Bad Signs for Downtown

A little paint could go a long way toward improving Gay Street

The City of Knoxville is on a roll these days toward reconnecting and, in some ways, expanding our center city. The South Knoxville Waterfront Action Plan, the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Plan, and the Downtown North initiative are all ambitious ventures geared toward reestablishing and strengthening our urban core.

The emphasis is shifting away from improvements to downtown proper, though major strides continue here with the sidewalk and streetscaping project slated to begin soon on the 100 Block of Gay Street. That too is good news, since the block's infrastructure, neglected during previous improvements to our primary urban corridor, is in sore need of repair.

All of these projects are coming at a price. Infrastructure improvements to both the South Knoxville Waterfront and the 100 Block in particular are not going to be cheap. On the other hand, the Downtown North plan, with its "road diet" concept, represents a project that largely consists of reconfiguring traffic patterns by reengineering the street layout. In other words, a little paint is going to go a long way toward creating a different flow and rhythm in that area.

Meanwhile, back on Gay Street, as it regains its previous prestige through resurrection of the buildings that line it, the street itself could stand some attention as well. Just as Central Avenue will benefit from its road diet, Gay Street could benefit tremendously from some rather inexpensive improvements.

For starters, Gay Street is painted as a four-lane, two-way street, despite the fact that it is actually a conglomeration of two-lane street sections accommodating parallel parking and other sections serving as a four-lane thoroughfare. Its jumble of public parking, commercial zones, and open lanes are differentiated primarily by signs. Our codes are written such that any block where parking is restricted must be marked by no fewer than two signs.

With the exception of the 100 Block, very few parking meters are on Gay. Instead, where parking is permitted, signs indicate the time limits. On the 400 Block alone, between Wall and Union Avenues, there are zones for 10-, 15-, 30-minute, and one-hour parking—all defined by signs. In the absence of parking meters—which make enforcement of the time limits profoundly simpler for police—no regulation requires that spaces be delineated by street markings. But where meters exist, excessive signs are unnecessary.

Along that block—a distance scarcely over 400 feet—there are no fewer than 25 signs dedicated to parking. That's one single block of Gay, and that count doesn't include other traffic signs. For a driver simply seeking a parking space, they present an inordinate set of textual information. Intuitive markings hardly exist.

Most drivers know a yellow curb communicates a no-parking zone. But in Knoxville, a yellow curb is not enough. Yellow paint can only be used to extend areas off-limits to parking that are required by our codes to be marked with signs.

This means, for example, that a fire hydrant is often accompanied by two signs, indicating no parking between them. Beside some hydrants, you will find flecks of yellow on the curb painted there by a city that no longer sees fit to maintain that marking. Drivers must take their cue from signs only. Often, by the time drivers reach a spot, those signs are so far above the range of view that drivers simply overlook them.

I've watched countless drivers slip into what seemed to be an inviting space, only to realize after parking that they are beside a hydrant and have to move. Or worse, they don't notice and return to find their car ticketed.

A yellow curb, or better yet, a painted fire-lane-style, diagonally striped box on the street with "No Parking" stenciled into it, would serve as a far clearer indication to drivers than a pair of signs 10 feet in the air. Likewise, painting lined parking spaces would make it immensely simpler for drivers to recognize them.

When the city reinstated parking meters on the 100 Block, residents were told the reason for this was to benefit retail. It would promote turnover of spaces, and allow business patrons to find the short-term parking they need. The aforementioned 400 Block is squarely within a zone that has been identified as a key area for retail development. Yet, unlike the 100 block, the meter approach has not been applied.

I like the plans for Central Avenue and the economical tweaks to improve that street. Paint's cheap. But our beloved Gay Street needs to be reworked to further its established renaissance as well. Removing the glut of signs and painting the street to reflect the way it is intended to be used is needed. So while the city is putting in its order for paint, why not pick up a little extra for Gay Street?