City Putty

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Feature Story

A hands-on approach to shaping Knoxvilleâ’s future by Leslie Wylie

To the right, a wall covered with butcher paper is beginning to resemble a high-school yearbook, with dozens of suggestions for the South Waterfront's future scribbled out like confetti across its expanses. To the left, there's a green, fuzzy model of South Knoxville as it might appear if you were flying a plane above it, replete with rippling mountains and bottomless quarries and toy bridges linking the river's less developed banks to downtown's latticework grid. And along the walls, long tables are draped with paper maps upon which participants are permitted, even encouraged, to sketch out their ideas. A quick glace reveals a network of greenways, a centrally located soccer field and a full-service marina.

There are about 200 people in attendance on this bleary winter evening in 2004, among them Mayor Bill Haslam, several City Council members, a handful of developers, a consulting firm, and scores of Knoxvillians, many of whom are residents and stakeholders of the area in question. As the public circulates throughout the room, there's excitement in their voices, but it's matched by a sense of skepticismâ"this isn't the first time the city has barged in on their lives with a plan to revitalize the South Waterfront, and it's never panned out before. Why should this time be any different? And is anyone really listening?

In Knoxville, the concept of allowing the general public to have a say-so in decisions that will shape the city's future is still a relatively novel one. Other Tennessee cities are years ahead of us in that respect, most notably Chattanooga, whose Vision 2000 community-based strategic planning effort, launched in 1984, has since stimulated over a billion dollars in Chattanooga development projects.

Lynne Fugate credits Chattanooga's success as one catalyst for the formation of Nine Counties. One Vision., the citizen-driven visioning project of which she was executive director. â“In the spring of 1999, various people started talking about how other communities in Tennessee were perceived as being more prosperous, had more investment going on, had their citizens more engaged. Chattanooga, especially, seemed to be firing on all cylinders. What were they doing differently?â”

For starters, Chattanooga had defined, through ongoing community discourse, a vision of what it wanted to be, whereas in Knoxville, the city's future was largely being determined by an elite handful of city officials and developers. The old way of decision-making, Fugate says, was something along the lines of, â“Here's what we've decided to doâ"hope you like it,â” she explains. â“What we thought of as public input was a public hearing, which is not really the same as a public conversation.â”  

Some of the decisions being handed down from above during that period may have been, in hindsight, too grandiose for what the city needed. There was, for instance, Renaissance Knoxville, the Worsham Watkins-led downtown master plan that, among other things, involved fitting â“an unobtrusive glass domeâ” over Market Square. And who can forget Universe Knoxville, also courtesy of Worsham Watkins, which hinged on the construction of a $116 million planetarium downtown.

Despite their differences, the abortive projects all shared one common fatal flaw. Each was presented as a sealed-and-signed package, the outcome of a top-down decision-making process. And the public wasn't buying it.

Nine Counties. One Vision. instigated a region-wide push to debunk that strategy. Crafted by Vision 2000 progenitor and community-visioning guru Gianni Longo, it aimed to shift the emphasis from â“themâ” to â“us,â” from a mentality of vulnerability to one of empowerment. Over the course of its five-year run, which wrapped up in December 2004, about 6,000 people participated in the program, generating thousands of ideas, hundreds of strategies, 27 individual task forces focusing on specific areas, and dozens of goals.

â“We like to think that Nine Counties. One Vision. signaled a change in public expectations about public process and what public process should be,â” Fugate says.

At first, she says, participants were skeptical because the approach was so different from anything they'd been involved with before. Some wondered if the group was trying to supercede the power of local government, while others questioned its motives. â“But our agenda was, let's talk about what we want to be like as a community,â” Fugate says. â“With that I think people became more engaged. And when people are more engaged, they participate more in making their community better.â”

While the results of Nine Counties. One Vision. may not be as tangible as those of Chattanooga's Vision 2000 project, Fugate maintains that its impact had more to do with an ideological shift than any â“bricks and mortarâ” results.

As Laurens Tullock, who represented Knox County on the Nine Counties. One Vision. board of directors, puts it, â“If there are two lasting legacies that came out of it, they're â‘It's about the region, stupid,' and â‘It's about the process, stupid.'â” He notes that, considering the fast-changing ways in which information spreads among and between communities, the paradigm shift it signified was bound to happen.

â“It used to be that a few benevolent folks had access to all the information and, using that information, would try to make decisions for the community. And the community tended to trust those decisions and go along with them,â” he explains. â“But in the digital age, everyone has access to that information. With literally the touch of a button, anyone with an interest in a particular issue can become an expert on that issue, even more of an expert than their public officials.â”

The online listserve k2k comes immediately to mind, as it was operating in high gear by the time politicos and concerned citizens were engaged in hot debate over proposals like Renaissance and Universe Knoxville in the late '90s. It proved a convenient forum for educating oneself about the proposals, engaging in community discussion about them, and mobilizing opposition to them, all with an unprecedented level of efficiency.

In the end, the proposals never took flight. Some attributed their failure to the strength of public resistance k2k facilitated, though the city was careful to specify that it was the logistical and financial difficulties of converting the proposals into reality that hindered their success. Either way it was clear that public process had entered into a newfound awareness of its own strength, and that this wouldn't be the last time it flexed its muscles. It was now up to the city to reevaluate its path toward the future.

â“It may seem more difficult, but you're better off if you ask questions on the front end,â” Tullock says. â“People like their opinions being asked, and they will ultimately see a part of themselves in the solution.â”

In the wake of the projects' dissolution, the city hired consulting firm Crandall Arambula to compile, through a series of public input sessions, a more down-to-earth assessment of what downtown needed to pull itself out of the slump into which it'd been steadily sinking. Some of the study's ideas didn't make it into the light of dayâ"for instance, the outdoor living room proposed for the corner of Gay and Locustâ"but others, especially its emphasis on residential development, are blossoming. It's also worth nothing that Crandall Arambula was the first party to mention the importance of the South Waterfront.

Meanwhile in Market Square, Chattanooga developers Kinsey Probasco Hays stepped in with a significantly more modest, organic approach to redevelopment. Much of it involved going back to basics; there's nothing sexy about digging up concrete to replace ancient electrical lines and plumbing, but it was a fundamental step toward bringing the square back to life. And, for the first time, the process was out in the open.

Public process was a concept that the new mayor, Bill Haslam, who replaced retiring four-term Mayor Victor Ashe in 2003, seemed to understand. The same could be said for Bill Lyons, senior director of policy development for the city of Knoxville and former political science professor, who was appointed to lead the Market Square redevelopment proceedings forward. Considering the public's shaken faith at that time, it couldn't have been an easy task.

â“We realized that the local political culture had changed and that we needed a whole different approach, not only to get through the political process, but that public participation and support were essential to get the best possible product,â” Lyons says.

This time, though, the approach included countless meetings between developers, public officials, citizens and stakeholders. And though he doesn't mention it, Lyons' commitment to community discourse didn't stop there; anyone who was plugged into k2k during that period will recall Lyons' awareness of the fact that, not only had the tone of dialogue shifted, the medium through which the dialogue was being expressed had shifted as well. Lyons frequently responded to concerned citizens' posts online, effectively engaging them on their own terms.

Lyons acknowledges that flexibility is key. â“There is no â‘one size fits all' model of public participation in development projects,â” he says. â“It very much depends on the nature and context of the public decision to be made. At the very least it involves transparency. Depending on the context, it also involves, to varying degrees, input from the stakeholders immediately affected by the project as well as from the general public.â”

Of course, he goes on, some projects allow for more public input than others. If the project is more technical and legally constrained in nature, such as the policy of providing TIF financing for specific projects, a public workshop with City Council and explanations in the media and elsewhere might be more suitable than a completely open-air process. The redesign of Krutch Park, on the other hand, was handled via an open design workshop that included direct interaction between developers and the public.

On a tangential note, Krutch Park offers a good example of one of public process's downsides: the potential emergence of a groupthink or bandwagon mentality that may or may not serve the best interests of the project at hand. Even today, you'll people grumbling about how â“the city paved Krutch Park overâ” when it took out the park's wrought iron fences and thinned out its vegetation in an effort to give the park a less secluded, safer feel. But in fact, it was the public's idea to do all of the above, as decided through a series of public input sessions on the park's future. If there was opposition to those changes, it either wasn't represented at the meetings or was swayed otherwise.

Regardless of the process's specifics, there's always an element of psychology involved. From workshops aimed at sketching out downtown design guidelines to public meetings addressing the possibility of a downtown liquor store, the most effective facilitators make an effort to understand who â“theirâ” concerned public is and how best to engage it.

Jeff Welch, director of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, spearheaded the effort to gather input from the public and stakeholders about what they foresaw in the future of Cumberland Avenue. On the bright side, he says, there was little opposition to the idea of revitalizing the unsightly, cluttered stretch of roadway that serves as a central artery westward out of downtown and a gateway to the University of Tennessee. Making things a little more complicated was the variety of interests the avenue serves, between its close proximity to a residential area (Fort Sanders), a university campus and two hospitals. Success would be making everyone's ideas for the Strip's future fit into a single, cohesive vision.

â“Maps and magic markers,â” Welch says, referring to one strategy used to engage the public during the charrette process. â“Charretteâ” is, for many Knoxvillians, a term with French origins that's only recently wedged into way into our urban-planning vocabulary, meaning a relatively brief, intense period of design activity that reflects the interests and concerns of a diverse group of people.

â“We had this studio where you could engage, touch and feel exactly what the consultants are touching and feeling,â” Welch says. â“You could grab a pen and paper and draw your ideas or write notes, and your you're at a peer level with the consultants, and they're at the same level as you are, instead of them standing up and giving a power-point presentation. It's very inviting.â”

Other recent public processes have played by an even less orthodox set of rules in an effort to engage the psyches of their participants. â“Human beings are very tricky,â” says City Councilman Chris Woodhull. â“They're not like Coke machines, where you just have to replace the product inside. They are thoughtful, they have memory, they have wounds, they have opinions, they have very unique personalities that are a blend of all the things I mentioned.â”

And Woodhull saw plenty of clashing personalities while sitting on the Broadway-Fifth Task Force. Formed in the summer of 2006, the committee's mission was to address concerns raised by Volunteer Ministry Center's planned renovation of the former Fifth Avenue Hotel into apartments for the homeless. Several residents of nearby neighborhoods, namely Fourth and Gill and Old North Knoxville, as well as area business owners, were strongly opposed to the renovation on the grounds that VMC was effectively creating a â“homeless districtâ” in their backyards.

From the get-go, Woodhull says, the battle lines were clearly drawn. â“Most of the people who came to the first meeting, the second meeting, they couldn't stand each other,â” he says. â“They were very upset.â”

Realizing that a traditionally structured public-input process wasn't going to workâ"the parties here were clearly beyond the point of duking it out with sticky notes and magic markersâ"the Task Force decided to change its game and humanize the process in a way that caused participants to see one another as human beings rather than rivals. Toward that end, the Task Force used exercises that allowed the participants' honest thoughts and feelings to come out, even if it meant temporarily throwing politeness and political correctness aside.

â“You want a process that will make available the wisdom that is already there,â” Woodhull says. â“With public process, you're basically coming to the table believing that people can solve their own problems with collaborationâ Essentially the challenge of public participation is combining local knowledge with expertise.â”

The goal was to create a shared vision that both the homeless providers and the neighborhood representatives could live with. â“The shared vision redirects the human personality, the mind, to a strength, to what is strong,â” Woodhull says. â“If you can redirect the mind to that strength, the problems will be overwhelmed by it.â”

Over the course of the summer, such a vision eventually emerged. Built around safe neighborhoods, viable businesses and collaborative homeless care, it empowered both parties without compromising either one's goals.

City Councilman Joe Hultquist faced a similarly difficult challenge when he signed on as co-chair, alongside Woodhull, of the James White Parkway/Chapman Highway Corridor Study Task Force. In 2004, the task force was charged with recommending whether or not to go through with a James White Parkway extension, a controversial and complicated issue whose roots can be traced all the way back to the 1970s. Thankfully, with a new mayor, new governor and new TDOT in the wings, the exploration didn't self-destruct as it had in the past.

â“It was a successful model,â” Hultquist says. â“The approach used didn't ignore the conflict or different positions but rather agreed to work together to try to find common ground.â”

It was an experience Hultquist likely drew from when he joined the South Waterfront Oversight Committee in 2005. Once again, he found himself in a situation where it would be necessary to overcome the handicap of a public still shaken from the missteps of previous administrations.

â“There's a bone-yard of failed ideas, and a lot of that had to do withâ"whether it's a planetarium or whateverâ"it's something just a few people cooked up and tried to force on everyone else,â” Hultquist says. â“Those failed, and justifiably so.â”  

Earlier schemes to develop the South Waterfront hadn't been spared a similar fate. The early '90s saw an effort to designate the area west of Chapman highway and along Scottish Pike a development district, but it failed because the process used to implement it was flawed, Hultquist says. â“It was, for the most part, a closed-door operation,â” he explains.

As a result, the community received most of its information about the project by way of rumors, which included speculation that the city was planning on taking away residents' property via eminent domain. â“Residents were on the outside, and they felt very threatened by it,â” Hultquist recalls. â“So it imploded. It was a complete failure.â”

South Knoxville resident and Steering Committee member Rachel Craig remembers the incident well. â“It was very heavy-handed, very top-downâ"it was the typical Victor Ashe approach to doing things,â” she says. â“People got very upset and managed to kill it, but it created a lot of suspicion and mistrust in the community that we're still trying to overcome. So when [the Haslam administration] came in, they had to be very, very careful about how they went about building public consensus.â”

When Dave Hill, senior director of the South Waterfront development, began soliciting community input following a new feasibility study conducted in late 2004, he sensed the community's hesitancy immediately. â“I went to neighborhood meetings to talk about the feasibility study, and it became very clear that there was an extremely high level of distrust,â” he says. â“Some people there were making comments, basically asking if we were going to go through this whole thing again. From their standpoint, they'd been left out of the first process.â”

The most recent South Waterfront planning process, on the other hand, was transparent from the onset. â“They helped build consensus by providing accurate and current information for people,â” Craig says, â“which was critical. Because in the absence of good information, people will manufacture their own.â”

A series of three workshops provided the framework for public involvement, with countless additional meetings within the neighborhood, all of which drew unprecedented participation from the community. There was even a drop-in center where citizens could stop by and voice their concerns, or catch up on the latest developments.

As a result, people felt they were being listened to, and the synthesis of their ideas into the final draft plan stood as proof that their concerns weren't just going in one ear and out the other.

â“Some people would look at the plan and say, â‘I can't believe they kept that in there,' and that's a satisfying thing,â” Hill says. â“We're not going to please everybody, but we think we achieved a fairly high rate of consensus.â”

Even Martha Olson, who sat on the Oversight Committee as a representative of the Southside Riverfront Residents & Business Association and is perhaps the most vocal critic of the development, is quick to praise the time, money and effort that's been put into the public input processâ"even if her complimentary words are quickly followed by a rash of skepticism as she outlines her concerns about building sizes, market demand and favoritism toward developers. â“They're talking a good talk now, but then again they've talked a good talk in the past,â” she says. â“Some of it's just too soon to tell.â” And she brings up a good point: You don't have to look far back in the pages of local history to know that a plan is worth nothing if it's not efficiently and fairly implemented.

Another South Knoxville citizen, Bess Newton, also admits to having been a little disappointed with certain aspects of the public participation process, namely in the area of communication and outreach into the affected neighborhoodsâ"â“When we finally did receiving a mailing, there was very little time to respond to changes before decisions were madeâ”â"and the difficulty of grasping the language used to talk about zoning.

But, like Olson, she reserves a few kind words for the process itself. â“The Oversight Committee seemed to truly have the best interests of both the city of Knoxville and the community in mind, and they took their commitment very seriously,â” she says. â“They seemed to understand the art of compromise between the citizens, planners and designers.â”

All things considered, it's hard not to commend the process, especially considering the hurdles it was up against. â“It's just night and day even from what it was five, 10 years ago,â” Oversight Committee member Craig says. â“I think the players were very sincere about it. I think people would've drifted away if they thought they were just going through the motions. But people really felt like they were being listened to.â”

Councilman Hultquist agrees. â“It really has become the model for where the city of Knoxville is headed, how we handle major initiatives,â” he says. â“Because you have so much good input, you have a very clear idea of what the issues are and what you're trying to accomplish. As a result, there's an ownership of not only the process but the outcome as wellâ. There's a sense that this is something we own, we put together. It's moving the conversation from â‘they' to â‘we.'â”

Two public workshops, 18 months, and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, more than 600 Knoxvillians gathered for the presentation of the South Waterfront master plan, and they greeted it with a standing ovation. On Feb. 27 of this year, City Council unanimously adopted the Knoxville South Waterfront Form-based Development Code, which, because it was vetted so thoroughly on the front end, passed with remarkable ease. And just last week the city approved a contract for the next phase of work.

Of course, we're still much closer to the starting line than we are to the finish of the South Waterfront project, whose completion is slated to consume a full two decades.

But, says Craig, one thing is clear. â“This isn't going to be a plan that sits on the shelf,â” she says. â“This is stuff that's actually going to happen.â”

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