Strip Maul Proceeding Slowly

Coding changes are still six months away for Cumberland Avenue, construction is even farther off

The long-term plan to recreate the dowdy and traffic-clogged Cumberland Avenue "Strip" as an attractive, pedestrian-friendly "Place" is moving forward, slowly, nine months after the plan was first presented to the city, the state, the University of Tennessee, and Fort Sanders business and property owners.

Updating the project's advisory committee and establishing a city position to monitor and manage the ambitious plan's components from within the city administration were the main points on the agenda this week as the Metropolitan Planning Commission staff held a briefing on the project's status.

Jeff Welch, the executive director of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, and who has guided the planning process for more than a year and a half, says the MPC staff, on which he serves, has been conducting a parking study for the Cumberland Avenue/Fort Sanders area, but has yet to compile any comprehensive figures.

"We've identified 342 on-street parking spaces in the block on either side of Cumberland between 17th and 22nd Streets and have found them about 90 percent occupied during the day," he says, but other parking options are still being reviewed.

Welch says the MPC work has also turned up state and federal funding of about $600,000 for design work and $10 to $11 million for construction of the infrastructure improvements the plan will require.

Highway work, which is to include three-laning of much of the Strip, won't commence before the conclusion of TDOT's current Interstate 40/James White Parkway construction, with a target date of July, 2009.

The reduced number of traffic lanes will allow for widened sidewalks, burying of utility lines and such green enhancements as tree and shrub plantings to make the western gateway to UT and downtown Knoxville more appealing.

Another important component, form-based coding, to replace the present commercial zoning for the area, is in the process of being codified, Welch says, and may be ready to go to the MPC and City Council in about six months. Similar to that approved for the South Knoxville Waterfront project, the coding will provide for minimum building heights, maximum setback and off-street parking requirements on future construction along Cumberland and nearby streets.

Infrastructure design work to accommodate the overall plan is "probably 18 months away" from completion, Welsh says.

One building currently under construction on the north side of Cumberland at 21st Street won't completely conform with the coding, but it doesn't have to, since the coding is not in effect. It will, however, have no setback from the sidewalk and will use an existing curb cut to access parking at the rear of the building, as the plan specifies. It's to house a Guthrie's Chicken outlet. When it and a nearby Zaxby's store are opened, the fried-chicken-strips specialty chains, including Sawyer's at 17th and White Avenue, will occupy three slots in a five-block area, not a goal of the plan, which was created with the idea of encouraging local stand-alone businesses rather than chains.

The Cumberland project will be guided from the city's jurisdictional point by Bob Whetsel, the newly appointed director of development for Knoxville, who will report to Senior Director of Policy Bill Lyons and oversee both the Cumberland improvements and those in the Broadway-Central corridor north of downtown.

"I'm on the job," says Whetsel, who assumed the position on Dec. 1 and is looking to appoint a Cumberland-specific project manager with money from the city's supplemental budget, which City Council took up this week. It will allow Whetsel $110,000 to establish the manager's office, with $25,000 coming from Covenant Health, the Fort Sanders hospital complex operator, $25,000 from UT and $60,000 from the city.

"We've been kicking ideas and names around," says Whetsel, "but we don't have anybody ready for that [job] yet." He says he's glad to be able to introduce himself to the advisory committee, originally a 36-member group, and to lay out the progress he sees toward effecting the long-term Cumberland plan.

"There's lots of stuff moving forward," Whetsel says of the plan, "We've just got to build on the momentum.

"If we can get all the engineering and design in place, we can go ahead full speed with construction in the last half of ‘09," he says.

Rob Dansereau, president of the Fort Sanders Merchants' Association, says the group, which endorsed the overall plan, understands the pace of progress so far and is not concerned that things are moving slowly. He says such comprehensive approaches take time to come to fruition and the TDOT schedule dictates the pace to some extent.

"We're encouraged that UT and Covenant Health are kicking in money [for the project's city-side manager]," he says, explaining that nothing so expansive as the overall plan could be accomplished without the participation of the university and the hospital complex.

One thing of particular concern to Covenant Health, says MPC's executive director Mark Donaldson, is the likelihood that a reduction in traffic lanes on Cumberland would divert some traffic to the narrow street around the hospitals. He says MPC is considering recommending some traffic-calming steps to alleviate that potential problem in the form of further street-narrowing and pullouts, rather than speed bumps, to go along with parking improvements that will serve the hospitals, the university and the general public in their future uses of the Cumberland Avenue "Place."