Downtown Wayfinding Plans Move Forward

After several years of delay, the city finds its way toward a new signage program

Downtown Knoxville is not a quick read. Market Square, our cultural hub and most popular attraction, isn't on any main route. Neither is the Old City. Even Volunteer Landing can puzzle newcomers. It would be easy to drive around downtown Knoxville enough to think you know the place—or attend a week-long conference at the convention center or a concert at the Civic Auditorium, or roll in on the MegaBus—and never encounter any of the places where we've invested so much of our time and money.

Tuesday night at a public meeting, the city rolled out a long-term plan to fix a problem people have been complaining about since the 20th century: a lack of coherent, informative signage. But it may be another two years before we see actual new signs.

"It's alive, it's funded," says Anne Wallace, project manager in the city's office of redevelopment, who's also heading the ambitious Cumberland Avenue redesign. After a series of public meetings, the city has settled on a design and a general strategy. It's fully on track, though she adds, "Unfortunately it's not racing toward the gates."

The good news is that the city has $1.2 million for the signage project, 80 percent of which comes in the form of a grant from the state, to be matched by 20 percent ($240,000) in city funding. Around $150,000 in city funding will go toward maintaining the sign system once it's installed; an additional $8,000 to $12,000 will provide for maps available in kiosks. The bad news is that all government funding, especially that associated with Tennessee Department of Transportation, comes with a whole steeplechase of hurdles having to do with handicap access, environmental studies, and even Native American approval. They have a plan, but after a year's worth of reviews, assuming all goes well, this time next year they'll be looking at hiring contractors to install the signs.

Some coherent and comprehensive improvement of signage has been in the works for about a decade, since the latter days of the Ashe administration, responding to complaints that existing signs were inadequate and, in several cases, almost comically misleading.

According to city Director of Redevelopment Bob Whetsel, Haslam's administration looked into implementing the program, but found it flawed and unworkable, and scrapped it. This second effort, which began in 2008, has been slowed by the process of finding funding, and subsequently jumping through the necessary hoops to earn it.

A request for proposals, responded to by more than 20 firms, led the city to MERJE Design, of Philadelphia, a national leader in signage. With the city, MERJE considered several themes, one evoking a Southern-classical, Charlestonian sort of formal design, another riffing off the splashier designs of the 1982 World's Fair, another with a modern, corporate "Miami" look. The Knoxville public dumped the corporate look altogether. The design the city's presenting now is a muted classical sort, borrowing some bold colors from the World's Fair idea. The result is a kind of cheerfully conservative look.

In her presentation, Wallace acknowledges some urgency about optimal wayfinding, citing a major Asheville study which concluded that signage is a major influence in how much money visitors spend there, sometimes even affecting the length of their stay. Signage is also key in getting parking neophytes over their anxiety about finding a place to put their cars. "Downtown has a fair amount of parking," Wallace says. "It's just hard to tell people how to find it." One improvement, at city parking garages, will be programmable lighted entrance signs indicating when parking is free and whether the garage is full.

Knoxville's plan will result in 145 new vehicle-oriented directional signs, generally with large lettering, and 75 signs just for pedestrians. There's also a plan to help bicyclists find their way around. And they're working with graphic artist John Innes (designer of some Metro Pulse advertising maps) concerning his distinctive round maps of downtown, indicating likely routes in maps that will be available in kiosks. (It's not settled how electronically interactive the kiosk directions will be, but no Data Dogs will be involved.)

One dilemma has been how to deal with private businesses. A city ordinance, often ignored in recent years, prohibits advertising a business with city signage off premises from that business. Signs can indicate "movie theater" but not "Regal Riviera." Restaurants are on their own.

The last big signage effort, maybe 20 years ago, indicated restaurants, some of which closed or changed locations after the expensive signs were installed. "We just stayed away from restaurants," Wallace says, in hopes restaurants will be able to use the signage system in their own advertising. Wallace says their current plan is to concentrate on "established resources that are going to be there for some time."

Another plan has to do with a proposal to indicate temporary parking for UT games. It seemed obvious to put those signs in Go-Vols blaze orange. But that color is designated by national highway standards as a safety color, reserved to indicate potential problems ahead.

Expect to see big changes in the look of downtown signage in the latter part of 2014.

Corrected: The story erroneously reported that "An additional $160,000 in city funding will go toward mapping available in kiosks." In fact, only $8,000 to $12,000 will provide for maps, while around $150,000 will go toward maintenance.