citybeat (2007-50)

The Forgotten CorridorPlanning Obsolescence?

City Beat

City planners finally take a look at Magnolia Avenue renovation

Notably absent from most talk of downtown-area rehab and redevelopment is oft-maligned and misunderstood Magnolia Avenue, the aging but vital link between East Knoxville and the rest of the city. Piecemeal efforts like the nearby Five Points grocery store project notwithstanding, Magnolia has mostly remained under the publicâ’s radar, even as conspicuous planning efforts move forward on other downtown connectors like Cumberland Avenue.

That may be set to change. A Magnolia Corridor Study jointly authored by the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) should be unveiled sometime in the first half of 2008. With the portion of Interstate 40 through downtown set to close for 14 months beginning in spring, some observers believe the time is ripe for a comprehensive revitalization.

â“With the I-40 shutdown, itâ’s a great opportunity to get people on Magnolia, and to make it a flattering experience,â” says self-described downtown-area cheerleader Jeff Talman, a former member of the Partnership for Neighborhood Improvement (PNI) board. PNI is the former overseer of the cityâ’s federal Empowerment Zone, an area which included most of Magnolia.

â“Itâ’s got huge potential, but we donâ’t pay lots of attention to it,â” Talman continues. â“I think we misunderstand it as just a disadvantaged section of town, or as a high-crime area. Along that road, youâ’ve got a community college, an electronic media center, an arboretum, plenty of housing and great building stock. If you strip it of its reputation, there are huge things to work with.â”

Initiated last spring through a grant from the AIAâ’s national organization, the Magnolia Corridor Study cuts the road into four segments: the downtown end north of Hall of Fame Drive; the section from Hall of Fame to Pellissippi State Community Collegeâ’s eastern campus; from Pellissippi to the outskirts of Chilhowee Park; and from Chilhowee Park to the Burlington Community.

According to MPC Comprehensive Planning Manager Mike Carberry, the early stages of the Magnolia study identified a number of target issues, including the need for mixed-use development, renovation of old and underutilized buildings and lots, beautification, a safer biking path, resolution of crime and safety issues, and historic preservation.

â“With regard to historic preservation, Magnolia has some areas that provide particularly good examples of the early 20th century and its architecture,â” Carberry notes.

The north end of Magnolia into downtown has received the lionâ’s share of attention to date; the Tennessee Department of Transportation will implement a landscaping program on Magnolia at its juncture with I-40 upon finishing the ongoing SmartFix I-40 interstate renovation project.

And plans call for up to 120 spaces of shared off-street parkingâ"benefitting both local businesses and residentsâ"beneath the interstate, a move that Carberry says will entail additional lighting and beautification measures.

Carberry says the Magnolia plan is also looking at the efficacy of implementing a form-based zoning codeâ"zoning that governs according to physical considerations such as building size and setbacks, rather than useâ"on Magnolia, in keeping with its current disposition.

â“We need an urban standard for parking, to allow more opportunities for development,â” Carberry says. â“The form-based code would allow for retail, office and residential development, as well as a continuation of some of the warehousing activities in that area.â”

One problem planners face is the now-permanent interruption of Magnolia, due to SmartFix considerations, at Hall of Fame Drive. Motorists traveling the avenue from the north must now turn left on Hall of Fame, then back right again, to continue on Magnolia.

â“The interstate area is a big issue,â” notes Bob Whetsel, Director of Redevelopment for the city of Knoxville. â“How do we get a better connection between those two sections, and yet make it aesthetically pleasing?

â“We know that Magnolia is out there, that these issues are out there. And weâ’ve looked at several ideas about connecting that north section to downtown. But right now, thereâ’s no specific plan as to, â‘This is what we ought to be doing.â’â” â" Mike Gibson

A short conference points out a long-term educational weakness

Last Thursday afternoon, about 50 citizens gathered at the Urban Design Studio in the old Fidelity Building at Gay and Union to attend an advertised public forum on a provocative subject: â“Planning, Do We Need It?â”

It was an impressive panel of some heavy hitters, seemingly assembled for a major press conference. Among them was Metropolitan Planning chief Mark Donaldson; well-known consultant and former MPC director Don Parnell; Ed Cole, the statewide chief of Environment and Planning for the Tennessee Department of Transportation; Richard Bernhardt, director of Metro Planning Nashville; Dan Hawk, community development director for the state Department of Planning. Some of them drove in from Nashville for the meeting. Moderating the discussion was former city planner and prominent developer Wayne Blasius.

Several members of the faculty of UTâ’s College of Architecture, as well as members of the Community Design Center, were in the audience. Together, it would seem, this august panel could solve any number of practical problems. However, anyone who might have expected them to discuss specific issues concerning planning, or the lack of such, in Knoxville, would have been disappointed.

Overtly, the short conference was intended to be proof of the vital importance of comprehensive, multi-disciplinary planning in the long-term success of almost all successful development. But the subtext was the slow decline of planning as a subject of study at the university. Several of the influential panelists, including Cole, Parnell, and Blasius, it turns out, were graduates of UTâ’s now-defunct Graduate School of Planning.

In its original guise, the Graduate School of Planning was connected to the College of Architecture and Design, and had as many as 50 students. It combined disciplines of architecture, urban design, political science, economics, and geography. Sometime in the mid-1990s, though, the discipline was shuffled over to become a department in the School of Political Science, to the objection of then-dean of architecture Marleen Davis.

About three years ago, two of five planning professors retired, another was denied tenure; UT, in a financial bind, did not replace them. Due to the faculty atrophy, the planning program lost its national accreditation. With only two professors remaining, it seems to have lapsed into the sort of study that calls for some gumption on the part of a student who really insists on such a degree. At present, only 12 students are enrolled in the two-year program. Some worry about its long-term viability.

Professor Bruce Tonn, the only tenured professor involved in the planning program, says the national trend is actually toward more emphasis on planning, and he says he still has hopes that UTâ’s planning program will expand, but admits itâ’s a â“Catch 22,â” attracting faculty without students, and attracting students without an accredited program. â“Itâ’s hard for us to build up students without more professors.â”

Don Cox, associate dean of arts and sciences, was surprised to hear about last Thursdayâ’s meeting. â“I donâ’t know if itâ’s a shame that it died,â” he says of UTâ’s older planning curriculum. â“It didnâ’t have any professors and didnâ’t have any students.â” His impression is that professors slowly lost interest in the program. â“Itâ’s not because the university made a high-handed decision to axe the program. The program was just withering, and it kind of expired.â”

Others arenâ’t quite as ready to see it go. Parnell, in particular, spoke of beefing up the study of planning even beyond what was offered in the graduate school when he attended it; he proposed adding finance and economics to the study. He and others spoke of the rising concerns about conservation and environmental husbandry, and the role that planners of broad educational backgrounds will have to play. The implication of Thursdayâ’s meeting was that these influentially progressive guys know what theyâ’re doing, but the next generation wonâ’t have anybody to replace them.

Parnell quoted Lewis Carroll with a planning-oblivious epigram that could almost pass for a community motto: â“If it doesnâ’t matter where youâ’re going, any road will take you there.â” â" Jack Neely


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