100 Block Redux

Taking stock of the downtown neighborhood's reconstruction

One morning a few weeks back, the fence finally came down. There was no fanfare. That had come and gone. Workers just quietly removed the chain-link fence erected to contain the construction on the 100 Block of Gay Street. Back in July, the News Sentinel had run the headline "Ribbon Cut on Gay Street" on the paper's website. I thought it was apt, since that's pretty much all that happened. Dignitaries had shown up, a ribbon was cut, photos were taken, and then the construction resumed and the fence returned. I'm sure it was a feel-good moment for those in attendance. Seeing that cage finally come down probably felt better to most of us on the block.

In July of last year, I wrote that while the construction was a great inconvenience to residents of the block, most folks were dealing with it pretty well in its early phases. In May of this year, I related that patience had worn thin for a project that had rounded the final turn and was jackhammering down the stretch. With the dust mostly settled now, it's time to take stock of the results and look at what's to come.

Some years back a concussion shook me out of bed around three in the morning, and the giant pipes running through my apartment—the ones that feed the building's sprinkler system—sounded as if hundreds of gallons were rushing through them. That wasn't good. After checking the building, I went outside and found that a water main had ruptured beneath the aging sidewalk and water was gushing onto the street. It was a memorable indication of just how much the block's deferred maintenance had taken its toll. With the improvements, one of Knoxville's oldest blocks is now one of its newest beneath the surface, with a completely rebuilt utility infrastructure running under the new street and sidewalks.

Those sidewalks, once crumbling and literally in danger of collapse, are now proper pedestrian avenues with planters and groupings of street furniture, and are expected to be lined with tree plantings by next spring. While Market Square may be a sea of white concrete, the 100 Block sports a brick-colored pattern that meshes well with the real brick sidewalks that run much of the rest of Gay Street. The result is a very clean view for passing motorists. Those walking the block, however, may notice a certain amount of inconsistency. Though the concrete pigment was mixed prior to leaving the plant, the shade fluctuates; it looks washed out in some places, and badly painted in others. But despite that (and ignoring cracks that have already begun to span the width of the walkway in places) it's a far cry from what was replaced.

Gone is the former "reverse-angle" parking scheme that confused some drivers and confounded others. The block now offers well defined parallel parking between the bulb-outs where the new trees are to stand. Parking meters, which came, went, and got shuffled around over the past decade, won't be making a reappearance. A kiosk-based system will take their place. The city-owned Jackson Avenue parking lot adjacent to the block will be the first place to get the system (which takes coins, bills, and credit cards), before it makes its way onto the street. Areas in front of fire hydrants are clearly marked with bright yellow striping on the road—an addition that I hope becomes a standard along Gay Street.

Delivery drivers will have an easier time as the eastern side of the 200 block is now commercial parking only. The opposite side, on the other hand, makes a little less sense. That section was originally earmarked as a bus stop. But with the opening of the new transit center and the subsequent mass exodus of buses from Gay Street, those best-laid plans have gone awry. No buses pass it. According to Hannah Parker with the city's Department of Policy and Communications, "Phase Two of KAT's trolley implementation acknowledges the need we've heard from several downtown folks for a North/South route that would run from Emory Place to the South Waterfront." Meanwhile (and I'm betting it's a good while), no parking is allowed, commercial or otherwise.

I've lived on the 100 Block for most of the past decade. In that time, I have watched it go from home to a few dozen residents to a few hundred. I lived through the reconstruction of the viaduct and endured over a year under a blanket of construction dust from the most recent changes. The result, so typically Knoxville, is a mix of flourish and foible. But why take my word for it? A block party is slated for Oct. 1 from 5:30 to 9 p.m. It's no ribbon-cutting, mind you. But at least this time the block will be open afterward.