Revamping the Strip

The Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project promises to redesign the Strip with fewer lanes and bigger sidewalks. Can it work?

It seems inconceivable that you could take an oft-traveled four-lane road—known almost as much for the recklessness of its motorists during off-hours as for tedious back-ups during peak flow—add a huge shopping development and a slew of new housing at the mouth of its messiest juncture, narrow it to two lanes plus a middle turning lane and expect a happy result.

But Knoxville city planners say they've done their homework—and that not only will the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project change traffic patterns for the better on the University of Tennessee's perpetually harried Strip, but it will also give that aesthetically challenged area a makeover, providing a shot in the arm for local merchants.

"What we're working toward is a safer and more economically viable Cumberland Avenue," says Anne Wallace, the city's project manager in the office of redevelopment. "Cumberland Avenue doesn't function well in its current configuration. Traffic backs up; the pedestrian experience is unpleasant. And the aesthetic appeal is poor. There are lots of areas for improvement."

The plan dovetails with—and is arguably complicated by—the more recent announcement of the University Commons Project, a 211,000 square-foot shopping center development slated for the old Fulton Bellows brownfield industrial site between Volunteer Boulevard and Alcoa Highway. University Commons will include a Walmart and a Publix grocery as well as additional retail and parking space; and bring an estimated 6,600 additional cars to the area's traffic flow. Cumberland's current daily traffic count is about 30,000.

So how is the Corridor plan supposed to work, and how will it function with the complicating factor of a huge shopping center thrown into the mix?

Cumberland Avenue has been the subject of some concern for years; but it wasn't until 2007, after a series of community meetings and design charrettes, that the city stepped forward with the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Plan. The plan birthed the Corridor Project, which was approved by City Council in 2008.

According to Wallace, the project seeks to achieve the end result of a more economically viable, user-friendly Cumberland Avenue via two endeavors. The first is a so-called "road diet," i.e. shrinking the width of Cumberland, reducing the lanes to an eastbound, westbound and middle turning lane, and widening the sidewalks on either side.

The second is through a shift to an urban design plan, through adoption of form-based zoning, i.e. zoning that will enable complementary mixed-use urban-style development—rather than single-use suburban—on Lake Avenue, White Avenue, and Cumberland.

Wallace says the road diet is different from traffic calming, in that it should make for slower but more consistent traffic flow—fewer speeders, but also fewer slowdowns.

"What happens now is the inside lanes on Cumberland become left-turn lanes," she says. "You have erratic, inconsistent behavior, accidents. So now you get that out of the flow of traffic, and it tends to make the flow more smooth."

She says planners looked at other cities—some of them college towns—who used similar methods to good success in formulating a strategy for Cumberland, cities like Tuscaloosa, Ala., Greeneville, S.C., and Chapel Hill, N.C. "These were all places that had renaissances in their downtown areas," Wallace says. "They improved economic vitality and created opportunities for multi-modal transportation. We're basing our plan specifically on those areas, but we're adapting those principles."

The streetscaping portion of the corridor project will be completed through a Tennessee Department of Transportation Enhancement Grant—an 80 percent grant that requires a 20 percent local match. The city is in the third phase (out of four) in the "complicated process" of securing the grant funds, and Wallace says construction will hopefully begin by 2013, and last 18 to 24 months.

In the meantime, if all goes as developers hope, construction on the University Commons Project could begin this year. (There's also a 13-house Sorority Village being constructed on Neyland Drive, just west of Commons, which will host 500 residents at full capacity.) Developers have reportedly said they hope to split the shopping center traffic between two entrances, one on Alcoa Highway and one on Cumberland.

"They've requested a traffic study to look at the impact on surrounding areas, the number of vehicles coming in," Wallace says. "They anticipate the traffic numbers will work. They do need to make key road improvements at Joe Johnson and Neyland Drive and at Cumberland Avenue and Metron Center Way."

As to the city's urban design plan, and the adoption of form-based zoning, Director of Redevelopment Bob Whetsel says a draft code is still under revision, having been reviewed once at a public meeting. Since the land use is not the determining factor in form-based zoning, the code has more guidelines with regard to building specs, and can thus be more complicated, he says. "We're trying to make it as simple as possible," he says.

Whetsel explains: "We have lots of single-story development on Cumberland now. We'd like to see a more intense move toward a multi-story environment, and the form-based code is a tool to help us get there. A short way to say it is we're trying to move toward a more urban environment."

Ideally, the code will by adopted and implemented by the time road construction gets underway. But the Commons Project is already planning an early glimpse of what's to come, in the form of Knoxville's first two-story Walmart.

The Cumberland Avenue Corridor Plan makes significant claims about what the Strip makeover could mean economically. At one point, the plan says the completed Cumberland Avenue project could "conceivably" result in more than $280 million in private investment over a 30-year period.

When pressed on such points, Whetsel admits that he "didn't write the plan." But he does point to real ways the plan appears to be bringing in new investment right now.

"There's a new Hilton Garden Inn proposed for Lake Avenue," he says. "The developer said he would not have proposed it if we had not committed to the streetscaping."

He cites another local restaurant franchise owner who invested $1.5 million in exterior and signage improvements based on the city's commitment to streetscaping and form-based zoning.

Community support, from local residents and merchants, has generally been good, Wallace says. "There are a few folks who would differ with us on how to get there, but I think most people recognize the benefits of the plan," she says. "Everyone would agree there are traffic problems. Some people would like it to stay the way it is and try other solutions, but they're a small minority. Most are in favor of the road diet. They feel it makes sense."

It's perhaps worth noting that one member of the Cumberland Avenue Merchants Association, a representative of a business on White Avenue, declined to comment, saying that, "The needs [Cumberland Avenue businesses] have are different, even though they're only up one street."

That opinion isn't shared by Graphic Creations president Debbie Billings, however. In addition to operating the business on Lake Avenue, Billings is a board member of the Cumberland Avenue Merchants Association

"I'm pleased with the direction that's come from the planning, the vision, helping Cumberland get back to where it needs to be," she says. "If you look at the turnover and vacancy rate that's hit the area in the last few years, the lack of investment—if this process had not begun, this area would have become a complete eyesore.

"It has the potential to be a front door for the university and downtown, and we're all really excited about getting this going."

She says of the University Commons Project: "I think it's a complement to the Cumberland project; I think it's fine. My only concern is addressing any problems that might come with traffic issues. That whole area has traffic issues that need to be addressed."

"I think the project is going to be really, really helpful for the area, just like what they've done for downtown," enthused Merchants Association President Mike Clark of the Goal Post Tavern. "It'll be nice to get nice streetscapes, nice sidewalks, bury the utilities. It'll grow the area."

Billings says that, "Early on, there may have been confusion as to what will be going on and fear of having to face what's going to happen. But now I think most everyone realizes it has to happen and has gotten on board."