by Matt Edens
"This is definitely Lower Wacker Drive.â” John Belushi's droll observation, delivered in the midst of the high-speed chase at the climax of The Blues Brothers , came to me the other day while pondering the design of the new downtown transit center. So far, most press coverage of the transit center project has centered on the thorny question of eminent domain. But I'm intrigued by how the transit center's potentially downtown-transforming design makes use of what would otherwise be unutilized space.
Downtown Knoxville is a surprisingly small place. The Central Business Improvement District, whose boundaries coincide with what is conventionally considered â“downtown,â” isn't much bigger than West Town Mall and its attendant parking lots. Faced with finding room to park some 30 buses, the bus station bridges the James White Parkway, shoehorning the center into Knoxville's constricted downtown without occupying much of downtown's increasingly precious real estate (as exemplified by the $1.85 million dollar purchase price for the one private parcel required for the plan). It's a novel solution, and one worth further consideration as downtown redevelopment ripples out from Market Square.
In Chicago, The Loop's numerous double and, in many cases, triple-decker streets evolved out of the need to accommodate the masses of traffic created as the birthplace of the skyscraper grew ever upward. (The evolution started early, too. Lower Wacker Drive dates to the 1920s.) But in Knoxville, traffic isn't as much the issue as accommodating development. Since downtown's small size sets an upper limit on its potential residents, increasing the population, and affluence, of the surrounding center city is critical to its long-term success, particularly in the restaurant and retail sectors. Conversely, those center-city neighborhoods can only reach their full potential if downtown becomes an attractive â“destination,â” putting their proximity at a premium (a phenomenon that is already occurring, reflected in increasing prices everywhere from Fourth and Gill to Parkridge). If downtown redevelopment is going to continue at its current phenomenal pace, the linkages to its surrounding neighborhoods are critical.
Complicating things are the massive chasms that, whether due to topography, TDOT or both, must be bridged. Some are relatively small, such as the railroad tracks under Gay. Others are huge. The massive tangle of interstate flyovers above Western Avenue that some folks have dubbed â“The Spaghetti Bowl,â” for instance, occupies almost as much space as downtown. Not only do these areas add up to a ridiculous amount of wasted real estate, but the resulting long approaches across downtown's assorted bridges and viaducts are decidedly unfriendly for pedestrians.
That's where the Transit Center comes in. Sure, its buses offer center-city residents a convenient, alternative access to downtown. But perhaps just as important, its development along the viaduct, particularly the space reserved for â“future developmentâ” fronting on Church Avenue, points toward the possibility of additional â“Ponte Vecchioâ”-style development along many of downtown's other bridges and viaducts.
Such buildings were once common around downtown, easily built because, thanks to Knoxville's unique topography, they aren't integral to the structure like Florence's famed, building lined, medieval bridge. Instead, most were merely conventional buildings that had their entry on the viaduct level. The Southeastern Glass building at the southern end of the Broadway Viaduct is one extant example, as is the string of small structures in the middle of the span. Likewise, before TDOT rebuilt the Western Viaduct, the building that's now Braden Furniture's warehouse also had access from the viaduct level, while the Gay Street Viaduct, just north of Jackson, used to be flanked by two incredible gothic revival office buildings whose â“first floorâ” fronted on the viaduct (the eastern one stood until the 1980s).
I think it's time Knoxville revisited these historical precedents. Not only would â“Ponte Vecchioâ”-type buildings make the connection between downtown and the neighborhoods more pedestrian friendly, they'd also add considerably to the amount of real estate available for retail and residential development. And if you doubt these spaces would be marketable, you might want to consider Gay Street's 100 Block. Fronting on the circa-1919 raised approach ramp to the viaduct that spans the railroad tracks, it's already home to a growing number of restaurants and retail establishments and hundreds of residentsâ"some of them living below street level.
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