citybeat (2006-05)

First reactions to drawings of the near-mythical Transit Center

Knoxville has its first (in a long time) jazz festival

Wednesday, Jan. 25

In Transit

Preliminary drawings of the transit center went up last week at the history center’s community room, and drew a small crowd of downtowners, architects, and bus riders. Thanks in the largest part to a Congressional appropriation, which paid for 80 percent of the project, construction is finally imminent. Promised for years as one of the next big projects for downtown—and placed in several for-instance sites, coupled and uncoupled with the cinema project and the public-library project—the transit center is finally taking shape in the real world. It will be by itself, this time, in a neglected corner of downtown: between Central and State, alongside the vestigial street still known as Commerce.

Calling it a “transit center” may seem a bit of an exaggeration, if that term implies that it involves more than one major form of transportation. Light rail in Knoxville is still just a dream, and there are no plans to engage the center with inter-city bus lines. Our transit center, as currently configured, is mainly just the central KAT bus station.

KAT chief administrative officer Melissa Travathan says it’s intermodal to the extent that it includes automobile parking and bicycle accommodations for bus riders. She adds its intermodality is confirmed by its pedestrian access: “if you consider walking to be a means of transportation, which I do,” she says.

“Passengers can arrive on the platform without crossing bus lanes,” she says. By stairs or elevators, the transit center will allow pedestrians to descend onto a bus platform much like a subway.

Gretchen Von Grossman & Co., of Boston, led last Thursday’s meeting; she’s working with a consortium of local architects from the firms of McCarty Holsapple McCarty and Bullock Smith on the design. She described the main building’s modern design simply: “lots of glass, lots of light.” She emphasized the facility’s innovations, including a messaging system for passenger announcements.

Just a city bus station is a significant improvement; Knoxville hasn’t had such a facility in decades. For the last couple of years, passengers have waited for buses on a Main Street sidewalk. Before that, it was a Walnut Street sidewalk. Before that, it was a Gay Street sidewalk.

The transit center will be a good place downtown to catch any bus, of course, but perhaps more importantly it will be a secure place to wait for a connecting bus, for the many who rely on a bus to convey themselves across town. Some transfers involve layovers of a half-hour or more, and the lack of public-restroom facilities or refuges from the cold or heat is hard to ignore. Many have observed that it would also be nice to be able to pick up a snack, or a newspaper.

Though designs are vague at this point, and the Public Building Authority is still collecting responses, groundbreaking is scheduled for this March; the transit center is scheduled to be finished in spring of ‘08.

It’s a big building—a total of 300,000 square feet under the same roof—with bays to accommodate 20 buses, most of them within the building. KAT is expecting to accommodate 3,500 passengers a day off the bat, with potential to grow to more than 10,000. Though much of it will be open-air to allow for ventilation, the center will include enclosed temperature-controlled spaces, public restrooms, and probably some form of modest retail.

Citizens brought up a couple of problems with the design. A woman mentioned that those riding the free trolley would have a walk of more than a city block before getting to the bus platform. A handicapped man mentioned that the design, which calls for two separate elevator rides to get to the bus bays, is less than ideal.

There was some grumbling that the glass-and-brick design was too plain, though a couple of young architects, looking at the drawings, remarked, as if in surprise, “at least it’s modern, and not fake historical.”

What is arguably “fake historical,” though, is the brick gateway facade adjacent to the renovating Mast General Store building. It leads to a bridge across State Street to the transit center proper. The 60-foot frontage on a rapidly developing Gay Street, roughly along the axis of Wall Avenue (which ends on the other side of Gay), will fold in well with the buildings on either side, but it has concerned some who would prefer more density of retail on this corridor.

Though the business end will occupy much of the block between State and Central Streets, the project offers no reprieve for benighted Central, which south of the Old City is bleak and nearly featureless. As currently drawn, the transit center will turn its back on Central. As everyone else does. It’s made to be seen from State, seems nearly blank from Central, and offers no access on that side. It will, in fact, blow the bus fumes toward Central.

Despite its aesthetic challenges, Central is a much-traveled road, but is also the street most clearly seen from James White Parkway, and may be one origin of widespread rumors of the lifelessness of downtown.

However, there’s potential for that to change dramatically in the future. The transit center will be designed to serve as the base for a much taller building, or buildings, on a “floor plate” of 70,000 square feet. Specifications allow for private-development construction of up to nine floors of commercial facilities and 13 floors of residential. Questions from the floor brought out the suggestion that the future construction could come in the form of separate towers.

The Public Building Authority is asking for public comments about the design by way of their website, .

All That Jazz

Though it’s somewhat under the radar, Knoxville has a thriving jazz scene. In the coming week, the city’s leading musician in the genre, Donald Brown, plus various community organizations are joining forces to shine a spotlight on that scene, in hopes of turning on more of the community to the sultry, unpredictable medium of jazz.

It’s being hailed as the inaugural Jazz Festival, though Brown recalls more informal events being held up until about 10 years ago in Knoxville. The idea to reinstate the festival was first hatched when Brown played at the McGhee Tyson Library in November of 2003 and had an overwhelming reception. About 200 people showed up, according to Nelda Hill, who works in the Sights and Sounds Department of the library. Since then, the idea has been brewing to not only get him to play in conjunction with the public library again, but to find a way to get even more people turned on to jazz. “He’s such a treasure, and I think a lot of Knoxvillians have yet to discover him,” says Hill about Brown. “The library has been expanding its focus especially in the music programs. It’s really gotten more people using the collection…. This is just another way that the library is educating people.”

Tribe One, the blossoming community organization focused on keeping at-risk youngsters out of trouble, is also heavily involved in the Jazz Fest. Its leaders partnered with the library to engineer the sound for the various performances and are also printing the T-shirts and other merchandise at their in-house printing shop, Boom Boom Industries. “It’s something that we’ve always wanted to do, and we think it will be a good tool for us to get involved in the music community because we’re planning on starting a jazz program this year that’s going to be geared toward young people,” says Dexter Murphy, local musician formerly of Gran Torino and program director at Tribe One. Murphy is working alongside City Councilman Chris Woodhull and young people from Magnolia Sound, Tribe One’s new recording studio, in the festival. “It focuses on our motto of empowering the youth by getting them involved in making music—cutting albums, producing, marketing,” says Murphy. “This is all part of Chris Woodhull’s brainchild. We want to have an internship program with at-risk youth getting real life experiences.” (Woodhull was out of town and could not be reached for comment.)

As far as planning the event, Brown says he recruited mostly musicians he’s played or recorded with before. “We wanted to get some young people too, so we got Austin East High School Jazz Band to open up the show for us on Feb. 11,” he says.

Though he says Knoxville’s jazz scene is healthy, especially for a small city, Brown would like to see more diverse crowds coming out to the shows. Asked what appeals to people about jazz, he gives a long but eloquent answer in his smoky voice: “The rhythm, the versatility of the music itself, because jazz encompasses so many different things—blues, classical, rhythm and blues, rock and roll. And, of course, there’s the emphasis on improvisation, which makes it the most spontaneous style of music.”

The festival’s events begin on Thursday, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. at 4620, with Brown leading a band of Rusty Holloway, Keith Brown and special guest Bill Mobley. Then on Friday, Feb. 10, at 6 p.m., Brown will give a seminar on the history and style of jazz at the East Tennessee Historical Center. Brown and other festival musicians will teach a master class on improvisation on Saturday, Feb. 11 at 1 p.m. at the East Tennessee History Center. The final event will also be on Saturday at 8 p.m. in the James R. Cox Auditorium in UT’s Alumni Building, with Brown and Stephane Belmondo on trumpet, John Ricci on saxophone, Essiet Essiet on bass and Chris Dave on drums. Afterward, a reception will be held at Cha Cha, where Hill predicts, “We’re hoping it ends in a good old-fashioned jazz jam.”


Wednesday, Jan. 25

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Monday, Jan. 30

Tuesday, Jan. 31