidence seems to suggest, was way more cluttered than Kingston Pike. Knoxville’s Victorian downtown had a riotous, rambunctious and, thanks to the occasional gunfight, dangerous Dodge City quality that I doubt few would seriously want to recreate.

And if we recreate an idealized 1890s instead, wouldn’t that be as much a cartoon as Disney’s Main Street USA, even if it were life-sized, rather than three-quarter scale? Good urban design means more than just red brick, a little landscaping and a few faux-Victorian street lamps.

Consider the massive amount of redevelopment that has gone on in Bearden over the last five or so years. Developers have spent lavish amounts building or refurbishing half a dozen shopping centers, adding copious amounts of red brick, lush landscaping and lighting. But has any of this made Bearden any more urban? More urbane, perhaps, as more upscale restaurants and retailers move in, but beneath the new red brick veneer it remains essentially an automobile-oriented commercial strip.

It didn’t have to be that way. About five years ago, as this new round of Bearden redevelopment was gathering steam, MPC produced a nice little study called The Bearden Village Opportunities Plan. Aimed at transforming Bearden into a truly mixed-use urban village, parts of the plan have been implemented—primarily the greenway improvements along Sutherland Avenue. But others, such as the recommendation that planners and property owners work toward design guidelines similar to those currently in development downtown, were simply shelved as too controversial.

Which is too bad, really, in light of the recent closing of the BI-LO supermarket at the corner of Kingston Pike and Forest Park Boulevard. Smack dab on the greenway, within walking distance of most of Bearden’s residential areas, if the proper planning framework was in place, it’s quite possible that the BI-LO parcel could redevelop into the truly dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly “village center” that Bearden currently lacks. Without the guidelines, what happens is anybody’s guess. Although, since a village center would require some serious rezoning, I suspect this particular Bearden opportunity is likely to be missed.