commentary (2005-49)

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The Crucible

The Northshore Town Center serves as a model for the South Knoxville waterfront

The Crucible

by Matt Edens

As is probably no surprise, I found last week’s cover story on Northshore Town Center encouraging. I was particularly pleased to hear that two more “town center” projects are in planning stages for the city’s northern and eastern suburbs. Twenty years after the pioneering town of Seaside in Florida was first platted, the “fad” of New Urbanism finally shows signs of catching on in Knoxville. And, while I hope Jack Neely proves right when he suggests that Northshore Town Center could be “a crucible for a new sort of suburban living,” it’s the development’s impact on Knoxville’s urban parts that may be more pressing.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not particularly worried that the new “downtown” will have a detrimental effect on the old one. It is, after all, some twelve miles to the west and I’ve always thought we’ve overstressed the importance of folks driving into downtown from way out in Farragut, anyways. Rather I’m hopeful that, as suburbia is slowly, almost subversively, transformed into something more urban, we’ll also wean ourselves from the habit of replacing rundown bits of the city’s urban fabric with shiny knock-offs of suburbia, which has been local urban redevelopment’s default mode for the last fifty years or so.

Granted, some things have been dramatically different of late. Historic preservation has played a premiere role in the redevelopment of downtown and several center-city neighborhoods. And even some new development, such as the federally funded Hope VI redevelopment of Mechanicsville Commons, has reintroduced urban-scaled development that is, other than price and market demographics, little different from what seems so revolutionary out off Northshore (in a way the two developments compliment one another—Mechanicsville proved new urbanism could be done locally, while Northshore seems to be proving there is a market for it).

Other developments, on the other hand, have been less urban in their execution. In Mechanicsville, most of the commercial development across Western has been all but indistinguishable from anything found further out Kingston Pike. A suburban shopping center is the focus of Five Point’s revitalization. Gated condos that could be anywhere in West Knoxville crowd the waterfront above Volunteer Landing and more are being built across the river at the end of Scottish Pike.

Now, as the city embarks on an ambitious planning process to plot the future of redevelopment on the river’s south bank, should we expect more of the same? More conventional gated condos? More single-use commercial buildings? Another waterfront park that most users park the car and walk to? Personally I hope not. And, frankly, as the South Waterfront process moves forward, I think the shift in the shape of suburban development out at Northshore Town Center may just be relevant. I’ll even go so far to say that Jack’s thumbnail description of the Northshore development: “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 a waterfront lined with “boardwalks and restaurants on the shore” may serve as a pretty good model for redeveloping the South Waterfront’s ragged industrial acreage.

Even Northshore Town Center’s neo-traditional, anachronistic architecture wouldn’t seem so silly on the South Bank. Out in West Knoxville, the developer says his goal is recreating the look and feel of a turn of the century mill town. Downtown Knoxville, on both sides of the river, truly is a turn of the century mill town. Relics of the era dot the redevelopment area, from individual historic buildings to whole neighborhoods, providing ready-made context for the redbrick lofts and clapboard cottages that seem so kitschy when plopped off Pellissippi Parkway.

So I guess what I’m saying is, rather than look for redevelopment to reshape the South Waterfront, let’s try letting the South Waterfront reshape how we do redevelopment.

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