Village People

Bearden was designed for automobiles. Now, the Bearden Village plan proposes a new vision for one of Knoxville's oldest suburbs. Will it get people out of their cars?

You might have heard that Bearden will soon no longer be Bearden merely, but something called Bearden Village. Early this year, the Metropolitan Planning Commission published "The Bearden Village Opportunities Plan." It's an inspiring, if rather vague, document that pictures a Bearden in which people walk, ride buses, and bicycle; one where mixed-used buildings front the street with parking behind, and where residents, shoppers, and office workers mix on the sidewalks.

Much of the Bearden Village discussion is blue-sky brainstorming about an ideal semi-urban neighborhood of businesses and residences; some of MPC's architectural recommendations may not happen soon, or ever. But some things are about to change in noticeable ways. Around $1 million in federal, city, and private funds for pedestrian improvements, most of it approved early this year, lends the concept a lot more heft than most daydreams. Actual construction work on a new network of greenway and sidewalk projects should begin within months.

The quaint-sounding term "Bearden Village" is a little deceptive. You think of a village as a small, humble place. But Bearden Village, as conceived in a Metropolitan Planning Commission plan, comprises over 400 existing businesses, among them some of the city's best-known stores and restaurants, and several thousand residents of a racial, ethnic, and age diversity rare in other parts of town. If all this stuff was located off on its own in the East Tennessee countryside, well, you wouldn't call it a village. It would be a thriving, good-sized town, and probably one you'd heard of.

Already used routinely by some residents, the term "Bearden Village" seems to imply a certain intimacy in a community and, mainly, the idea of walking—as well as opportunities to getting away, every now and then, from noisy Kingston Pike. A couple of Knoxville's most activist neighborhood organizations, a handful of motivated merchants and developers, the MPC, and the city itself—fueled with federal TEA-21 CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program) money—plan to make Bearden something different from an unplanned jumble of strip malls, the Bearden we have come to know. Bearden Village, they say, will be a place that's pleasant to get around in.

It will be a challenge. Unlike downtown, which was constructed as a pedestrian area from the beginning—and unlike some pedestrian-oriented areas like Fort Sanders, Old North, etc.—Bearden grew mainly as an automobile-oriented place. Founded in 1883, Bearden was still a young place when the first automobiles came lurching down the Pike. Bearden accepted them eagerly, paved handy parking lots for them, and became, perhaps, Knoxville's first automobile-dominated neighborhood. By the 1920s, Bearden was accommodating motorists from all over the country as part of the nationwide Dixie and Lee Highway systems, with dozens of filling stations, diners, and tourist camps. Almost all of Bearden's commercial architecture of gas stations, drive-ins, motels, and strip malls was built to serve the automobile. The newest strip mall in the area, Mercedes Place, is even named for the car they used to sell at the dealership that was located on this site not long ago.

Though a few of the older pre-war buildings are built city-style, next to the street, nearly all these buildings feature adjacent surface parking lots. Many of Bearden's streets were built without sidewalks to begin with, and in many cases the old sidewalks that once lined Kingston Pike and Sutherland Avenue have deteriorated or been destroyed, usually to make a parking lot more attractive to cars. In Bearden, the car is boss, and has been for 80 years.

But next time you're stuck in traffic here, look around. In this land where cars rule, you also see vulnerable, flesh-and-blood people, out on the street, walking, bicycling, rolling in wheelchairs.

Knoxville Greenways Coordinator Donna Young is one of the 30,000 who drive through Bearden regularly. "One day I saw this very old woman teetering on a corner of sidewalk across from Mayo's, trying to cross," Young recalls. "Cars were just flying by her. She was terrified." After that, she noticed one after another. "Once it got my attention, I started noticing it every day," she says. "I thought, This is not civilized."

Though it is indeed an automobile-dominated area, Bearden hosts many pedestrians who don't even have access to cars: from foreign students in UT housing on Sutherland Ave., to students at West High, to elderly and handicapped people living in the Carlton or Cagle Terrace. Knoxville just doesn't have any great places for non-drivers to live and be part of the community, but Bearden is better than most, just because it's possible to live there. The foot trip from Carlton Towers to the drugstores or supermarkets isn't a pleasant stroll, via deteriorating and removed sidewalks alongside heavy traffic, but it is, again, possible. So this is where they live and walk.

Bearden was once a relatively comfortable neighborhood without greenway and traffic-calming interventions. What has changed? "The population's larger," says Young, adding that people today drive much more than they did in previous generations. "Now your children have cars. People eat out more. Women are working, commuting. The country's a different place."

MPC planner Jeff Welch remarks that 30 or 40 years ago, the Bearden area around Kingston Pike might have been a comfortable walk. "Now it's not a comfortable walk," he says. "On Kingston Pike, there are now 30,000 cars per day, and no space between the sidewalk and the street."

What Bearden does already have is amenities. "We've got a lot of what downtown used to have, and has unfortunately lost," says Finnbarr Saunders, a lifelong Knoxvillian who built a home in Westwood a few blocks away from his accounting office. A leader in the fight for noise abatement from TDOT's expansions of I-40, Saunders is also one of the key forces behind the Bearden plan.

He's inspired by his neighborhood. "Even though we don't have sidewalks, we walk. People see one another, people visit, talk over the fence, eat and drink and have a good time together," he says. He thinks there are many more young families with children in the neighborhood than there were a decade or two ago, when Westwood had an aging population; he cites examples of families who moved here from suburbs to the west and northwest, just for the proximity. Dorothy and Dan Foltz-Gray lived in Norwood for years until Dan got an opportunity to teach English in Oslo through a Fulbright program. Everyone in Norway walks everywhere, and they got used to the lifestyle. After they moved back to Knoxville, they felt stranded and moved to the Forest Heights neighborhood. "This street is one of the very few streets in Knoxville where you can have a walking life," says Dan. "You really don't need a car." On a good day, Foltz-Gray says, Bearden reminds him a little of his childhood neighborhood in Pittsburgh; they're still new to the neighborhood but enthusiastic about what they've heard about the Bearden Village initiative.

"We have begun to see ourselves as more than a neighborhood," Saunders says. "We have begun to see ourselves as part of Bearden."

MPC planner Jeff Welch suspects it was the threat of Home Depot that first "bonded" the homeowners and businesses. Together, they beat back a proposed Northshore Drive site for the megastore last year.

Saunders says some parts are more bonded than others. "The homeowners are well organized. I don't want to call it a weak link, but the merchants are not well organized." He says over 400 merchants were invited to participate in the MPC discussions. "But I don't think more than 20 or so did."

To be fair, several of those have participated vigorously—from local stores like Parker Brothers Hardware, which has contributed time and funds to the project, to national chains, like both of the area's supermarkets, Kroger's and Bi-Lo. In particular, Bi-Lo has donated land for greenways and is considering making a significant money contribution to build a new walkway around the north end of the store. Local commercial developers Holrob and Weisco have supported parts of the plan, and many landowners in the area—in fact, all with the exception of Blair House owner Bob Monday—have donated easements for new sidewalks.

Most parties acknowledge that one individual has done more to push the Bearden Village concept toward reality than any other.

"Terry Faulkner was the sparkplug," says Saunders. "She's how you know the Power of One exists."

Sparkplug is a reasonably accurate way to describe Terry Faulkner, the energetic community activist who's been behind several Bearden-area initiatives in recent years. A semi-retired graphic artist originally from Lenoir City, she and her husband, UT archaeologist Charles Faulkner, have lived in Forest Heights since the '60s. She recalls when they'd walk their daughters down to Kay's Ice Cream on a summer evening, but as the years passed, traffic increased. She was especially unsettled by the number of motorists who sped past her seeking a shortcut over the interstate on unsidewalked Forest Heights Boulevard.

Co-founder of the Forest Heights Homeowners' Association, Faulkner spearheaded the drive to demolish the Forest Heights bridge over I-40, which funneled traffic through her neighborhood. She has researched the history of the neighborhood (some of her work is on display at Parker Brothers Hardware) and led an effective beautification effort for a Bearden redefined to include points east of old Bearden, including Western Plaza. She also supported the opposition to the Home Depot store.

Some describe the Bearden Village idea as an example of new urbanism, a current doctrine that emphasizes proximity, pedestrian access, and human scale in new developments. Faulkner doesn't pretend to be a new-urbanist theorist; she's just proud of her neighborhood. When she talks, it's hard for her to pry the new ideas away from her bragging about how much she likes it here.

New urbanist theory holds, for example, that the 20th-century suburban invention, the cul-de-sac, the dead-end road useful only to those who live on it, is one of the culprits behind the death of community. It forces traffic onto main roads, prevents neighbors from meeting each other often. MPC planners of the Bearden Village concept explain that one of Bearden's strengths is that most of the neighborhood was built on a grid, unlike the private, isolated, cul-de-sac neighborhoods farther west.

Terry Faulkner's proud to live on what she believes to be one of West Knoxville's first cul-de-sacs. But it's clear that to Faulkner, a cul-de-sac is not exactly a cul-de-sac. Meet her at her quiet home, and she might invite you to walk down to Bearden Village. She won't take you by her dead-end street. She'll take you out through her backyard, by way of a dirt path through the lush undergrowth and through the front yards of other neighbors on another street. You might lose sight of her in the underbrush of the neighbors' yards before you catch up with her down near Sutherland. As it turns out, she doesn't live on a cul-de-sac at all, but a new-urbanist grid of her own.

Crossing Sutherland at Carr Street, she surveys her domain. "I'm gonna get 65 more trees this fall," she says. "I think I'm gonna put some here."

Once, a lady in a wheelchair spotted Faulkner transplanting some flowers and accused her of theft, but she's not a vigilante planter. She's working for the Bearden Village plan, which has a lot to do with Knoxville's greenways efforts. She's been involved in Bearden beautification projects for more than a decade, but has never seen an opportunity like this one.

Just as Faulkner was pondering the possibilities of her neighborhood from her own perspective, Knoxville's Greenways Coordinator Donna Young was having her own revelations, and converging on the idea from another direction. Young's office on the fourth floor of the City County Building is cluttered with books and maps. Taped on her computer screen is a photograph of an attractive blonde girl. Tori Beeler, a UT soccer player and Young's daughter's best friend, was attempting to cross the five lanes of Kingston Pike just past Bearden Hill, at a place where there was no crosswalk in sight. She was hit by a speeding car and sent flying through the air. Seriously injured, she spent months in rehab and has now recovered. Young keeps her picture to remind her of her mission to make Knoxville safe for pedestrians.

The greatest concentration of greenway and traffic-calming work will be in the Bearden area, but Young has trouble talking about it without unrolling her big city map and explaining its part in the whole network of greenways as projected. Get her talking about Bearden, and she'll soon be talking about West Hills, Gallaher View, Ebenezer.

The Third Creek bike trail, which originates downtown, has had its western terminus at a lonesome spot at the bottom of the Golf Range parking lot ever since the first leg of it was built in the 1970s. A more useful western extension, following the train tracks into Bearden, has been in the works for years. Funded by an old ISTEA grant, construction of this long-planned but much-delayed westward extension should start within the next couple of weeks.

That link will lead into Bearden's planned $750,000 of construction work to improve sidewalks and other transit options. Federal TEA-21 Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program will pay for 80 percent of that. The city will pay for the balance.

Coming out on the south side of the Bi-Lo, the pedestrian route will follow Forest Heights to Sutherland, where it will turn to the west, part of it along the fringe of Highland Memorial Cemetery. Beyond Westwood, it will loop back to the east along the I-40 easement.

In addition, individual businesses like Bi-Lo will contribute substantial pedestrian improvements in their own vicinities; in some cases, they already have. American Star Corp. has already added some improvements to the Kroger parking lot. Faulkner's also eager to credit the local Rotary Club, which will help with the network's handicap-accessibility issues and take on a Sutherland Avenue bus stop as a project, and the political help of Mayor Ashe and Councilwoman Jean Teague (if all goes well, the West Hills greenway named for her will one day be linked to these in Bearden).

Meanwhile, as neighborhood activists like Faulkner and Saunders were agitating and Donna Young and other greenway promoters were speculating about how to connect Knoxville's far-flung greenways through the Bearden area, the MPC was working on a west city sector plan that happened to identify Bearden east of Northshore, all the way east to West High, as an "opportunity area," a part of town with a great deal of potential that nonetheless has serious problems to overcome. They've recently offered similar studies about Fort Sanders and the Five Points area of East Knoxville.

Young has worked hard on extending the greenways this way for years, but she kicks back most of the credit to Terry Faulkner.

Emerging from the woods of Forest Heights on a Tuesday morning, Faulkner roams her neighborhood like a happy terrier, crossing from one side of Kingston Pike to the other. On the Kroger parking lot, recently improved with a new sidewalk and some landscaping, she demonstrates that it's now much easier to walk from the street to the front door without daring cars backing out of parking spaces. "Look! Benches!" she says. "That's important for your city and your mood."

On the sidewalk she spots a young man in a tie and a Kroger nameplate doing some business with some colleagues. "Love your sidewalks!" she says to the startled man. "Thank you!"

Faulkner tends to look at the bright side, but in this tour, she demonstrates without comment some of the pedestrian weaknesses that still afflict this area. The Homberg Place is adjacent to the Kroger property. As the crow flies, it's only a few yards. But to get to it you have to warily step out into the incoming Kroger driveway and walk along Kingston Pike. Safely around that cape, she skirts the old motel building and walks back past Opal's Lounge to an overgrown and undeveloped area. She walks west, between two rows of trees.

"Is this perfect?" she says. "An allee! Is that French-looking, or what?" She pictures it as a slow, tree-shaded driveway, with sidewalks, from Kroger's to Homberg. It's private property, and not procured yet, but it's already there in her mind. "Greenery, public seating, statuary...."

MPC planner Jeff Welch agrees it could be very useful to establish this connection between Knox Plaza and Homberg Place, and to link other parts of Bearden with many more. Both pedestrians and drivers should be able to get from store to store "without having to depend solely on Kingston Pike—pulling out and driving one block and pulling into the next store." At this point, the allee looks like a privately funded prospect; Holrob, the dominant developer in the area, is looking at it.

Faulkner also pictures multi-family housing on some of the vacant space in the Homberg area, which presently has no obvious residences. "If even part of it will happen, it will be so great."

Though there aren't firm plans for new construction in Homberg Place, it's not just an idle fancy, either. Holrob's open to taking some interesting chances here. "One idea is to do a sort of mixed-used development in Homberg Place—a flat-type apartment building or condos," says Holrob Vice President Robyn Askew. "Not a skyscraper, three to four stories, with retail and office space on the first floor. We really do believe that that will work."

Of the Bearden Village concept in general, she says, "We're anxious to try it." She cites several examples, like Atlanta's Buckhead and Biltmore Village in Asheville. "You're still able to drive through, but when you get out, it invites you to walk."

Near the dead, vacant Hardee's, Faulkner points across Kingston Pike up at the snakebit hillside strip mall where, in the last decade, a Food Lion and a Superpets have closed. She wants to see a retirement home built up there. Walking everywhere they need to go, she says, retirees can thrive. "They'll stay healthy, and not get fat."

It can be an ideal place for retirees, she says. Several groceries, a few drug stores, a variety of restaurants, banks, a hardware store, liquor stores, several specialty shops. "You tell me where else in Knoxville has this cluster of businesses." For someone who's never done much walking around here, the proximity is surprising. The whole Bearden commercial area isn't much bigger than a shopping mall. Walking here is about as fast as driving, and it isn't hard. It's just dangerous.

As Faulkner crosses the Pike with the light, a woman turning right on red seems annoyed at having to wait for two pedestrians. One of the hallmarks of the MPC plan is to install new signaled crosswalks and "traffic calming" devices. Plans call for a green buffer zone between the sidewalks and the streets, as well as better access to alternative routes via side streets. (Saunders even favors the idea of removing Kingston Pike's middle turn lane and planting trees there.)

Walk up Mohican, one of the main cross streets, and you walk in the street; there's no sidewalk at all. The city has plans to install them. "Look at this," Faulkner says of a roadside curb at an intersection. "If you're in a wheelchair, how do you get up over this?"

"The road design for pedestrians is horrible," she says, pointing out that there's no graceful way to walk from the high-density residential areas of Sutherland Avenue to most of the nearby retail areas without daring traffic in the street. She describes the plan to remove the triangle intersection near Blair House Antiques and Bi-Lo and make of it something like a town square. The city's already planning to extend the Third Creek Greenway to Forest Park on the south side of Bi-Lo; Faulkner's been trying to get Bi-Lo to pitch in to add one on the north side, too, which would serve the student and family populations of Sutherland Avenue. A long and well-worn path in the grass would seem to indicate a demand for one.

It's here, behind the Bi-Lo, that Faulkner pictures one of the more surprising aspects of Bearden Village: to take this detention pond left over from earthmoving, and transform it into a "model butterfly garden." Bi-Lo has agreed to donate the property, and Faulkner already has plans for the species she wants to host here. Faulkner's also talking with Bi-Lo and Keep Knoxville Beautiful about mounting an international-theme mural here on the side of the grocery.

Even as many things seem to be getting much better, though, some things get worse. Recently, when Conoco built a gas station on Sutherland, they didn't rebuild the sidewalk, just as many others on this road have not. Faulkner says she complained to the foreman when the gas station was under construction, but he replied it was too late to change the plans. It's not an unusual case. Over and over, developers have destroyed sidewalks to make broad driveways or add landscaping that's difficult to climb over. Young refers to Bearden sidewalks "stolen" by careless developers. "This is just a terrible road to be on with your kids," Faulkner says of Sutherland. "Every day, I see West High students walking on gravel in front of the Armory, which is very disturbing," she adds.

But Sutherland has its charms, including Knoxville's best array of ethnic-specialty groceries. Faulkner drops in on one of her favorite shops, the Holy Land, a Middle Eastern food store. She hollers at the proprietor in another language—Faulkner explains that she has learned a little Sutherland Avenue Arabic from her pals down here—and gets a bottle of yogurt-milk and some ripe olives, and some feta cheese, and bread, and enjoys them there in the store. The proprietor, Sue Kamah, says many of her customers arrive on foot, and she's grateful for the pedestrian initiative.

Nearby, Hollywood Road is an issue yet to be resolved. Donna Young is concerned that in Knox County, there's only one secure pedestrian passage across I-40 outside of the downtown area. That's the bridge at Winston Road. The city's been trying to establish a sidewalk on Hollywood that could ultimately complete a big Bearden loop, but some residents in the Pond Gap area, already resentful of the increased interstate traffic they've gotten since the closing of the Forest Heights bridge, oppose it.

Young, who usually gets easements for bike trails and sidewalks donated, is hoping to work with the residents. One part of the MPC plan calls for a landscaped median island at the intersection of Hollywood and Sutherland, another traffic-calming strategy that would, at least, prevent double-trailer trucks from using Hollywood.

"I'm not gonna take anybody's car away from them," says Young, "but I will provide them a way to get around without a car."

Most businesses in the area have been pretty quiet about the plan. Though some establishments, especially restaurants, might see improved pedestrian access as a boon, Saunders suspects many of them don't.

"Most merchants want you to drive," he says. "They don't want you to take a sackfull out. They want you to take a carload."

No one knows Bearden retailers better than Holrob, the principal developer in the area. The firm has contracts all over the region, but they seem especially interested in Bearden. It was Holrob that recently developed Mercedes Place, and it's Holrob that's currently redeveloping the 50-year-old strip mall, Kingston Center, which has been mostly vacant for a year or so. (They're negotiating with a prospective tenant, yet unannounced.)

Robyn Askew reiterates that Holrob's enthusiastic about the Bearden Village concept. "But the devil's in the details," she says.

One of the devilish details is the MPC design recommendation of parking in the rear. "The reality is that we're working with anchor tenants that have national prototypes, like Blockbuster, Walgreens, Kroger, that generally can tell you to the dollar what parking space near the front door is worth to them. We can't build things that people will not lease. We struggle to walk a very tight rope between trying to please the community and please the retailer and build something that's not going to sit vacant.

"Regardless of what futuristic people think about new urbanism—I think that's what they call it—people don't ride bicycles that much" to shop. She quickly adds that, unlike most developers, Holrob does include bike racks in their designs, as well as sidewalks. Holrob's Mercedes Place is hardly a new-urbanist ideal, but with outdoor seating and a sidewalk through the parking lot to the street, it's a relatively progressive strip mall.

She says new urbanism works in downtown urban areas, but "it's going to take a long, long time for new urbanism to make it to smaller communities."

She believes most business are happy to improve connections between their stores and others, because it increases the opportunities for cross-over shopping. But others suspect that businesses jealously guard their parking lots, often installing a wall of landscaping as a polite barrier.

MPC planner Shannon Tolliver, who took the lead on outlining the Bearden proposal, says, "It would be nice to have some shared parking" in Bearden. She pictures an ideal pedestrian-oriented development area with parking in back, out of sight, but she admits, "I don't know if that's gonna happen. With a commercial-only district, there's not really a lot of control." Many of her ideas would probably require a new zoning district for Bearden, a Town Center (TC-1) zone devised by MPC and favored by residents but, for now, feared by businesses. "We can't put in an overlay district if the businesses don't want it," Tolliver says.

In whatever final form the improvements take in the next few years, MPC planners hope Bearden Village is a harbinger of things to come for other locations in Knoxville which might have similar prospects.

Donna Young thinks this sort of development is only good sense.

"If you want to attract big business to a city—Boulder attracted IBM's headquarters," she says. "How come IBM didn't move to Knoxville? Because people want a pleasant place to work, good schools for their children. Knoxville is beautiful, but you almost have to find the best places by accident. Who would have thought Third Creek was a beautiful place to be?"

There's much work left to do, and Terry Faulkner knows it. Near the end of her tour of Sutherland Avenue, Faulkner drops in on an acquaintance, a Lebanese man named Yusef. He's in the back with some friends, working on a car underneath a hydraulic jack. As he works, Faulkner greets him in Arabic and brings up the idea of his providing a space for a KAT bus stop in front of his place. He seems reluctant at first. His hands covered with grease, the middle-aged man argues, but Faulkner insists. They swap a few proposals. By the time she leaves, she seems to have struck another deal. By the end of the week, she already has a picture of it: it will be an unusual bus stop to reflect an unusual neighborhood, a Mediterranean-style pergola, planted with middle-eastern herbs. She has already learned how a village works.

(Usage note: some old-timers still object to the characterization of anything east of Westwood as "Bearden." But even small communities are allowed to grow; by current MPC terminology, Bearden has annexed a mile or so to its old eastern boundary, a big area that never had a consistent name.)

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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