Pimping Out Downtown

It's time we set guidelines for the private use of our public spaces

The last few years have brought a lot of life back to downtown. Some of us remember the first Sundown in the City as something we needed to "get out and support" for the sake of the center city. It was like visiting a sick aunt at the nursing home. She needed us.

Writers often described downtown as moribund. And the city began to prematurely embalm sections of it, covering up empty buildings with faux plywood fronts and fake windows. A lot of people had written her off. Then someone noticed a pulse.

Since then, a lot of money and effort, both public and private, has gone into fixing the old girl up. A vision was developed to return downtown to her rightful place on the throne as the center of our region. We polished up some of her remaining jewels—the Bijou and Tennessee theaters, and Market Square to name a few—and we gave her back some dignity.

Design guidelines were developed, built on a public common vision to see that special care was given to shepherd downtown toward her next stage of maturity. Downtown's ongoing makeover is being attended to by her own children, Knoxvillians themselves, who are showing a strong interest in her well-being.

In addition to reviving the place, we've revived traditions. The Market Square Farmers' Market, for example, acknowledges the purpose for which the Square was deeded to the city in the first place: as a "market for farmers forever." And it's an example of the sort of everybody-wins events we should support.

It says something that we have developed some standards and policies about the physical environment here. We've shown we care. We're looking after our matron. But there's more to her than looks. A city is utilitarian. We are redeveloping the space. But how we use that space is equally important. And we need to oversee its use as we are overseeing its renovation.

When no one really cared what happened downtown (who went there anyway?) things were easier to manage. If someone showed interest in holding an event, the city gladly opened itself. Nothing else was going on anyway. Downtown was on what some thought was her deathbed. And if people wanted to visit, that was very kind. Now that she's on the mend, it's worth looking at how best to put her back to work.

But let's have some respect, please. Let's not just tart her up and pimp her out.

In addition to its duties of scheduling use of the city's parks and public venues, the social coordinator for downtown, so to speak, is the city's Office of Special Events. It dresses the city for holidays and special occasions. And it minds her dance card, scheduling events for public spaces.

Unfortunately, there are few, if any, informed policies guiding this department with regard to how downtown is used. There aren't many rules. For example, banners advertising a commercial business have been placed by city workers downtown (where no billboards are allowed) at the behest of Special Events. The Market Square Farmers' Market was booted from Market Square itself just a few weeks ago to make way for a private corporate party. (After all, why book a conference center or banquet hall when you can set up a tent in the middle of Market Square for a few hundred bucks and bring your own food?)

To many, it has become clear that we're missing part of the vision: goals and policies for use of public space downtown. In some urban centers, guidelines for the private use of public spaces go hand in hand with design guidelines, and are drafted with specific goals in mind. Things like fair and equitable regulations, promoting pedestrian and economic development activities, or assuring a safe and comfortable environment, are examples. And the community needs to determine those guidelines and goals.

Downtown Knoxville doesn't currently have such guidelines. You won't find much public policy or transparency in what gets scheduled here or there downtown, or what gets promoted. Decisions are subjected to a standard of "good taste" as arbitrated by the Office of Special Events. Scheduling picnic shelters in the city's parks is one thing. Downtown events deserve a different level of consideration.

It's time we laid down some ground rules for public officials to follow. Events and promotions need to be evaluated and planned for the benefit of all—not necessarily on a simple first-come, first-served basis. There should be a clear set of guidelines publicly available assuring that events dovetail with expressed goals.

This old girl of ours has been through a lot. But there's so much more she can be. As we watch her grow, let's protect her and give her the things she needs. And one thing she needs is a set of policies, not a madam, to guide her social schedule.