What do a commercial print shop, an upscale beer market, an olive oil bar, and a popular diner all have in common? For one thing, they are all either currently doing business or anticipated to open in the coming months along Union Avenue, just around the corner from Market Square. It’s taken a bit, but Union is slowly emerging as the latest retail corridor downtown. Little by little, the stretch from the recently refurbished Oliver Hotel at Market Street to the already occupied storefronts of the renovated Daylight Building at Locust Street are coming to life with new commercial activity. The relatively quiet two-block stretch is also home to a few hundred center-city residents occupying the Pembroke, the Residences at Market Square, and the aforementioned Daylight.
Where Union now terminates at Locust Street, Kendrick Place, one of downtown’s oldest and most distinctive residential developments, has housed the tawdry and the tony for nearly a century. Just next door and down the hill from there on Locust is the venerable Chesapeake’s restaurant, a downtown stalwart for 30 years, formerly isolated from most of downtown’s foot traffic, but now reconnected by the resurrected street. Union is proof that there’s still plenty of opportunity to re-establish pedestrian connections throughout a downtown that has been returning to life for the last decade. Over that period, numerous passageways and pockets that had lain dormant or uninhabited have sprung to life. And there are still others that offer the opportunity to build on that success.
Meanwhile, just across from Chesapeake’s, near one of those remaining stagnant pockets, changes of a different nature have been taking place. Kimberly-Clark Corporation has been evaluating a move, claiming that downtown is no longer suitable for its operations, and last month announced the pending sale of its 12-story office building at Locust and Summit Hill Drive. Parking, downtown’s perpetual purported problem, was rumored to be among the reasons for their tentative move. The News Sentinel reported last November that the company, which had been leasing parking from TVA, found that the 457 parking spaces in their agreement were not suitable for the 330 employees who worked there. (You do the math.) Mike Edwards, Knoxville Chamber president and CEO, was quoted in the piece as saying, “I think they’ve decided they want a sole-tenant building, suburban, with surface parking provided.” Nevertheless, the city sprang into action and just last week signed a memorandum of understanding with TVA to explore developing yet another parking garage one block off of Union Avenue adjacent Kimberly-Clark’s building.
As I’ve said before, I don’t mind parking garages per se. They turn drivers into pedestrians, and that’s generally good for downtown. But they can also be ugly, monolithic structures that, when flanking a city block, create a stark concrete canyon with little or nothing to offer the people emerging from them. Add to that that there seems to be precious little in the way of hard evidence that downtown actually needs another parking garage, and the project becomes a little questionable (it would only be available nights and weekends to the public). When your parking problem is that companies want suburban offices with surface parking, I’m not sure building another garage downtown helps.
But perhaps worst of all is that despite the city’s own Downtown Design Guidelines, which state that any new parking garages should provide commercial space at street-level and should not have blank walls, are being haphazardly ignored in the plans for the new structure. With the Union Avenue corridor returning to life just one block over, Christi Branscom, the city’s Public Works Director, was quoted last week as saying of the site for the proposed garage, “There’s very limited commercial space around there.” So does limiting it further by absorbing another block with a garage that fails to provide for additional commercial space really make sense?
As Union is finally returning as a lively, pedestrian-friendly street with everything from an anticipated new Urban Outfitters to the locally owned Just Ripe grocery, carrying that success around the corner toward Chesapeake’s could create a retail area encompassing several blocks to the west of Market Square. Or we could install a roadblock to that sort of growth and plunk down a blank concrete box that will further limit the area’s retail potential for the foreseeable future.
By the way, remember those shops and that diner along Union that I mentioned earlier? They all have another thing in common: Each of them occupies part of a parking garage project. The new Union Avenue Shops, developed alongside the Market Square garage, as well as Pete’s Cafe on the ground floor of the Locust Street garage, reflect the recommendations found in the city’s design guidelines that call for those exact types of spaces. Maybe somebody ought to give those recommendations a second look before it’s too late.