cover_story (2005-48)

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Northshore Town Center revisits some very old ideas; can they work again?

Northshore Town Center revisits some very old ideas; can they work again?

by Jack Neely Renderings courtesy of James Doran Co.

What if you were to build a small, old-fashioned town, with sidewalks and service alleys and a downtown, and around 2,000 residents, and plop it beside a busy highway in the middle of the modern suburbs?

Northshore Town Center—the plans first unveiled early last year—has been the butt of jokes, in this paper and elsewhere, as a faux “downtown” that’s convenient to the suburbs. A “boutique village” or “trainer downtown” with none of the unsettling surprises encountered in a real downtown. But on closer look, even skeptics may find there’s something worthwhile about the whole thing: something subversively reasonable.

Grading work, conspicuous from Pellissippi Parkway, has been underway for months, and construction on the first houses will commence in the next couple of weeks. Construction of the first commercial building, a large and startlingly old-fashioned brick building on Northshore, will begin soon after that.

When they’re built, they’ll look different from most other houses built in Knoxville in the last 60 years. The garages will be in the back, on an alley. They’ll all have front porches. And they’ll all be closer to the curb, and to each other, than elsewhere in Knoxville, especially on this sprawly west side.

Whether Northshore Town Center is just an unusual upscale housing and commercial development or a paradigm of how people will live in the future may depend on how Knoxville responds to this and other projects already on the drawing board around the county.

 

Its location could hardly be better for anybody’s conventional suburban commercial development, at the burgeoning intersection of Northshore and Pellissippi Parkway, which connects Maryville/Alcoa and the Knoxville airport to I-40 and Oak Ridge. A Wal-Mart or a Home Depot or a Chuck E. Cheese strip mall here would make somebody rich fast.

The intersection still seems to be evolving from rural to suburban, but thanks to the finger annexations of the Ashe administration, it’s actually in city-limits Knoxville: at the bulbous end of a long municipal peninsula that follows the parkway from the interstate. If you approach Northshore Town Center via Northshore Drive, you’ll leave city limits for a couple of miles before you get there.

The northwestern quarter of the crossroads was once the Sterchi Farm, until recently an overgrown cowpasture. A large barn still standing on the property has a masonry silo attached; deteriorating in an especially picturesque manner, it seems designed for the set of a Stephen King movie. The leasing agent mentions offhand that they’ve discussed saving part of the barn for the new development; he admits it’s likely they won’t, but the fact the issue even comes up makes it clear that this isn’t necessarily your grandfather’s suburban development.

Just beyond the ruins to the north, clearly visible from Pellissippi Parkway, are the yellow monsters of construction, backhoes and bulldozers, more than a dozen of them, regrading the irregularly hilly, sinkhole-cratered land.

Shane Doran, the 38-year-old senior vice president of the James Doran Company, is leading the Northshore Town Center project.

“We’re basically just going back to planning a town on a human and pedestrian scale, pre - World War II,” he says. He describes an idyllic community in which offices, retail shops, restaurants, public parks and other amenities are within easy walking distance of a large number of permanent residents—a village population that he predicts may eventually number as many as 2,700. “That’s just the night population,” he says, and adds, referring to the shopping and office population, “In the daytime, there will be more.” If his projections are even close, there will be no place like it in West Knoxville. Northshore Town Center would, in fact, register as one of the highest per-acre population densities in East Tennessee. And from a new-urbanist perspective, that’s a good thing; a more efficient use of land and tax-supported infrastructure, and a pattern more likely to support walking retail. In selling the idea, they’ll have their work cut out for them. Longtime Knoxvillians are known to speak with almost moralistic disapproval of houses built on uncustomarily small lots.

The James Doran Company, established in 1882, is a Charleston, S.C. institution. Founded as a shipping company, it somehow morphed into a real-estate development company decades ago. Doran (it rhymes with floorin’ ) has taken on a variety of developments, and a few years ago were best known for their grocery-anchored retail malls and “power centers.” However, just in the last few years they have begun to develop a reputation for communities built in the “town center” style. They began with Winter Springs, Fla., with a creation of a downtown in an existing suburban community that lacked one. They’ve made it their focus. On their website, Northshore Town Center appears front and center.

Doran himself seems to believe in the concept. “It actually works,” he says. “I live in a development here—I’on—done by Dover Cole. My front porch is on the street. I moved in there, and I met more people in the first three months than I had met in seven years in my previous home.” 

Doran is currently working on three other town-center projects: in Charleston (Downtown Daniel Island), Orlando (Winter Springs Town Center) and Richmond (Winterfield Village). “It’s not for everybody,” admits Shane Doran. “I’m the first one to say, some folks like the 10-acre plot, the McMansion, the cul de sac.” It’s just not what they’re concentrating on now.

Doran’s fairly new to it, but the idea has been kicking around for years, this idea of building a community based on new-urbanist standards, honoring pedestrian scale and convenience. The best-known prototype of the town-center style is Seaside, Fla., a new town built from scratch on old-fashioned principles in the late 1980s. Designed by Andres Duany and his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Seaside seems to have inspired many imitators, and has become almost iconic. (It served as the location for the movie about life in suburban nirvana, The Truman Show —which some, unfairly, saw as a critique of Seaside.) As a resort community, its relevance to others is limited. Still, many evoke it as proof that respected architects can build by old-fashioned principles.

For at least 60 years, suburban has been a synonym for predictability; the people who live there live largely in their cars, driving from chain store to chain restaurant to the soccer field to the McMansion they call home. Suburbia has been blamed for obesity, political paranoia, worsening air pollution, loss of farmland, flash flooding, rising property taxes, loss of community, and the ascendancy of sameness. Scholars denounce suburbia, teenagers mock it, and their elders often feel obliged to insist that they regret it. But developers keep building suburbia, and people keep buying houses in it.

Making the suburbs more village-like has been an elusive dream for decades. Even part of Sequoyah Hills was planned in 1926 with a town center that never came fully to fruition. In later decades, in points farther west, developers have tried to evoke something like a town center in spirit by naming developments “Village Green” or “Downtown West,” but what they usually accomplish is another suburban strip mall or conventional tract development, but with a quaint name.

And although West Knoxville and West Knox County have grown in population for at least 40 years, there are few real population centers within West Knoxville, and none to compare in density to those closer to town, like Fort Sanders or even Bearden. New houses are built every week, but rarely enough of them close together to form a community center of gravity for retail or cultural purposes; throughout all the decades of west-side development, the population density of West Knoxville has remained pretty low. As a result of that phenomenon and dogmatic zoning restrictions, neighborhood groceries, pubs, cafes, or pizza parlors are rare, as are opportunities to walk, for practical transportation or for fitness.

To change that would seem to require changing the basic pattern on which we built our residential developments. Get people living closer together, the theory goes, and they can and will start walking again.

 

Some deride New Urbanists as a sort of cult that holds that the key to solving many or most of society’s ills through a laundry list of design principles that they say leads to a more efficient use of land, and consequently healthier and more productive lives, partly by returning to higher-density, mixed-use development patterns of former eras. However, they’re a cult of some distinction, formed into an international organization called the Congress of New Urbanism that includes former HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo and other statesmen, in addition to well-known architects associated with the movement, like Peter Calthorpe, Duany and Plater-Zyberk.

The CNU drew up an admirable charter to describe the ideal community: they should respect and reward the pedestrian, include parks and greenways, and include a variety of businesses and activities. Northshore Town Center seems compatible with it in most respects.

One charter member of the international group is Knoxville’s own Mark Schimmenti, who teaches urban design at UT. A friend of Duany and Plater-Zyberk, he operated an urban-design studio in downtown Knoxville a few years ago. Schimmenti hasn’t been part of the NTC proposal, and admits he knows little about it. He was in Italy when we contacted him by e-mail; at our suggestion he looked at the NTC website. “It seems they know the lingo and the renderings are promising,” Schimmenti offered.

“Live, work, play,” the multi-use mantra evoked in a National Public Radio story early this week, has been one of the mottoes of new urbanism, almost like liberté, egalité, fraternité . In its promotional literature, Northshore Town Center adds one more command: “Live, work, play, shop .”

Though new town-center projects seem to be catching on in several other cities, including metropolitan Nashville, Knoxville hasn’t been on the vanguard of the movement. It may seem surprising that this town-center project was local in its inception. Robert Sterchi, the veteran hotel developer who inherited the land, knew the big plot would be very valuable, but wanted to do something different with it than the expected asphalt-desert commercial or tract-housing development. He approached local landscape architect Mike Fowler. “I thought the highest and best use of the property might be something different,” Fowler recalls. “I thought we might want to try to apply traditional town-planning principles.” 

Fowler suggested something along the lines of a town center, pedestrian in scale, with office development along Pellissippi Parkway, fairly dense residential in the interior, concentrating on combined-unit housing, with a “downtown” in the middle.

Fowler is not one of those who was directly inspired by the organized new-urbanist movement, and he laughs if you bring up Seaside. “It goes back to the turn of the century,” he says. Rather than Seaside, Fowler evokes Cliffside, the pedestrian-scale mill village in North Carolina where he grew up, long before the phrase new urbanism was coined. “I grew up in a planned town,” he says, adding that he and his family walked to the movies and other local attractions. After working in California, Fowler says, “I came to Tennessee because I was interested in the New Town movement.” TVA was once famous for its attempts to build planned, pedestrian-oriented villages at Norris and Fontana; their problem was that the dam workers kept going home after the project was finished. However, it was the ‘70s, and TVA was boasting of a new self-sustaining industrial city to be built on Tellico Lake. Fowler was involved in some of the planning of it, but the mythical Timberlake was never built.

Fowler and Sterchi, working with local attorney Mike McClamroch, worked up a plan for a mixed-use development unusual for Knoxville. Metropolitan Planning Commission planner Mike Carberry helped formulate a new zoning category—TC-1—to accommodate this new old idea of higher-density housing mixed with office and commercial uses. Carberry says it was a refinement of the Mechanicsville Commons low-to-middle income neighborhood, built as part of the federal Hope VI project. That zoning archetype, calling for sidewalks, street trees, shallower setbacks, a mixture of lot sizes, and a portion reserved as public space, was called TND-1, for traditional neighborhood development.

TC-1 is like TND-1, Carberry says, but with a main street or commercial center as its defining principle, with space for downtown-style mixed-use buildings: retail at ground level, with residential and office space above. Both new zones effectively undo some of the artificial segregation instituted through fussy zoning of the postwar era, allowing for much smaller setbacks.

Versions of that idea seem to be catching on all over the nation. Carberry mentions Westhaven, a two-year-old project in Franklin, south of Nashville, which is still developing but “going gangbusters.”

Sterchi’s team discussed the site with Chattanooga developer Steve Arnsdorf, known for his shopping-center redesign work in Oak Ridge. Arnsdorf liked the mixed-use approach but wanted to include some big-box retail, which Fowler said would have been a challenge on the site. Sterchi chose to put the site on the market, with the TC-1 zoning in place. In 2003 he sold it to the James Doran company. The move squeezed out Fowler, the philosophical instigator of the project.

“This is one that got away from us,” Fowler says ruefully. “But we really would like to do this development somewhere else.” He has not kept up with Doran’s proposals closely enough to comment. “No matter what they’re doing, it’s probably better than a Kroger shopping center, something you might expect.”

Doran and Co. were drawn to Knoxville by their interest in this plot. “We heard about the land,” he says. “It was a specific opportunity that brought us to Knoxville. It offered an ability to create a neo-traditional community without having to do an assemblage”—that is, buying property from several owners. He liked the water on the property, and the “surrounding demographics.” The demographic tables in their promotional literature indicate that the 23,000 who live within a three-mile radius enjoy an average household income of $108,118.

Doran bought the plot and augmented it with another 11-acre plot on its western fringe, part of an existing neighborhood along Kristi Lane. (Promoters are careful to explain they bought the land from voluntary sellers, by offering more than its assessed value. That annex won’t be cleared until the middle of ‘06, as one resident is exercising an option to remain in her house through the spring.) Northshore Town Center will be accessible to the next neighborhood to the west, but only by walking paths.

Doran went to work on the project and made its proposal of an “urban village” to MPC in February, 2004. It contained several concepts that, in Knoxville, seem both revolutionary and very old-fashioned. Some offices and residential units would be planned above retail establishments. Parks and plazas would dot the development, linked by narrow streets and sidewalks. Parking would serve double duty, for daytime office use, and nighttime retail and entertainment use. A movie theater would be established in a “Theater Court” at the end of a lane called Main Street: “The event of going to the movies becomes an entire evening with spaces to meet people, enjoy food or drink, and shop.” The roughly square five-acre pond, known to some neighbors years ago as a fishing hole, would become a “lake” with boardwalks and restaurants on the shore.

Perhaps most surprising were the aesthetics. “The architecture, landscaping, and signage of Northshore are intended to capture the atmosphere of an old mill/industrial site built around the turn of the century that has been undergoing adaptive re-use.”

“The smaller buildings may relate to the local vernacular building, such as a train station common in this type of mill-town.”

Critics see shades of Disney World in these architectural evocations of a fictional town.But maybe it’s inevitable. Loft space in adaptive spaces in authentic old buildings downtown is now hard to come by; it’s only natural that there’s a market for new old buildings.

It’s hard to overlook the irony that some of the buildings planned for Northshore Town Center look a lot like some of the buildings torn down in central Knoxville in the last 10 years. One major mixed-used office and retail building may remind you of the old brick Tennessee Mine and Mill building at State and Union, demolished about five years ago for the justice center that was never built. (There had been a private proposal to convert it into mixed-use retail and residential, but thanks to government indecisiveness, it’s now an underused surface parking lot.)

Some parts of the original plan sent to the MPC in February of last year might strike critics as pretty corny. Phony industrial smokestacks, a phony water tower, even a phony train station. (Other developers in other states have included a train coach or sailboat here or there in otherwise modern developments; they’re known in developer parlance as “memory points.”) It’s hard to be critical without being hypocritical; the predominance of phony shutters and unnecessary columns in most residential neighborhoods, and the big plastic cannons in front of the county courthouse, all point to the fact that we do seem to have a tolerance, even an appetite, for faux-historical illusion.

Some of the NTC’s ersatz historical embellishments aren’t quite as prominent in current drawings. Missing altogether is one extraneous E; Doran’s project was originally called Northshore Towne Center. Maybe their researchers learned that spelling’s much older than the era they’re trying to evoke.

Still, the current promotional literature promises a “balance between the surrounding natural beauty and the hustle bustle of a nostalgic town center.” Nostalgia is part of the appeal, but for most Americans, who didn’t grow up within walking distance of much of anything, it’s nostalgia for a time we never knew. To revisit old ideas of village planning, is it really necessary to look old?

“We’ve been around since the 1800s,” Doran says of the James Doran Co., “and we like the traditional urban feel, traditional urban architecture. Like a building that had been rehabbed into funky loft space. But it’s sometimes costly to retrofit with a modern HVAC, and modern efficiencies.” Building a rehabbed historic building from scratch solves certain problems.

If the designs seem old-fashioned, don’t mark it down to pure nostalgia. Some aspects of modern architecture evolved almost by default, to serve people in automobiles; ornamentation on a house or commercial building was wasted when people began moving too fast to notice it—moreso when houses were set back farther from the street and sidewalk. A pedestrian scale may naturally suggest something similar to the architecture we knew before zoning and automobile-dependence made ornamentation and front porches irrelevant.

Local homebuilder Mike Stevens, who’s under contract to develop 270 residential lots on the development, will begin building the first cluster of Northshore Town Center homes—10 single-family houses plus 12 townhouses—this December.

Stevens still has feet in both worlds. “I just pulled out of there,” he said of the Northshore site when we reached him via his cell phone last week. “If you hear what sounds like mud slapping my fender walls, that’s what it is.” He’s driving to a conventional development he’s working on, but it sounds as if he’d rather talk about Northshore Town Center.

“I’ve been building for 33 years,” he says. “I don’t know what it is that’s gotten people excited, but I’ve never seen anything like it. It seems like something the community’s ready for.”

He hasn’t begun building the first house yet, but as of last week, he had reservation deposits on 70 different dwellings at Northshore Town Center. He’s been impressed with the demographic range of those who have expressed interest with a deposit—they range from young professionals to empty-nesters; older folks are interested even in the loft-style dwellings that tend to be described as funky . (Families with children are welcome in the project, but in talking to the developers, they tend not to be the first groups mentioned.)

He admits the market for conventional housing developments is still strong. But like Doran, his interest in the new-urbanist ideal seems personal; he pictures it as if he’d like to live there himself: “That kind of getting back to a neighborhood—to sit on your porch at night, walk down the street for an ice-cream cone, talk to your neighbors.”

Stevens says he was first taken with the idea of it a long time ago, on a visit to Harbortown, a new-urbanist community in Memphis. “What attracted me to [the town-center concept] years ago is that it seems to me to be the best use of land—a lot of open spaces, sidewalks on both sides of the street.”

He was canny enough about the concept to insist on one new-urbanist principle: draw from the architectural heritage of the surrounding community. With a couple of architects—Bill Andrews, who will design the townhouses, and Jerry Eschman, who will handle the single-family homes, he reconsidered suburban architecture.

If all goes according to plan, the development may give many Knoxvillians a sense of deja vu. In drawings for rowhouses, Stevens and his architects relied heavily on the Victorian mixed-use buildings on Market Square; some of the Square’s designs show up distinctly in the promotional drawings for NTC. For the houses, they toured pre-zoning neighborhoods like North Hills and Island Home, to gather ideas.

They even borrowed a street name, an issue that will need to be addressed before the mapmakers go to work. The main commercial street in Northshore Town Center is called “Main Street.” Unmentioned by promoters who describe it is the minor issue that there’s another Main Street in this same city, about 12 miles to the east.

For the record, the architecture at NTC won’t all be Victorian quaint; Stevens talks of bungalows, and in some of the drawings, condos look mid-century moderne , like a stylish circa 1939 apartment house.

The first houses to be marketed will fall within a fairly tight demographic, from the low $300,000s to the high $400,000s. Upscale, to be sure, if not among the most expensive houses in town. Stevens isn’t ready to speculate about what future residential construction in NTC may cost.

The fact that it’s upscale is strongly implied in all the literature. However, the CNU’s charter defining new-urbanist communities includes a suggestion: “Within neighborhoods, a broad range of housing types and price levels can bring people of diverse ages, races, and incomes into daily interaction, strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community.”

Income diversity isn’t a priority at Northshore Town Center, at least not yet. Promoters say it’s located where it is because it’s a high-income area. Doran’s promotional literature says NTC “is destined to be Tennessee’s most prestigious new community...set in the midst of the region’s most affluent trade area.”

“It’s not a town, in the complete sense, in terms of the way it’s homogeneous,” says architect Frank Sparkman, a new-urbanist architect who is not involved with NTC but has been watching it with interest. “Poor people like me can’t live there. It may be a new town, but it’s an exclusive new town.”

Doran responds to criticism that his “town” is an enclave for the affluent. “I think I understand that presumption,” he says. “Single-family is going in first,” he says, and it’s the most expensive sort of housing on the site. “But we plan on having offerings for a variety of price ranges. We’ll put in condo flats at some point. We hope to appeal to a cross-section of the community. It can feel sterile if everyone’s an empty-nester, if everyone’s a retiree. We want young professionals, as well as the young family. We want to appeal to everybody. That’s what makes a town.”

All Doran’s representatives insist that Northshore Town Center will hardly be a gated community. Its stores and restaurants and greenways and parks will be accessible to the community at large. Whether the development’s several small parks will be administered by public authorities with the city or county, or by the developer, is yet to be determined, Doran says.

For now, he’s talking more about age diversity than income diversity. “I thought it would be just young-professionals’ niche. But what people don’t get is that people as they age, they still want to lead active lives. Go to Starbucks, or the baker down the street, get some exercise without getting in their car. It’s very appealing.”

 

Officials with the city and the MPC talk about Northshore Town Center without criticism or obvious anxiety. Bill Lyons talks of the project’s tax-revenue-producing capacity, and it’s easy to see why; if the development had been planned for a plot one mile west, or even one mile east, of this slender jetty of incorporated Knoxville, it wouldn’t have been within city limits, and subject to city taxes. But Lyons also likes the plan in itself, which he says is “good for the city. We’re pleased at having this sort of mix, which is much superior to it being a pure large residential development.” It’s also a pedestrian-oriented lifestyle option thus far unavailable in Knoxville except, on a good day, downtown.

Mike Carberry of the MPC applauds it as a sensible community. Asked if he sees potential problems with NTC, he pauses for about one second, and answers, “No.” He explains they’ve been over the proposals with the surrounding communities. Carberry seems grateful that, for once, a West Knoxville developer wants to use the land efficiently.

There are still question marks, as there are over anything this complex.

The residential commitments are encouraging, but that part, the first part to be finished will be the least-daring part of the project. For the near future, most of the residential will be separate from the first commercial development by a buffer identified on maps as “FUTURE DEVELOPMENT,” outlined with a mixture of development in muted lines. 

Despite the strong residential interest, NTC is still waiting for its first commercial commitment. Leasing agent Lance Hagaman says he has a very strong lead on a retail entity to occupy the ground floor of the “old mill” building on Northshore, and may sign one major tenant soon. The 34,000-square-foot building will include two floors of office space over one floor of retail. Rents, Hagaman says, are about $25 a square foot in the western part of the development; $30 in the more central eastern part. Construction on the building, visible from Northshore, will begin in the first quarter of ‘06.

They’re also looking forward to developing office space. “I get depressed when I go to some of these offices, with low ceilings, surrounded by a field of parking,” says Hagaman. “In those unhappy places, I feel like people are unhappy working.” The offices at NTC, he says, won’t be like that; interior spaces will be more open and comfortable, and workers will be able to step out to convenient lunch spots and other amenities, as they do downtown.

Like Doran, Hagaman believes in the mixed-use concept so much he lives in one. The young leasing agent lives in another Doran town-center project, Downtown Daniel Island, in Charleston. But asked about Northshore Town Center’s advantage over other large-scale commercial developments, like Turkey Creek, a big-box strip center, he answers, “The demographics in this area are high end, much stronger than in Turkey Creek. We want it to be high-end and appeal to the clientele around here. It’s a whole different ball game.”

Hagaman says the residential population will be only a small part of the retail business. “There will be 16-1,800 people. That helps out a little bit,” he says. (Hagaman’s off-the-cuff estimate, about 1,000 lower than Doran’s, may reflect an earlier stage in the projected development.)

Doran says he’s been talking to both “large scale and medium-scale tenants. I’m not gonna name names. We’ll announce them this year or next year. Or the year after.” This pattern—residential going in months or even years before the commercial—apparently is reportedly typical of town-center projects.

“I’m determined to do this right,” Doran adds. “Doing it right and doing it quickly are mutually exclusive. If I just wanted to do a quick deal and leave town, big boxes and discount groceries are dying to get in there. I will do it right.”

He clearly doesn’t want to be obligated to compromise the concept. “If you do a power center, a strip center, you’re beholden to the tenant.” 

The movie theater, which was one of the first amenities mentioned in the original concept, the anchor of Main Street, and central to the idea of shared parking and to the idyllic evening in Northshore Town Center, seems to be less than a sure thing today. Some theater chains have discussed the project with Doran—there is now or was recently a “deal on the table,” according to Hagaman—but from the sound of it, they haven’t come to terms.

“There’s still talk of it,” says Doran of the cinema. “Frankly, I’m not sure it’s best for the center.”

Without the cinema, though, it’s not clear what evening entertainment will be available. Nightclubs are a likelihood, of course. There’s an outdoor amphitheater near the residential section, which may host music or drama in good weather, but no auditorium in the plans. To see concerts or major sporting events, of course, residents will still have to drive downtown. Residents may find themselves leaving the village for most of their entertainment options.

Adding to the questions is the fact that skyrocketing construction costs are having an effect, as they are everywhere. “It’s a major concern, perhaps slowed us down a little bit,” admits Doran. “We’re moving through these issues with value engineering,” which he defines as money-saving efficiencies in construction. “And the low interest rates have created such a strong residential market that we’re able to absorb those costs.”

The first construction will look something like conventional houses; Stevens will build 10 of them right away. He says construction of NTC’s original 12 townhouses is encountering some codes snags he expects to be able to clear up. “We’re committed for the next seven to 10 years,” Doran says. When it’s all done, he says, Northshore Town Center will have been more than a $250 million project.

 

Can Northshore Town Center really get Knoxvillians out of their cars? Those who are free not to drive will probably be able to stay afoot for weeks. However, for most Knoxville adults, responsibilities loom. As all parents know, most of all the driving done by a typical American parent-chauffeur consists of taking the kids to school, to soccer games, doctors’ and dentists’ appointments, slumber parties, football games, cross-country meets, which in this reporter’s experience tend to be held all over the metropolitan area. NTC may not make much of a dent in any of those trips.

As yet, there are no schools prepared for the site, but Doran says they’ve had conversations with both a Montessori school and another private school that are at least interested in the project.

There are no churches in Northshore Town Center, either. “I love the concept,” Doran says, “but we’re really not set up for a mega-church. That’s an entity.” He says they’d consider “the right church, on a small scale,” but he senses the modern demand for a suburban church is for one on a Wal-mart scale.

While the walk-to-work scenario will certainly be possible for some, and moreso than in most neighborhoods, the prospect that most of NTC’s residents will be able to walk to work over long periods of time may seem questionable. Certain self-employed professionals may well be able to choose the location of their place of business, and stick to it. Others are at the mercy of employers who may move their business, transfer employees, or fire them. A wage-earner who leaves one job downtown but wants another one downtown will probably be able to find one, whether he’s a lawyer or a waiter; there are about 20,000 jobs downtown, and somebody’s always hiring. The same won’t be true in the foreseeable future at Northshore Town Center.

And what about spouses, most of whom work these days? Even if one spouse does have a good job in NTC, the other may well work downtown, say, or in Oak Ridge—which is, at least, a clear shot on the parkway. And the service employees that will keep the retail side humming—the cashiers and waiters and bakers and ice-cream vendors they picture—are not yet in the residential demographic.

It may be the self-employed professional that the live-plus-work appeal of NTC is most likely to appeal to. Its proximity to McGhee Tyson Airport may make it appealing for consultants and salesmen.

 

For a pedestrian-oriented development, its location is incongruous: It will be accessed by an off-ramp from Pellissippi Parkway, where the average vehicle speed is somewhere well above the speed limit; and the development will apparently call for a widening of ever-busier Northshore Drive, which the city says was in the works anyway.

Northshore Town Center may be more quickly convenient to automobile traffic than are most of Knox County’s conventional residential communities—the postwar ones without sidewalks, and garages in the front yard where the porch is supposed to be.

The location will certainly aid the viability of conventional retail, which will be important, considering that even the promoters don’t think the community’s density will support walking retail on its own.

It’s on one of the county’s most coveted locations for mass-market retail. The retail customers a highway exitseems most likely to appeal to are exactly the customers who expect to have their parking lots front and center.

Public transportation has yet to come near this part of town, which may be the single most remote spot from the KAT bus lines in city-limits Knoxville. Of the Congress of New Urbanism’s charter guidelines, the only one that NTC clearly violates is that developments “should be within walking distance of transit stops, permitting public transit to become a viable alternative to the automobile.” Northshore Town Center is more than four miles from the nearest KAT bus stop. To their credit, KAT officials affirm that NTC planners have approached them about lengthening a route to meet them; KAT hasn’t decided whether the additional ridership would justify that route.

While Knoxville is a predominantly car-dependent culture, it’s at least possible to live without a car in some older subdivisions, and some Knoxvillians do. It may not be possible at NTC.

Cars may turn out to be almost as big a part of life in NTC as they are in the average modern suburban community. But there is something undeniably appealing about being able to walk out at 9 p.m. to take a jog, or to fetch a bottle of wine or a video.

Some urban-planning scholars have criticized all suburban development; rather than mitigating sprawl, they say, new-urbanist nodes may just feed it. Disney’s much-ballyhooed new-urbanist community Celebration, opened in 1994, was touted as a cure for Orlando’s reckless growth. Alex Marshall, in his 2000 book, How Cities Work , is harsh in his criticism of a suburban community trying to look like a pre-automobile town.

“If Disney wanted to help combat sprawl, the worst thing to have done was to build another subdivision 20 miles outside town.... Center city Orlando would be more healthy if the wealth that is now going into the peripheries, where government must build new roads and other infrastructure, were forced back into the center.... The interstate and the megasuburban boulevard created the possibility of Celebration, as well as its inherent advantages and limitations. Celebration is an automobile suburb. It can do little to escape that dynamic.”

Though Northshore Town Center bears some similarity to Celebration in that, at about 12 miles from downtown, it’s remote from the city center, and its defining principle is a highway crossroads, it has one thing going for it that Celebration, as a whole, doesn’t. If Doran’s forecasts of its ultimate population of 2,700 come true, it will have a much-higher population density, which from a city planner’s perspective, is more efficient than the usual suburban patterns wherever it happens.

Marshall continues, “We try different styles of suburbia, we try New Towns and New Urbanism. We try ordering up more berms, more shrubbery, and more front porches.... [W]e try everything, except saying no more.” At best, NTC might give Knoxvillians a taste of what no more would feel like, to get us used to living outside our cars. Maybe it could be, after all, a “trainer downtown.”

 

For better or worse, this town-center genie seems to have escaped the bottle. The MPC reports two more projects in the early stages have applied for TC-1 “town center” zoning. One, on the opposite side of Knoxville, on Washington Pike, near Knoxville Center, on the northeast side; another is conceived for West Emory Road in Powell, north of the city.

Northshore Town Center may one day mean a lot to the minority of Knoxvillians who will live or work there. It may be more relevant to Knoxville as a whole as a crucible for a new sort of suburban living, which is actually very old.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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