Room to Grow
Poking at downtown’s artificial boundaries
by Jack Neely
Last week I was visiting with my friend Marshal Andy on Magnolia. Talking about westerns always gives me a powerful hankering for western-style chow, so afoot on my way back I stopped in to get a burrito at Los Molcajetes. A modest but authentic place, tailored maybe a little more to Mexican than Gringo tastes, it’s on the fringe of an East Depot quarter that I’m still scratching my head about.
An autentico Mexican restaurant seemed unlikely here in this pragmatic old section of machine shops and auto-parts warehouses, but then again, so does an opera company and a brewery. Professional singers from around the world come to the Knoxville Opera Company office on East Depot to audition for the next season’s productions, and the New Knoxville Brewing Company’s “tasting room” has become a sometimes-popular venue for local bands.
Last week, there was a sign in the door of Los Molcajetes: Sevende el Restaurate . Restaurant for sale. The door was locked.
Several years ago, I was down at the pub talking with some architect and urban-planner friends, wistful about the departure of Knoxville baseball, speculating about the possibility that downtown might colonize on this northeastern quarter: extend the Old City several blocks to the east, along Willow and Jackson and Depot.
For a city that’s center of a metro area of nearly a million, Knoxville’s half-square mile downtown seems unnaturally small. Expanding it is problematic. The river’s to the south. On the CBID’s east side are hundreds of acres of asphalt known as James White Parkway. To the west is UT and the high-density residential community of Fort Sanders.
To the north and northeast are highway underpasses. North of I-40, Emory Place seems an island of its own—supporting several businesses and residences, but rarely considered part of downtown. My urban-design chums tell me that highway overpasses form a sort of psychological barrier to downtown development, which often stops dead when it comes to a highway. It’s usually possible to walk underneath a divided highway, but nobody really wants to.Not only because it puts a noisy roof over a place, and stark concrete that doesn’t say much, but the fact that everything beneath it is usually demolished, in a block-wide swath. No one likes to walk past nothing. I can’t blame the end of Los Molcajetes on the widened highway—it was probably a minority of their clientele who walked from downtown—but without the odd little buildings along the way, it’s not quite as interesting a walk as it was the first time I went there for lunch.
If the curtain between the Old City and the East Depot area had been impermeable to most pedestrians before, it’s more so now. There’s now a swath two full city blocks wide, acres now devoted to nothing but being underneath a highway. The urban equivalent of salted fields. The new road construction swallowed several buildings, some occupied, some not, even clipped the easternmost fringe of the Old City, demolished a building that not too long ago had been a jazzy nightclub, the Platinum Lounge.
Within its sometimes shrinking barriers, downtown as we know it is rapidly getting built out. There are very few vacant buildings left in the central business district, and for every one there may be three developers trying to work different deals on it.
That’s a signal of success, but also cause for anxiety. In her fascinating and sometimes prophetic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities , which seems truer now than it did when it was first published 45 years ago, Jane Jacobs wrote about the purpose served by buildings that are derelict and vacant, out of cycle with the rest of a downtown’s development. Run-down buildings represent future potential. They’re the places that attract artists in search of studios, live-music nightclub entrepreneurs who need low overhead, impoverished geniuses with more inspiration than capital. Some downtown retail successes, like the Tomato Head restaurant, started in such circumstances, in a neglected and empty building with extremely low rent. When everything’s upscale, it’s hard to see where the next Tomato Head can find a foothold.
Soon, downtown may have no more vacant buildings—and unless we do something radical, no frontier to expand into. Without that fringe, downtown may lose its potential to surprise, and come to resemble a gated community.
There are still some ugly surface parking lots within the CBID that I hope someone will build something real on. And the Southside represents a huge potential.
One fact is ironic. When Knoxville was much smaller in population, downtown Knoxville was much bigger in acreage. A bird’s-eye view map of Knoxville in 1886 shows a densely developed downtown, multiple-story buildings, multiple buildings per block, with hardly any spaces in between, from the river to about Gill Street on the north. There’s also more downtown on the east side than we have now, with an extra appendage of especially heavy development on that northeast side, along East Depot, where there were foundries and brickyards and working-class residences and the old Peabody School, the first public school building ever built in Knoxville, with its distinctive cupola.
Twenty years later, it was even bigger. Now that metro Knoxville is so huge, and there’s a still-growing interest in moving back downtown, downtown is smaller than it has been since the Civil War, and we haven’t allowed it much room to grow.
From my office window, I can see the James White Parkway. Any minute now, we’ll see a car. No, seriously. Just wait. OK, there’s one. But I think he’s beginning to realize he made a wrong turn off the bridge. It’s easy to do.
The traffic James White Parkway gets doesn’t justify anywhere near all those hundreds of paved acres. I predict that after one or two generations pass away, city leaders will wonder why we paved over such a huge expanse, and propose that we rebuild the street grid, unearth McKee Street, and Temperance Street, and Pine Street, and Kennedy Street, if they’re still down there somewhere, along with First Creek itself.
In the meantime, I’m still curious about the potential for urban development east of the Old City. I’d like to think the opera company and the brewery and whatever might replace Los Molcajetes might one day be considered part of the Old City, and the rest of downtown. It’s just harder to imagine it now than it was a year ago.