Westward Ho!

Town center developments without the mess of downtown

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Commentary

by Matt Edens

More than a quarter century into its official existence, the town of Farragut is toying with the idea of developing a true mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented â“downtown.â”

The news isn't actually all that surprising. â“Town centerâ” type developments are all the rage across the country. Some are relatively stand-alone like the one currently under construction off Northshore Drive. Others are infill projects aimed at anchoring an otherwise largely built-out bedroom community. (Some of the bigger ones boast residential, retail and office numbers that would even make Knoxville's downtown boosters envious.) It was only a matter of time before the concept filtered down to Farragut, much as â“power centersâ” like Turkey Creek and even downtown Knoxville's condo boom arrived long after the development model peaked in other places.

Overall, I think the proposal is a good idea. But the downtown snob in me can't help but make a few snarky comments. First off, I wish I could have been the proverbial fly on the wall when the particular brand of Internet troll who likes to poo-poo any downtown redevelopment project as a ridiculous waste while simultaneously singing the praises of Farragut's free-parking, free-wheeling suburban lifestyle opened his or her morning paper and discovered those dastardly New Urbanists were inside the gates. What's next, the antichrist opening a mega-church across Kingston Pike from First Baptist Concord?

Second, I suspect some folks figure Farragut already has a â“downtownâ” of sorts. It's called Turkey Creek. The sprawling shopping complex, of course, is the elephant in the middle of the room regarding Farragut's sudden flirtation with urban density. The town, as the trolls love to point out, doesn't charge property taxes. Instead, it relies on sales tax receipts for revenue. That meant, upon the opening of Turkey Creek, Farragut found itself in a similar situation to the city of Knoxville circa 1950. Its shopping centers were older, smaller and had trouble luring patrons from the shiny new stores along Parkside Drive. Worse, most of the shopping mecca is outside the town limits, so all that sales tax revenue was lost. Tax receipts flat-lined as merchants struggled and some storefronts emptied out.     

Luckily, Farragut has a luxury that Knoxville's center city lacked: land. Right in the center of town lie several large, vacant tracts that have never been developed. The question is, what to build? Compared to Turkey Creek, any conventional strip center would seem nickel and dime (as would its tax receipts). Housing or offices won't help much without a property tax, since there's nothing to keep workers and residents from climbing in their cars and hitting Turkey Creek for their retail needs. What Farragut needs is something unique, something on the cutting edge of commercial development and a niche Turkey Creek can't fill. Maybe even something convenient enough that people will forgo fighting traffic in favor of shopping/dining/diverting themselves closer to home.

Farragut may be embracing urbanism out of fiscal necessity, but I hope it flies. Success, after all, could have far-reaching significance beyond Farragut's boundaries, tempting developers in suburban communities around the region to consider more urban densities and mixed use. The most likely alternative, after all, is following the old model and merely mimicking West Knoxville's massive sprawl (and don't forget the possibility of eventually redeveloping some of West Knoxville's worn out big-boxes and their massive parking lots into something more urban).

To some, whatever gets built in Farragut will seem â“fakeâ” compared to, say, Market Square, particularly if complimented by architectural kitsch designed to mimic an â“authenticâ” downtown. I'm not so sure that I care. So long as the development isn't its own self-contained island, a pseudo-urban â“gated communityâ” (a note to the planners/developers: pedestrian and street connections to the surrounding subdivisions and shopping centers are crucial), I'm willing to overlook the odd faux factory, smokestack and clock tower or two. (Knoxville's actual downtown, after all, contains buildings that mimic models from the Middle Ages, Italian Renaissance and Georgian England, and even Gay Street's turn-of-the-century commercial structures are often tricked out with replicas of Greco-Roman pilasters, capitals and friezes.)

If anything, when someone from Farragut says â“I never go downtown,â” I'm looking forward to asking â“which one?â”

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