In what could be an unprecedented occurrence in the annals of Knoxville road building, orange barrels may soon appear along North Central Street as part of a project to make the road narrower, not wider. Dubbed a “road diet” in planning circles, the idea is to re-stripe the street from four lanes to two. Reducing the number of lanes will make the area more pedestrian-friendly by slowing down traffic and introducing a screen of parked cars between the sidewalks and the travel lanes. (The street parking also provides additional parking for area merchants.)
Central certainly doesn’t need the traffic capacity four-lanes provides. The highest traffic count south of Sharp’s Ridge, according to TPO data, is less than 10,000 cars a day. That count, by the way, is at Churchwell, shortly after the road reduces down from four lanes to two lanes with a center turn lane. In that light, placing Central on a “diet” comes down to simple common sense.
The similar “road diet” suggested for the stagnant Cumberland Avenue Strip is tougher to swallow. Few Knoxvillians have ever been stuck in traffic on N. Central, if they’ve traveled it at all. But a good many have been stuck on the Strip, cursing the idiot up ahead who is trying to turn left into Taco Bell. Cumberland, where it skirts campus, carries more than twice the load of Central, some 20,000 cars a day. There’s no way, according to conventional wisdom, that reducing Cumberland down to two lanes could work.
Of course, until it happened, everyone expected shutting I-40 down through downtown would be a catastrophe of epic proportions. Experience proved different, as the through-traffic clogging up Interstate 40 found alternate routes. I expect much the same along Cumberland.
Instead of concentrating on what the “road diet” could cost in terms of congestion, consider the opportunities. Both streets, indeed all the old commercial corridors into downtown, have a certain amount in common. Once largely residential, as evidenced by the occasional holdout house still standing (or, in some cases, growing out of the back of a later commercial structure), they converted to commercial as streetcar-encouraged residential development radiated out from downtown, filling in the spaces between the old turnpikes that connected Knoxville to the surrounding countryside. Cars, too, became a common sight by the ’20s, along with signs advertising “parking to the rear.”
The streetcars disappeared after World War II and the number of cars increased. As a result, these old corridors contain some of Knoxville’s earliest examples of architecture specifically geared towards the automobile. There are old motels and drive-ins like the famed Pizza Palace or the Freeze-O. There’s also a derelict Blue Circle drive-in on Central as well as the remnants of some of Knoxville’s early car dealerships.
Ultimately, however, it was the automobile that killed these strips as surely as it helped make them. Much like downtown, the older commercial strips couldn’t compete with the newer shopping centers out in the suburbs proper, with their plentiful parking and pristine new interiors. Some did try, however, even if the results weren’t what they expected. Is it any coincidence that the Cumberland Avenue Strip’s lowest ebb has coincided with the increase in chains and the demolition of surrounding homes and apartments for surface parking? Students, these days, would rather go downtown.
Ironically, that’s precisely the idea behind the Strip’s oldest, original commercial buildings. The old storefronts along the north side of Cumberland, from 17th down to about 20th are textbook examples of what architectural historians call a “taxpayer strip.” Conceived as interim structures, they were relatively cheap, typically one-story buildings, designed to generate enough revenue to offset the land’s taxes until anticipated later demand would allow a larger, denser development to proceed. In other words, although 80 years ahead of their time, they were a form of land banking in anticipation of downtown’s growth.