You Kids Get Out of My Square

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Knoxville, TN 37902

The kinds and numbers of loud, disruptive events held in recent years on Market Square have recently been under review by the city. A comment was made recently by a city official that he “received 10 times as many calls urging me not to change much, if anything, because they liked it so much as it is and were afraid that we were going to take the fun from MS [Market Square].”

A thousand times as many people visit Market Square currently as live there, so it’s not too surprising to receive a larger number of favorable comments promoting disruptive entertainment events from those who don’t have to live and run a business here, and haven’t invested here, than complaints about frequent disruptions to local residents and businesses.

A simple poll like that biases decisions in favor of sheer numbers, and against aesthetics and the established economic investments and interests of those who have to pay rent and power bills and mortgages every month, not to mention the investment of the city itself. The results of these decisions are focused on a tiny area, and can be greatly magnified for either bad or good and radiate well outward into the community.

I’d like to suggest that the first question we should ask of every policy change affecting the Square should be: Where will Market Square and its surrounding neighborhood be economically and esthetically a decade from now, as a result of the choices we make today? It puts into a larger context the longer term consequences of the decisions the city makes today.

First of all, residents matter critically. I don’t know of a single desirable, economically valuable and stable downtown park or public square that isn’t resident-friendly to a wide range of ages. It’s never going to be attractive to the widest possible range of socioeconomic groups, of course, because if done properly those are the most valuable properties in a city.

However, the wealthier residents they attract also contribute a great deal more money to a city’s many activities and charities than would otherwise be the case. They boost property values and city tax receipts for a considerable distance around them, and enable the city to do more for everyone, rich and poor. This choice simply produces a different kind of visitor, not lower numbers of visitors or lower spending.

That so many want to visit downtown for huge events is a wonderful problem to have, but those who have invested in homes here, in renovating buildings, and who put their lives into building businesses have a far greater economic interest in the success of the Square than do visitors. The kinds of events hosted on Market Square matter greatly.

Because of the beltway strangling the downtown, Knoxville has few other similarly attractive places downtown that people who want to live here in an urban setting can go to. Thus it requires a more considered balancing act by the city than most downtown parks and squares in larger cities that might have many such locations and are not isolated by a beltway.

Secondly, esthetic choices make a fundamental, existential difference in the lives of far more people than just residents and local businesses. Given the two extremes of Beale Street in Memphis and Park Avenue in New York, for example, I know of no one who would prefer to live on Beale Street, or exchange the economy of Beale Street for that of Fifth Avenue.

I’m using extreme examples to make a point, of course, because the consequences of present decisions are easier to see against extremes. The choice is obvious in these examples; it’s not so obvious when a newly successful downtown location is somewhere in the middle of the process, when it’s far less clear in which direction choices regarding future use and development are pushing us.

Both attract a lot of visitors, but the esthetic choices made initially many years ago of what kinds of visitors to attract makes all the difference today in which place one would want to live. I’ve skated down Beale Street with friends many times on Sunday or Monday morning, and all we smell is urine and vomit. It’s a great place to go hear music and eat barbecue, but I know of no one who would want to live there, or even nearby.

No one moves to an urban neighborhood expecting the quiet of the country, of course. Nevertheless, residents have an expectation that on most evenings and days they can enjoy the city in relative quiet, visit or eat outdoors with friends, or just read in the park. Too many loud events reduce the demand for properties downtown to just those willing to tolerate frequent loud events. They may be just once a year for those who want to hold them, but they are sometimes every day or two or three times a week for others.

The kinds of events we chose to host on Market Square determine the kinds of people who visit, as well as the kinds of people who live here and the businesses that succeed here. When most retail business on the Square that used to stay open late for some events begin closing their doors early, and when business that try staying open later for certain events decide not to do it again, it should be a warning sign that recent decisions may be pushing Market Square in the direction of T-shirt and souvenir shops instead of mid- or upper-level retail businesses, restaurants, and residences.

Knoxville is nowhere near having to worry about becoming either another Beale Street—or another Park Avenue for that matter—but it’s something we need to be aware of. If the level of noise and disruption—especially in a prolonged period of economic weakness—drive away or fail to attract enough of those who would shop at places like Bliss or ReRuns, Vagabondia or Ten Thousand Villages, Mast General or the French Market, they are not likely to be replaced with retail that will increase the aesthetics of Knoxville’s urban experience, or enhance its economy, property values, or tax receipts.

Robert Loest, Knoxville

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