Going Somewhere, USA, II
Music City lessons for Knoxville
by Heather Joyner Spica
More than 100 architectural drawings currently on view at UT’s Ewing Gallery are the result of an ambitious effort to shape our state capital’s future. “The Plan of Nashville: Avenues to a Great City,” an exhibition produced by the Nashville Civic Design Center, reflects a complex process begun five years ago, in which citizens joined forces with architects, politicians, and preservationists to explore development possibilities.
As former design director for the Nashville Civic Design Center (hereafter referred to as the “N.C.D.C.”), UT Associate Professor of Architecture Mark Schimmenti knows as much as anyone about “The Plan of Nashville.” And now that he’s back in Knoxville after a three-and-a-half-year absence, ending last fall, his knowledge could prove invaluable to a planning process here.
Born in California, Schimmenti calls Lake City, Fla. his “hometown.” At 53, he is a tall, striking-looking man with impressive energy and extensive urban design experience. Before being recruited in 1995 to teach at UT, Schimmenti lived in Panama, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Puerto Rico, as well as in cities including New York, Miami, and Charlottesville, Va. It’s no wonder, then, that he’s full of ideas concerning what makes different places exceptionally livable.
Regarding the breadth of the N.C.D.C.’s proposed goals mentioned in Part I of this article, it’s amazing to consider how much has been accomplished by an organization that began as a community forum and has existed as an independent entity only since 2001. Schimmenti’s contributions to “The Plan of Nashville” actually started in the mid-’90s when forum members requested that UT’s School of Architecture send a faculty member to offer an urban design class. Says Schimmenti, “I was on leave from my teaching duties...I acted as a sort of ‘extension agent.’” As such, he later led a workshop and produced—alongside others from throughout the country—”The Plan for SoBro” (the term for “south of Nashville’s Broadway”).
Christine Kreyling writes in the book titled The Plan of Nashville, “One of the most significant aspects of this document [published in the Nashville Scene] was that the citizens of Nashville—rather than a government department or a small group of property or business owners—had instigated a plan for their city. In consequence of these initiatives, urban design activists became a political force in the city.”
Given an understanding of the above sequence of events—not to mention Mayor Haslam’s interest in downtown revitalization—Knoxville might choose to develop a plan comparable to the one adopted by Nashville. And it could well be expedited, thanks to previous efforts. “All of these things define themselves in the public process,” asserts Schimmenti. “In Knoxville we have so much to grow from...more than Nashville, in some ways. As for community participation, Schimmenti acknowledges it was his favorite aspect of “The Plan of Nashville.” “The 800 or so people who gave up their Saturday mornings to help guide the future of their city were amazing,” he says.
“None of that bickering and NIMBYism that can happen when groups contemplate growth and development.”
When asked what Knoxville’s advantages are when it comes to planning, Schimmenti says, “The downtown and the first ring neighborhoods are better defined, with the exception of East Knoxville, and they mostly suffer from severed linkages. We have a recent downtown Master Plan and will be getting one for South Knoxville. The ‘Nine Counties. One Vision’ process brought many issues out in the open, so we would not be starting from zero.” He also suggests that moving beyond those initial efforts requires coming up with “a coherent vision” drawn from meetings including both political leaders and the public, saying, “An oversight committee would need to be in place,” Schimmenti continues. “At that time we could establish a methodology.” All in all, Schimmenti would like to see Knoxville become “a city of neighborhoods...where the downtown is also a neighborhood.”
Wandering through the Ewing Gallery makes the prospect of seeing drawings for projects here (the proposed South Knoxville Waterfront, for instance) tremendously exciting. Renderings would follow many, many hours of discussion and strategizing, of course, but it’s fun to imagine how they’d look. Just think, some could illustrate a solid plan for reestablishing the linkages Schimmenti mentions. Regarding “The Plan of Nashville,” he says, “We had very strong relationships with TDOT.… I think we could extend that good will to Knoxville with a carefully planned agenda.”
Returning to the notion of a coherent vision, one could say that urban design is to architecture what film is to still photography. Film, being made up of singular shots combined, produces an evolving “whole”; individual frames do not tell the entire story. Similarly, a fragmented city cannot be saved by specific buildings (say, a convention center), no matter how promising their use or beautiful their construction. At the same time, saving buildings capable of serving a purpose while telling part of our city’s story is vital to creating a context into which the new can fit. Schimmenti and other talented professionals living in Knoxville can, with input from the community-at-large, stir up vision to rival Nashville’s and devise a plan that will realize our city’s greatest potential.
What: The Plan of Nashville: Avenues to a Great City