American Planning Association Names Gay Street a Top 10 "Great Street"

After working on a street for a few years, you tend to take a place for granted, and wonder why you see so many people on the sidewalks with cameras. Maybe they have a point. On Wednesday, the American Planning Association declared Gay Street one of the Top 10 Great Streets in America.

Based in Washington and Chicago, the APA has announced lists of places that "exemplify exceptional character and highlight the role planning and planners play in adding value to communities, including fostering economic growth and jobs." They do give the award to 10 new streets every year, but they only started in 2007. Gay Street is therefore one of America's first 60 winners of the distinction.

Metropolitan Planning Commission Executive Director Mark Donaldson was pleased with the designation, and a little surprised. "Pretty good company to be hanging out with," he says, remarking that the same list includes New York's Fifth Avenue and Charleston's famous Broad Street, and even Key West's funky Duval Street.

Others include Ward Parkway, in Kansas City; Main Street, in Bozeman, Mont.; Broadway, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; Wall Street, in Kingston, N.Y.; Shaker Boulevard, which spans Cleveland, Shaker Heights, and Beachwood, Ohio; and Grant Street in Pittsburgh.

It's not the result of years of campaigning, Donaldson says; it came as a result of happenstance, an APA staffer who happened to stroll down Gay earlier this year and was impressed enough to suggest it be nominated. In July, MPC Comprehensive Planning Manager Mike Carberry led an impromptu effort to make a formal nomination, including descriptions and history of the street.

Gay Street's not considered a triumph of planning. "In some ways, it's an example of just letting things happen," admits Donaldson. Some parts of Gay, like the private surface parking lot on the west side of the 700 block, were developed in defiance of the city's streetscape plan, which called for much more foliage and landscaping. The owner got a variance only after promising to build a large building there "soon." That was in the mid-1990s.

But much of the street has improved by way of facade grants and deliberate streetscape improvements, like street lamps, street furniture, and improved sidewalks. The award specifically mentions the efforts of non-profit Knox Heritage (begun to save the Bijou Theatre from demolition, KH went on to get large parts of Gay designated a historic district on the National Register), and the Central Business Improvement District, which organized tax abatements and low-interest loans for improvements.

"Gay Street is a pretty good example of a public-private partnership working," says Donaldson.

The APA's report also outlines Gay's unique history, significant to both sides in the Civil War, and later to the development of transportation and the wholesaling industry, and to regional culture, through its 150 years of theaters.

Alas, it comes with no monetary prize. It's just an honor, and something to brag about. Current plans are for the city to celebrate it during holiday festivities in a couple of months.