Strategy Now, Tactics Later

The city's downtown development advice takes shape

The rest of the strategy proposal is long on vision and short on detail. An example is that it recommends that the city establish a downtown director "with coordinating responsibilities related to several facets of downtown operations and management." We're not suggesting that it's a bad idea, but the job description could hardly be more nebulous at this point.

There are other aims in the action plan that would require more city spending than the present city fiscal picture would allow. A pedestrian-friendly and inviting "streetscape" for Gay and Central Streets, Wall, Union, Clinch and Church Avenues and Summit Hill Drive, for instance, "should be implemented as funding allows." To that end, the plan suggests, "a capital program for downtown streetscape and infrastructure improvements" should be established. Fine, but where does the money come from to build such a capital fund?

Exactly.

All of the right bases are touched in the description of that team. Achieving consensus may not be easy, but the team's members will likely have their hearts in the right place. The right place is the downtown itself. As long as those hearts are pumping together, translating the strategy plan into real, bricks and mortar action, we could produce a downtown with a future to match its past as the cultural and commercial center of

East Tennessee.

Mayor Bill Haslam, a downtown advocate of the first order, has his Downtown Advisory Committee closing in on producing a Downtown Improvement Strategy. The committee's draft report is undergoing citizen review before being submitted to the Metropolitan Planning Commission, then the Historic Zoning Commission, and finally City Council, with the hope of securing approval by the end of April.

It contains a section on civic vision and an action plan based on that vision. It's important to understand the difference between strategy and tactics at this juncture, because the report contains little in the way of specific recommendations, which would fall into the category of tactics.

One prominent exception is the recommendation that the entire Central Business District be designated a redevelopment district, allowing for the potential use of tax increment financing to encourage projects throughout the downtown. That designation is now limited to Market Square, the World's Fair Park and Gay Street, where significant redevelopment, some of which has been spurred by tax increment financing, is either completed, underway or contemplated by private investors, assisted in some instances by the city's willingness to take on infrastructure improvements.

We wholeheartedly second that recommendation, as we realize there are likely to be highly appealing prospective investments across the whole downtown that would justify tax incentives. Applications for those incentives would be examined by the city and would be subject to Council approval on a case-by-case basis. Some of them would undoubtedly be worthwhile.

The rest of the strategy proposal is long on vision and short on detail. An example is that it recommends that the city establish a downtown director "with coordinating responsibilities related to several facets of downtown operations and management." We're not suggesting that it's a bad idea, but the job description could hardly be more nebulous at this point.

There are other aims in the action plan that would require more city spending than the present city fiscal picture would allow. A pedestrian-friendly and inviting "streetscape" for Gay and Central Streets, Wall, Union, Clinch and Church Avenues and Summit Hill Drive, for instance, "should be implemented as funding allows." To that end, the plan suggests, "a capital program for downtown streetscape and infrastructure improvements" should be established. Fine, but where does the money come from to build such a capital fund?

Logically, because the Gay Street and Market Square areas are already showing signs of resurgence, the rebuilding of retail capacity and strengthening of retail activity there are elements of the plan's top priority. Completion of the Gay Street cinema and the Mast General Store project up the street are at the top of the list, with the explanation that they should be "used advantageously to maintain investment momentum." Exactly. That didn't take much pondering, nor did the list of secondary priorities, which included finding uses for the Gay Street and Market Square sites still not redeveloped, the former News Sentinel site, the Gay Street block on its west side between Church and Cumberland Avenues, and the Jackson Avenue/Depot redevelopment zone along Gay Street to the north.

A third priority is the establishment of urban design guidelines to "improve the appearance and design of both private and public property downtown."

That can be a gnarly issue, but the proposal concludes, accurately, that such guidelines employed in other cities "have successfully improved their downtowns' aesthetic image and pedestrian activity patterns, yet still allowed freedom in design decisions." Well, some freedom. But, in a downtown composed of such a hodgepodge of designs as Knoxville's, creating and enforcing any realistic guidelines would be tricky. Good luck to the guidelines' creators on that one. Urban eclecticism is hard to define precisely, or even narrowly, and that is what Knoxville's downtown has. Preserving historic structures will dictate that it remains eclectic, and design guidelines will be subject to argument over subjective judgments.

That's not to say that some effort to make the city's new buildings more attractive than some that are now in place is misguided, but the difficulties involved should not be underestimated.

The retail component in the plan requires more dedicated and imaginative marketing and recruiting work than has ever been done in the downtown's behalf, and the strategy addresses that need in general terms.

Implementation of the plan, into which tactical details are presumably to be plugged along the way, is to be conducted by a team of representatives from city departments, KCDC, Knox County's Development Corp., the Central Business Improvement District, MPC, the Public Building Authority and the Historic Zoning Commission, under the auspices of the mayor and his to-be-named downtown director.

All of the right bases are touched in the description of that team. Achieving consensus may not be easy, but the team's members will likely have their hearts in the right place. The right place is the downtown itself. As long as those hearts are pumping together, translating the strategy plan into real, bricks and mortar action, we could produce a downtown with a future to match its past as the cultural and commercial center of East Tennessee.

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

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