An Expert Opinion on the Henley Situation

I have gotten around to reading and agreeing with your Metro Pulse Secret History piece of a while back, "Fix Henley Street." [by Jack Neely, Jan. 6, 2011]. George Scott's pertinent ideas can also be found on YouTube.

Is it really true that most Henley Bridge traffic is non-local, and that re-signing the roads will redirect this traffic? I want to believe these key points, but would like to see them documented. The column doesn't mention the long-planned, long-stalled extension of South Knoxville Boulevard, but even if that work goes no further, one hopes that the Scott proposal would work. The huge interchanges encumbering the north end of downtown could at least be put to work to facilitate a re-signed state route over the South Knoxville Bridge, which now seems to serve a relatively minor purpose. Conceivably this could indeed "fix Henley Street."

It's true that Henley Street could even become a handsome boulevard with the potential to foster frontages instead of backages if the traffic were much reduced. Reasons to cross it would also be critical to its revitalization. This will be another challenge, as the convention center and the Holiday Inn complex do an excellent job of walling off a four-block stretch of the downtown from World's Fair Park, pretty much unavoidably due to their size. One might well say so what, the park consisting primarily of two large featureless lawns. Although these areas are occasionally used for mass attendance events, and casual visitors do enjoy the fountain, there isn't a lot of "there" there. The park still lacks a convincing and involving sense of place, and hinders connectivity between the downtown and the University of Tennessee or Fort Sanders as well. I continue to believe that the "Tivoli Gardens" proposal of some years back had significant potential, building as it did on the mix of elements that made the World's Fair itself so pleasant to visit.

With regard to crossing it, Henley Street appeared again in the MP in the Jan. 13 letter "Ignore Henley." The glass-enclosed Ponte Vecchio which the writer suggested is an ironically accurate description of the "overpass mall" that was aggressively promoted in 2000. Most urbanists would strongly advocate the alternative of feet on the ground wherever feasible, and while a calmed Henley could permit on-grade crossing at Clinch (its pedway originating in the runup to the World's Fair when the Hilton demanded a covered, direct route to compensate for the Holiday Inn's advantageous location), the tunnels to the north have converted the crossing there into an intimidating 200-foot expanse. Long-proposed pedestrian bridges do make sense at that location, but there is still insufficient motive to navigate that corner of downtown, make the long elevated walk, and descend whatever ambitious vertical connection would then be required. A few small businesses, the now failed Butcher Shop, the fountain, the Vets memorial, a little playground and a big, often empty lawn are all that await.

If World's Fair Park is again to be an attractor and a connector, it needs a critical mass of carefully considered development, including restaurants, recreation opportunities, amusement attractions, gardens, and a restored Second Creek. In an ideal world such redevelopment would extend to the north as well, continuing to Jackson Avenue and affording a true on-grade linkage all the way to the still-floundering Old City. The old convention/exhibition high bay could be renovated or replaced (and yes, these ambitious ideas need money as well as vision) to afford signature development and vertical connections for that Henley pedestrian bridge, not to mention helping to restore life to that quadrant of the park. To the west, the KMA's current master plan attempts to connect up with Fort Sanders, but its sights need to be set higher.

The decision to develop the L&N Station and Depot into a magnet high school may or may not be good news for World's Fair Park. It's a bit of stretch to visualize the signature interiors I worked on in 1980 repurposed as schoolrooms. In the event, adjoining future park development shouldn't resemble another nightspot-intensive Old City, but without after-hours attractors it's hard to conclude that rendering the park more vibrant and multifaceted will not be more difficult. And even if the specialized curriculum does not require playfields as are normally the rule with high schools, bus dropoffs, car dropoffs, and parking will be needed. The negatives and positives of a high school as a World's Fair Park anchor need to be carefully taken into account in planning for the park's future.

The terms "linkage" and "connector" keep cropping up. Not only is there still no master plan structure for downtown Knoxville, but little attention has been given to these many issues of synergistic linkages—always challenging due to its "hilltown" site—to adjacent entities and neighborhoods on all sides. Knoxville will continue to be fragmented and underdeveloped until the nature and potential of its central area are addressed in a more holistic way.

Kenneth Moffett, AIA