That noise you don't hear on the west side of downtown is the Henley Street Bridge being closed. It will remain closed for at least two years, maybe closer to three, as the Tennessee Department of Transportation rebuilds the 80-year-old structure. Almost all official public discussion of the bridge project has concentrated on its temporary effects on business and traffic in South Knoxville. Its closing could have a more profound and positive effect on the downtown side, but only if we work at it now.
Consider Henley Street itself. On one side, beyond a high wall of mostly drab architectural frontage, is our recently thriving downtown, a central business district that includes our region's highest concentration of entertainment venues and restaurants, with a busy movie theater, two renovated historic theaters, and multiple shops.
On the other side of Henley is a long public park with fountains, a big hotel, a veterans' memorial, a $90 million convention center, the city's most architecturally impressive church, the city's main art museum, and the only Sunsphere in the world. And, a few minutes' walk just beyond, the biggest university in the region, and the highest-density residential neighborhood in East Tennessee.
Slicing through the middle of all that activity is Henley Street. Built as a boulevard, with a green median in the middle, you'd think it would be lively and appealing. You'd think it would be the most-crossed street in the state, and that the street itself would be flowering with shops and cafes. You'd think it would be our Champs Élysée.
It's not. Look at Henley Street today and you'll see empty storefronts, dusty windows, underused surface parking lots. It has sidewalks on both sides. But walk the entire length of Henley, even in the daytime, and you may not encounter another human.
It's been like that for a long time. Nobody much wants to set foot on Henley Street, where automobile traffic rules, and downtown's revival is hardly a rumor. Occupants of the approximately 40,000 cars that, until this week, have passed along Henley Street daily can say, in honesty, that they've seen downtown Knoxville, and there's not much to it.
There's a 30-year-old metal "skyway" that all architects despise. I use it daily, because it's safer and faster than crossing Henley Street, which is seven to eight lanes of cars driven a little too fast by people more interested in getting this damn trip through downtown Knoxville over with than looking around.
In its effect on business, Henley's comparable to plutonium; little thrives within a block of it. Despite downtown's vigor, street-level retail blight afflicts the blocks nearest Henley. The gorgeous Medical Arts Building, for example, at Main and Locust, offers corner retail space on the sidewalk level, but nothing much seems to get a foothold there. Across the street, a mixed-used attorney's office was built about 20 years ago with street-level retail in mind, but it never quite caught on, either. Even here, a block away from Henley, it's noisy. And it's not on sensible pedestrians' way anywhere.
Even the businesses that do survive along Henley prefer to turn their backs to it. Chesapeake's has an old-fashioned building front on Henley, but doesn't use it; you get to the restaurant only from Locust. The YMCA recently expanded toward Henley, without addressing it. Recent plans for a prospective hotel-office complex were explicit about avoiding an entrance on Henley, because it's considered an unsolvable problem.
The L&N terminal, the prettiest old train station in East Tennessee, has had good restaurant and office space going begging for years. It's awkward and dangerous to get to from downtown, only because of Henley Street. Now Henley presents safety problems for a prospective magnet school at the L&N.
The isolation of the World's Fair Park from downtown's revival was cited as a reason for the recent closing of the Butcher Shop restaurant. Despite the Sunsphere's unique appeal, several attempts at businesses there have failed. The Knoxville Museum of Art is a leisurely 10-minute walk from Market Square, but the museum's leaders have long chafed at Henley Street's isolating effect.
Twenty years ago, when Knoxville was looking at big-picture solutions to downtown's stasis, one consultant after another remarked on the problem presented by the Henley Street barrier. By 1989, one report after another urged solutions, some simple, like traffic-calming landscaping, lower speed limits, and cross lights that favor pedestrians.
At the time, I heard city officials say Henley Street was what it was, and it was out of their hands. "There's no way TDOT would allow us to tamper with it. It's a state route." Henley has to carry a lot of traffic, they said, and it has to keep carrying it at a certain speed. Knoxville's attitude toward everything TDOT wants to do, then and now, is to lie still and try to enjoy it.
The assumption has always been that through-traffic to the bridge would not abide even minor alterations—and that through-traffic is the only thing TDOT's concerned about. Lately, though, TDOT officials have said they're trying harder to work with communities.
Now with the bridge closed altogether, and through-traffic getting acquainted with other routes—like the long-underused James White Parkway—we have a rare opportunity to fix Henley in a way that could connect downtown to the University of Tennessee and everything west of Henley, perhaps expanding the concept of downtown.
There won't be a comparable opportunity in our lifetimes.
The Henley Street Bridge, the reason for the great majority of the traffic of Henley Street, will be closed for at least two-and-a-half years. If we can do without it for two-and-a-half years—bringing the speed limit, for practical purposes, down to zero—can't we contemplate bringing it back as something different? Something a little slower, calmer, more civilized?
Of all the promises a mayoral candidate can make, fixing Henley Street seems to me the most likely to be affordable and effective.