Plans for South Waterfront Park Unveiled

Suttree Landing Park, to be built next year, may be the first realization of a nine-year-old dream. It will at least be a nice park.

Almost nine years ago, Mayor Bill Haslam announced the South Knoxville Waterfront Development project. It was to be his administration's magnum opus, his legacy. He recruited several major national-level consultants to work on the idea of reimagining more than a mile of waterfront just across the river from downtown, and began the complex work of coordinating public and private land to enable the project.

A couple of administrations and a recession later, the South Waterfront's first major city-sponsored project may soon break ground. An appealing-sounding park called Suttree Landing should start coming to fruition next year. "This is pretty exciting, really," says Bob Whetsel, city director of redevelopment, one of a few city staffers who's been around since those halcyon days when it was first envisioned. He's working closely with Deputy Director Dawn Michelle Foster, a planner on board with the Madeline Rogero administration, on the project.

Announced Wednesday evening, Suttree Landing Park will encompass five acres of waterfront, now a partly wooded former industrial area just east of Barber Street.

The first phase, to go out for bid in January and possibly be underway by April, will be a length of a new street called Waterfront Drive. This portion will be just a little more than a third of a mile long, but may extend much farther in the future. For now, it will at least offer access to a river vista we're not used to seeing.

The park itself should be underway by late next year. It will be a complex place with one part a devoted "natural area," one part a children's playground, a small parking lot, and "finger promontories," little snub-nosed peninsulas that were suggested by Hargreaves Associates, the national landscape-architecture group that won an Outstanding Planning Award for their overall South Knoxville plan (back in 2007). The current engineering design is by Cannon & Cannon.

Central to the new park will be a one-acre "festival lawn"—more a size for church picnics or family reunions than rock concerts or beer festivals. Threading through it all will be a pedestrian-bicycle greenway.

The park is under re-review by TVA, partly due to the fact that it was discovered to be a prehistoric archaeological site with some evidence of Native American activity. Whetsel's not sure what all that entails, but says the site has been "mitigated," protected but not yet excavated by archaeologists.

The new road and basic park will cost about $8 million, mostly already allocated. Not funded yet is a third stage, a covered pavilion with public bathrooms and a kayak storage space. Foster hopes to have that out to bid by next August.

Later, about $5.4 million in federal dollars, funneled through the Tennessee Department of Transportation and including a 20 percent local match, will enable major road, sidewalk, and landscaping improvement to the neighborhood in the vicinity of the park, up to Sevier Avenue. Whetsel predicts those improvements are "about four years out."

The idea is that Suttree Landing Park will spark private development, which was to be the main source of investment in the South Waterfront plan. The park property is former industrial land formerly owned by Mike Conley, who still owns some land for private development along the south side of prospective Riverfront Drive, facing the prospective park.

For Conley, the Regal Corp. heavy-equipment dealer who also owns Royal Properties, it'll be a fairly gorgeous city-sponsored amenity for residential development. Usually, with multi-million-dollar city projects, especially those downtown, multiple businesses or property owners benefit. In this case, it looks like Mr. Conley is the only one likely to profit immediately. But delivering residents is likely to have a positive effect on other present and future businesses in the neighborhood.

Conley is the downtown property owner who's petitioning the city to demolish downtown's 1920s Pryor Brown Parking Garage to replace it with surface parking. Though MPC denied his use-on-review request, Conley made it known last week that he will appeal that decision to City Council.

Whetsel says whatever happens on Waterfront Drive, in Conley's four parcels separated by existing streets, will have to conform to the city's form-based zoning plan, specifically the city's SW-2 zone, formulated in 2007 especially for the south waterfront. It encourages low-rise multiple-family housing, especially townhouse-style development, and pedestrian access.

"When this mayor was elected, we were asked to move forward with the park and Waterfront Drive," Whetsel says. When she was inaugurated almost two years ago, Rogero pledged to prioritize the South Waterfront plan. That plan was, after all, her first connection with the Haslam administration. After the two had been opponents in a mayoral race, in 2005 Haslam asked Rogero, a South Knoxvillian, to serve on a committee to assess planning for the waterfront design proposal.

"Of course, other things have popped up," Whetsel says. What was then a thriving Baptist Hospital is now a long-empty hulk, but one with solid prospects for a major residential development soon. The south side has suffered several disappointments, but also some unexpected gifts, like major expansions to Ijams Nature Center, new privately funded greenways, and Fort Higley, the tiny Civil War fort to be open to the public as High Ground Park later this month.

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Suttree Landing is named for the title character of Cormac McCarthy's 1979 Knoxville novel, a middle-class Knoxvillian who opts to live among the near-homeless in a makeshift houseboat downtown in the early 1950s. The name was the result of a public nomination and voting process in early 2009. Asked if there's anything Suttree-esque about the park, Whetsel says, laughing, "Well, it's south of the river, and it's on the water." Though Suttree lives on the north side, much of the action in the novel takes place on the south side, and McCarthy himself grew up in South Knoxville.

Suttree Landing has gotten a little attention by way of the international Cormac McCarthy Society. (The unusual name has since been requisitioned as that of a popular bar on Gay Street; the park name was proposed first, but bars develop much quicker than parks.)

Suttree Landing will be an amenity for the neighborhood, but until much more is done along the lines of the ca. 2005 plans, its context will still be problematic.

On a map, the park looks like a little oasis in the middle of a waterfront that hasn't changed much in decades. Immediately next door are the giant tanks of the asphalt plant. Though Haslam hoped to induce them to move away, eight years ago, for the time being, it's staying.

"We see it as primarily a neighborhood use, a local use," says Whetsel of the new park, though all are welcome to use it.

Suttree Park could almost be a downtown amenity. The site, hardly half a mile east of the Gay Street Bridge, is potentially a 15-minute stroll from the City County Building. Back in 2004, the 1898 bridge got an expensive federal redo, with excellent pedestrian accommodations, and there was talk that the improvement could have the same energizing effect on the south side that Chattanooga's pedestrian Walnut Street Bridge had on its north side. That city's Frazier Avenue area became a sort of magical boomtown, sprouting boutiques and restaurants aimed at pedestrians who'd walked across the bridge from downtown. Downtown Knoxville was growing so fast, the Gay Street Bridge's pedestrian improvements made a Frazier Avenue miracle on Sevier Avenue seem possible.

But Knoxville's improved Gay Street Bridge mainly demonstrated in vivid contrast how bad pedestrian connections are with the south side, where Sevier Avenue splits into eastbound and westbound lanes separated by a steep grove. For pedestrians, the result combines the worst of divided-highway exits and narrow country roads.

At the south end of the bridge, the eastbound pedestrian has a choice of walking down a blind one-way road with no sidewalk or shoulder, along a sharp turn with guardrails—or cross that street, without a signal or crosswalk, to follow a sidewalk that ends abruptly before it gets anywhere. Or cross another street, westbound Sevier Avenue, again without a signal or crosswalk, and follow the south side of Sevier.

It looks much easier and safer in the 2005 drawings, but it has not been improved since then.

Whetsel acknowledges the problem. "There are not good sidewalk connections there, but they're certainly anticipated in the future," he says.

For now, the Office of Redevelopment is in a mood to celebrate this tangible step.

"It's been a huge struggle to get this plan off the shelves, and get them by a whole new group of people," Whetsel says.

The city will be accepting public comment on the project for the next 20 days.