The Henley Dilemma

In workshop, a first public airing of George Scott's surprising proposal

Last week's City Council workshop on the subject of Citizen George Scott's interesting proposal to change Henley Street evoked sharp dissent from Council's dual Nicks, Pavlis and Della Volpe, but curiosity and vague encouragement from others.

Now a freelance videographer, Fountain City resident Scott was one of the Old City's pioneer merchants; his eclectic Old City Mercantile thrived on Central for several years. Scott's idea for calming eight-lane Henley Street is much more modest than some of the grand Periclean solutions floated in the last 15 years. He's calling for the current detour around Henley Street bridge—which won't be finished until 2013, if then—to become the routine one for through traffic, retaining Henley Street as a narrower, slower, calmer option than it has been in recent years. By Scott's proposal, Henley Street and Chapman Highway between I-40 and Moody Avenue would remain Route 441, but would get the designation of Business 441. Travelers know that a business route is still a route; the word "business" is usually a subtle suggestion that if you're in a hurry to blow through town, you might prefer the main route.

Henley Street might thereby be narrowed—Scott suggests four lanes—to calm it down a little, and make it less intimidating to cross on foot.

Few downtowns in the nation have so large a university so close to the central business district; it's an unusual asset. Newcomers are often surprised at the proximity, but eventually also at the invisible wall between the two. For the most part, folks don't like to cross eight lanes of traffic, much of it fresh off the interstate.

Since the 1980s, city officials have talked about Henley as a daunting obstacle to downtown development. In the '90s, the University of Tennessee Architecture School mobilized students to describe the problem and envision solutions. In 1999, ambitious local developers Worsham-Watkins proposed building a mall-like structure over Henley, to allow for foot traffic. In 2004, national urban-design consultants Crandall Arambula proposed addressing problematic Henley Street by burying it. Dangerous to cross, too noisy for strolling, and difficult for parking, downtown's most-traveled route seems to have endowed itself with permanent blight, as Councilman Duane Grieve observed, one of our ugliest streets. It takes a lot of ugly to cancel out the positive effect of the LMU law school, the L&N station, and the Methodist church—but with empty storefronts, empty parking lots, and blank walls, Henley Street is up to the challenge. It's the most-seen part of downtown, thanks to its 40,000 cars a day. Which, paradoxically, may be the reason nobody wants to invest in it.

For more than 20 years, city officials have spoken balefully and helplessly about Henley Street, much as Pavlis declared early in the workshop: "It's a state road, and we have absolutely no say-so, ever." After asserting that the city couldn't act, Pavlis spoke at length as if concerned the city might act.

The proposal does raise several questions and potential problems. The only business people who signed up to speak worked for well-known chains with restaurants on the stretch just south of the bridge. Representatives from McDonald's, Shoney's, and Arby's each denounced the plan. (Notably, none of the business objectors were South Knoxvillians.) Though their regular South Knoxville clientele might be unaffected by the proposal, they claimed it would rob them of drop-ins among those driving from the interstate to Seymour or the mountains. Chapman Highway's already the slow way to get to the mountains—as one restaurant representative mentioned, the "scenic route"—but some still prefer its charm. Their anxiety, I gather, is mainly about losing those hypothetical travelers who would choose the "scenic route" but avoid the "business route."

Unrepresented at the workshop, of course, were the dozens of businesses that closed up shop on Henley over the years. Traffic is so fast and thick on Henley it's intimidating to consider stopping a car there, and pedestrian traffic on the street is minimal when it exists at all. Once home to about 40 storefronts, Henley proper now has only one, the satellite UT bookstore. It once seemed a serendipitous spot, on the edge of a reviving downtown, right across the street from the expensive new convention center and the newly rehabbed World's Fair Park. Today, clerks report they get little foot traffic from noisy Henley; the store mainly serves the UT employees who work in the same building. Much of Henley has shifted from private to public use, most recently, the L&N station: After years and years of trying to attract and support restaurants, the purpose for which it was adapted in 1982, it's apparently on the way to becoming an unusual high school. It may turn out to be a fine use for the place, but it also adds urgency to improving pedestrian safety on Henley.

A single resident of Moody Avenue spoke, dreading the prospect of permanent traffic on her street. It's a credible complaint, even though traffic on Moody under Scott's proposal would be less than it is now, during the bridge-closing detour.

Jeff Welch transportation planner for MPC, spoke of another legitimate issue that deserves study; if traffic on Henley does not diminish at the same time it's slowed, in a post-redo scenario, it could lead to dangerous backups toward the interstate exit. A UT Engineering School report released this month offers guarded interest in the proposal.

Last week's meeting was just a workshop; so far, nothing votable is proposed. But some on Council expect some aspect of Citizen Scott's proposal to come up for their consideration in the near future.

Knoxville's paralyzing assumption has always been that the slightest change to Henley would unleash chaos. But we're currently surviving an extreme experiment in traffic calming. The bridge is closed altogether, and traffic is calmed to zero; there's no excuse not to at least consider slowing it down a little in the future. This is a unique opportunity to study an old and stubborn problem.