Our Monster: Henley Street

How we persistently avoid the problem of the formidable, multi-lane and high-traffic street.

In World's Fair Park last week, I blundered into the midst of a group of Koreans launching lifelike mechanical birds into the air. Destination Imagination's annual tournament is one week when the convention center seems to earn its keep.

But once again, being over there points out the essential dysfunction of the convention center, especially in regard to its location. That exhilarating scene was geographically very near downtown, but not downtown. Even when the convention center's busy and well used, downtown seems far away. You can visit World's Fair Park and hardly guess we have a downtown. From here, there's no hint of the liveliness of Market Square, or the Old City, or Gay Street, or Volunteer Landing.

We've never been able to get a handle on multi-lane, high-traffic Henley Street. It remains a formidable barrier between downtown, the convention center, the university, and Fort Sanders, the highest-density residential neighborhood in East Tennessee.

Judging by automobile traffic, most of it through-traffic, Henley Street is the most visited street downtown. It's also the dullest, decorated with blank walls and blank windows to inaccessible interiors. It has ample sidewalks on both sides, in several places broad enough for a big sidewalk cafe. It has some nice trees. There's a pretty church at one end of it, and a pretty train station at the other. But in between, for several blocks, the only retail presence on the whole stretch, and the only pedestrian attraction, is the satellite UT Bookstore, in a lower corner of the UT Conference Center. An amenity often forgotten by downtowners, it maintains a very low profile, and keeps bankers' hours, roughly, closing every day at 5.

Regardless of the improvements of the last decade or two, it would still be easy to drive through downtown Knoxville on Henley, aka U.S. Route 441, and believe there's nothing afoot in downtown Knoxville. Even pedestrians are rare. In the 1990s, one consultant after another observed the problem and told us we'd need to address Henley Street and the convention-center-downtown linkage for the whole to succeed. We just haven't done it.

Downtown still turns its back on Henley Street. It was evident last week in a hearing before the Design Review Board. Developers presented plans for the Metropolitan Plaza, the full-block commercial, office, and hotel development planned for a central block between Henley and Locust that is appealing in many ways, promising more efficient use of one of the blocks that makes Henley so blank. But their architect frankly admitted they didn't see much pedestrian traffic on Henley Street, and therefore didn't intend to address it with any obvious street presence on the Henley side. The main entrance is to be on Locust. The Design Review Board politely suggested they at least reconsider Henley.

From the city's point of view, a rare new-construction project like this should push hard to put life on Henley Street. One aspect of this particular plan seems to keep it dead. The new development will offer a second pedestrian walkway over Henley. It'll be public, but it will originate in the interior of the project, and it will be enclosed, as if to shield innocent pedestrians from the lonely existential void of Henley Street. Cynics may deride it as a revival of the "Habitrail" proposals of the ultimately ditched Worsham Watkins proposals of a decade ago.

Also, this past week, the first problem that comes up when people hear about the likely siting of a new main library on World's Fair Park is that nobody likes to cross Henley Street.

It's not just pedestrians who find it daunting. Bus drivers regard Henley as sailors regard the Sargasso Sea. They live by the clock, and especially at rush hour, they often have to wait through two red lights before they even get to the intersection. Henley Street traffic, fresh off the 55 mph interstate, is favored over that of any cross street.

Knoxville shrinks helplessly before the grim visage of Henley Street. It's a noisy, dangerous, and eternal barrier between downtown and the university area. It can't change, some say, because it's a state route.

Can we have our Henley Street back?

Henley Street looks so pretty in the early drawings of it. Once a tree-shaded residential street, it was widened in the late 1920s to connect to the grand new bridge across the river. In early depictions, the improvement looks like a modernist Champs-Elysees, with sleek Packards flowing along it in orderly grace on either side of its floral median.

It's not surprising that in those days, Church Street Methodist chose to build Knoxville's grandest ecclesiastical edifice on the lovely new boulevard.

Widening Henley was a city project. The Henley Street Bridge, the only thing that made Henley more important than, say, Locust, was built with city bonds and some Knox County assistance. The city bridge connected Henley Street to the new Chapman Highway, which went to the mountains and beyond.

Sometime thereafter downtown's modernist pride attracted mostly through-traffic, and this city project became a "state route," which means it's far more important than Knoxville and its miserable presumptions for itself. It can't be impeded. Traffic on it can't even be slowed. In meetings, for years, when the subject of Henley Street comes up, Knoxville planners shake their heads with regret, like a defeatist Dr. Frankenstein. Especially when it comes to calming it down, making it easier to cross, our hands are tied. It's a state route.

I'm sure somebody could explain this to me, but it seems at least ironic that an early 20th-century city project, built by a city of about 80,000, should get so far out of hand that 21st-century planners for a city of 180,000 no longer have control over it, and can only plead, without much hope, to Nashville authorities.

If we build them another bridge, and another state route, can we have our Henley Street back? Or maybe we could take a clue from the transit-center project on Church Street—and the Ponte Vecchio in Florence—and just build over it.