Reconsidering downtown’s gateway to the north
by Matt Edens
It was tough to tell from either the article below it or the slim two-page document that prompted it, but the headline of last Wednesday’s News-Sentinel —“City won’t shelve initiatives for homeless”— pretty much missed the point. The initiatives, ideas and recommendations produced by the Broadway/Fifth Avenue Task Force aren’t so much “for” the homeless as they are for the numerous businesses, homeowners and residents who happen to share the immediate neighborhood.
True, it was growing concern by those neighbors over Volunteer Ministry Center’s plan to rehab the 5th Avenue Motel as long-term supportive housing and the overall growth of what some have come to call Knoxville’s “Mission District” that prompted the formation of the task force in the first place, but what could have easily become an unproductive bitch session has instead produced something else—a subtle, but significant shift in how the city thinks about a part of town that I’ve always considered critical to the continuing success of downtown redevelopment.
I know, I know, “downtown” doesn’t begin until several blocks south, on the other side of I-40. But before that aging overpass blew through, downtown wasn’t so clearly or narrowly defined. The intersection of Broadway and Central was as densely developed as much of downtown, surrounded by two- and occasionally three-story commercial buildings more or less comparable to Market Square—as was Emory Place, which once contained its own market house.
The entire area north of I-40 was a transition zone and transportation junction between downtown and the neighborhoods to the north and east. Gay Street ended there, a block from where Central, Broadway, Magnolia and Fifth all converged, and Emory place was also the northern terminus of Knoxville’s original trolley line. The 400 block of Gay Street, home to department stores and movie houses, may have been downtown’s heart, but Emory Place may well have been turn-of-the-century Knoxville’s hub, collecting people and traffic from the city’s thickly settled northern and eastern arcs and funneling both down Gay Street and into downtown.
A century later a movie theater will soon grace Gay Street once again, and the Mast General Store probably carries as great a variety of goods than a turn-of-the-century department store ever did. Development booms downtown, demand outstripping supply to the point that many would-be urbanites are finding themselves priced out. Meanwhile, to the north, neighborhoods such as 4th and Gill and Old North Knoxville are filled with middle and upper-middle class homeowners, much as they were 100 years ago. Prices haven’t risen quite to downtown levels, but the days of sweat equity and urban pioneers have largely moved on to neighborhoods further north and east.
What’s missing is that critical connection between downtown and the neighborhoods to the north. The bones, for the most part, are still there—the buildings, the streets, and there’s no need to lay track for downtown’s current rubber-tired trolleys. What’s been missing wasn’t so much physical as psychological—an appreciation for what the area between downtown and 4th and Gill could mean for both.
But that’s beginning to change. The bohemians, naturally, came first: businesses like the Time Warp Tea Room, The rejuvenated Corner Lounge and Ironwood Studios. A downtown developer has recently discovered the neighborhood as well, buying a building on Central for conversion into condos, and the city is starting to sniff out the possibilities too. MPC has produced a planning study focused on Central and Broadway, and a redevelopment district has been proposed to City Council. There’s even some interest in pursuing the new form zoning pioneered by the waterfront planning process. So, while many of the initiatives proposed by the Fifth and Broadway Task Force deal with the homeless—cracking down on panhandling, cleaning up the camps and discouraging the “ministries” that hand out food without offering treatment—the real aim is to encourage economic development by hooking North Knoxville’s historic neighborhoods back to downtown.