In the Year 2013: Some Notes About the Coming Months

Finally, we’ve arrived in a gracefully nameable era. For 13 years now, those of us who are accustomed to making sense of our recent past by sorting it into decades with distinct personalities, like the ’20s or the ’50s, haven’t been quite sure what to do with this 21st century. Maybe, given a name, these teens will make some coherent sense.

Not that Knoxville ever will. To me, the most disappointing thing about my hometown is that the things people get most excited about are mostly things other cities already have, whether it’s a restaurant, or a clothing boutique, or a dream, however remote, of light rail.

Lately it seems we’re trying to be like Asheville, but not exactly: a bigger Asheville with some of the coordinated downtown revival of Chattanooga and musical identity of Nashville and maybe just a glaze of Atlanta in the ’80s. And, in the fall, of course, the gaudy swagger of Tuscaloosa. What’s Knoxville’s own style? Even to me, after half a century here, it’s a murky thing.

That’s why it’s such a welcome thing to see projects that are unique, or at least very unusual. The progress of Legacy Parks and the forward strides of Urban Wilderness projects gives us hope. A surprising lot of that came to fruition in 2012, and more will arrive in 2013, with the Aslan Foundation’s first-ever public opening of Fort Higley. Bike trails connected to nature centers and kayaking ports and ultimately Civil War forts. None of our rival sister cities have anything much like that.

Market Square’s another distinctive attraction scarce in the cities we’re accustomed to comparing ourselves with. Two of the Square’s biggest buildings, the Arnstein at the southwest corner and the Woods & Taylor building at the northeast corner, both of them mostly empty for a decade or more, will be completed for residences and retail. Market Square stands to be even more of a magnet for urban activity than it has been lately.

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Give or take some unexpected pier rot, the Henley Street Bridge will open, mid-year, a relief to many South Knoxvillians and also to Gay Street pedestrians. Crossing Gay has never been more exciting than it’s been these last two years, as hundreds of interstate travelers ignore the recommended detour to take the next bridge over. These through-drivers seem bewildered by downtown stoplights.

On Gay Street, running red lights has become kind of a hobby. Some hurried drivers maybe don’t notice them. Others plunge through aggressively, as if heavenly bliss awaits them in the next block. Often they try to pile on, “Host of Volunteers” style, jamming into each intersection before it’s clear, effectively running the red light while sitting still. And, of course, blocking cross traffic, often including me.

Maybe the problem is that Gay Street has gotten so damnably distracting: the tall buildings, the cafe-table crowds, the Aveda girls on the sidewalk. Maybe the bright lights of the big city are just too much to process. You can’t expect bedazzled drivers to take in all that and also think about the traffic laws they learned back when they were teenagers.

A dozen drivers per hour run each one of the red lights on the busy part of Gay, between Summit Hill and the river bridge. I have never witnessed a single one get nabbed. And there’s an idea that might help the city budget.

Posting a motorcycle cop and charging, say, $250 per infraction—a reasonable fine, I think, for a potentially deadly error in Knoxville’s most pedestrian-oriented neighborhood—would make downtown safer, and at the same time create a significant new revenue source for the city. Just patrolling four intersections of Gay, I’d say Knoxville could clear $100,000 a month, easy.

And maybe that could pay for some improvements to Henley.

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The reopening of the Henley Street Bridge will ease that fish-out-of-water traffic on Gay, but it signals the end of a huge missed opportunity.

Henley Street is downtown’s western edge, and almost like some ancient fortified city, downtown raises forbidding walls there. It was that highway through-traffic, noisy on the sidewalk and hard to navigate when you’re in the thick of it, that undermined Henley Street as a once-appealing commercial corridor with dozens of businesses on it.

In the 1990s, one urban consultant after another came to town and told us downtown’s biggest problem was Henley, this pedestrian-unfriendly highway separating downtown from the region’s largest university and the region’s highest-density neighborhood. Fix Henley Street, calm it down, make it appealing, reduce its speed limit, improve crosswalks—make it, more or less, the tree-lined boulevard it was planned to be—and downtown will fix itself.

City leaders at the time just grumbled. South Knoxville wouldn’t stand for any traffic calming, any tampering with their main conduit to the interstate, even though they have other options, like the underused South Knoxville Bridge. And besides, they said, TDOT wouldn’t allow it, because it’s a state route.

And after I alluded to that assumption in a column, I got a call from TDOT’s communications people in Nashville. They would indeed consider a traffic-calming solution, they told me about two years ago. But they’d never heard that Knoxville was interested in anything like that.

Closing the bridge altogether for two and a half years, it would have seemed the time to act, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix Henley. Start traffic up again, and would anyone even remember that a newly civilized Henley Street added a minute or two more to their commute?

Some well-connected folks have speculated that the timing was bad. The closure happened to straddle three mayoral administrations, the first of which was distracted by a gubernatorial campaign.

I’m still waiting for the first reason to believe that it’s not a good idea.

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