With a new year and a new city government, what lies ahead for Knoxville? Mayor Madeline Rogero’s promise to make our town greener and more livable needs to be translated into policies, and there is cause for optimism. Rogero has assembled an impressive staff, and she should have little trouble working with City Council.
New members of Council all bring assets matching the challenges the city will face. Mark Campen has a deep and practical understanding of environmental matters and, along with Finbarr Saunders, has legislative experience that will allow him to hit the ground running. Saunders is as studied and fluent in local issues as any politician, excepting perhaps Rogero.
Marshall Stair’s adventures as a world traveller have given him an appreciation for how healthy cities operate, a perspective that should mesh well with Rogero’s vision of a more livable city. George Wallace knows the real estate market and how government policy can influence value and trends.
With these new members and the five sitting members of City Council, city government ought to be able to steer clear of partisan dysfunction. Instead, we’re likely to see reasonable people working cooperatively to do what the city must to sustain its growth and adapt to a changing world.
Downtown grew dramatically under Mayor Haslam, riding momentum that started under Victor Ashe, who merged the opportunity an abandoned downtown represents with the investments and incentives the convention center provided. Yes, Ashe’s convention center is underused and expensive, but it triggered funding mechanisms for redevelopment projects and allowed CBID sales tax collections to stay here instead of going to Nashville. As unlikely as it sounds, the convention center is what has kept property taxes steady during a global recession.
The incentives that fueled downtown’s resurgence are now mostly played out, however, and the challenge for Rogero will be figuring out how to extend growth beyond the downtown core as the pool of federal and state funding shrinks. Ongoing projects along the Central Avenue and Magnolia corridors will smooth this transition, but eventually the city will need some new tools in its financial toolbox.
Fortunately, Rogero already has this new tool in hand. It is energy efficiency, and her Community Development department built several low-energy homes during her time in the Haslam administration. Energy efficiency and consumer-level power generation both hold the promise of dramatically smaller utility bills, and that means more profit for businesses and savings for individuals and families.
The city can create its own programs for financing efficiency upgrades, free of dependency on federal, state, or utility dollars. Cost of living in Knoxville is already low relative to other parts of the country, and efficient buildings will ensure that remains true as energy prices climb. What we need, though, to become a truly green and livable city is better connectivity. It needs to be easier to get around without a car.
This means we need more density and robust, commercial corridors linking neighborhoods. Most of the new housing built downtown has been high-end apartments and condominiums, but we need housing for low- and middle-income workers and families too. This may be the toughest challenge facing Rogero.
Developers have more trouble getting high-density projects approved, not due to government policies, but because neighborhoods put up more resistance when they perceive an influx of students, renters, or less affluent people. Overcoming that bias will take leadership.
Piecemeal, infill development is one way to increase density, and Rogero is already talking about ways to reduce absentee ownership and reclaim abandoned properties. In an urban area, housing density supports commercial density, so perhaps people who would like to see more shops and markets in their neighborhood can be persuaded to accept nearby apartments or townhouses. Likewise, when a cool tavern or bookstore opens within walking distance, neighbors may see new housing as new customers to sustain the business.
Knoxville can be urban and affordable. Here’s to our new city leaders taking us to an interesting future!