UT's Driving Passion

Will a new master plan curb UT's love of asphalt?

A University of Tennessee advisory committee is designing what they call "a pedestrian-friendly environment" for campus. That's an admirable change in direction for a university that's allowed the automobile to dictate planning and design for the last 30 years. But reversing the auto-centered environment at UT won't be easy, especially with a proposed four-lane auto bridge carrying 10,000 cars a day between the agriculture college and Volunteer Boulevard. And, since the ultimate authority for the campus landscape rests with the same administration that supports the bridge, how much influence will the plan really have?

"This is a strong effort to remove parking from the interior of campus and create other ways of getting students and faculty to and from places," said Curtis Catron, a partner in the planning firm Bullock Smith & Partners, which is working with the advisory committee to update UT's 1994 master plan. At a meeting July 20 for faculty input on the plan, Catron offered several possible ways to make campus friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists: closing streets, limiting the number of parking permits, starting 24-hour shuttle bus or trolley service, and moving most of the school's parking to the perimeter of campus.

History professor Bruce Wheeler, the faculty representative on the committee, says the university's long tradition of accommodating auto traffic makes the group's job a learning process. "This is new for us," he says. "It's not for other schools. The campus, especially the west part of campus, was not built as a pedestrian campus. We're looking at the feasibility of making ours a more pedestrian-friendly and accessible campus, and the extent to which it can or cannot be done."

One point of contention with the plan, however, is how thousands of new parking spaces on perimeter property will affect surrounding neighborhoods like Fort Sanders and Maplehurst. Fort Sanders already has one UT parking garage, and a second—a 1,500-car structure at the corner of Cumberland Avenue and 11th Street—is on the way.

Some faculty objected to outlying garages, arguing that they could disrupt already-threatened neighborhoods and isolate the university from the surrounding community. Neighbors agree.

"I'm all for campus becoming more pedestrian-oriented. I feel strongly about that. As far as parking garages on the perimeter, though—I wouldn't want them to become barriers between the neighborhood and the university, isolating the neighborhood and UT," says Randall DeFord, president of the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association. In fact, DeFord suggests that the university's best solution would be to move campus parking into a central super-garage in the middle of the campus.

"They should build the largest garage right in the center of campus, and radiate out from there," he says.

There's no indication that the university has any intention of building such a garage. In fact, there are signs that the university administration isn't very willing to remove auto traffic from the center of campus, despite the proposals in the early stages of the master plan update. Both Catron and Wheeler say the looming presence of the proposed bridge is essentially a done deal and must be worked into the master plan.

"The bridge was a decision that was made before the campus advisory committee was even formed," says Wheeler. "The questions that the faculty has begun to think about are, 'How is the campus going to work with the bridge in place?' and 'What's that going to do with traffic on other parts of campus?'...A number of faculty members are concerned that, if we're moving to a pedestrian-friendly campus, how will the bridge affect that? That's a legitimate concern."

Phil Scheurer, senior vice president for business and finance at UT and a member of the advisory committee, insists that the university intends to stick to the plan. "I anticipate that we'll follow its principles," Scheurer says. "Our intention is not to develop a plan that we're not going to follow."

But based on experience with the bridge—which explicitly contradicts the last master plan—Wheeler says many members of the university population are pessimistic about the committee's ultimate effectiveness. "Some of them are disturbed that they weren't consulted at all," he says.

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