cover_story (2006-44)

NO IVORY TOWER: Mark Schimmenti, right, steps away from his class to discuss their work with a couple of drop-ins, Tierney Bates, left, and Pat McHugh.

SPLATTED SPIDER?: Chris Molinsky, center, founder of the Art Gallery of Knoxville, holds part of a graphic cutout of this “crazy-shaped” city, flanked by CUP Reasearchers Angela Starita, left, and Lize Mogel, right, of Brooklyn.

Three days a week, at the old Fidelity Building space at the corner of Gay and Union, 45 students and three professors spend their afternoons poring over drafting tables and computers, discussing abstract details with their peers, redesigning the city of Knoxville. Specifically, this semester, they’re studying in minute detail the Southside development proposal.

These students, all of them fifth-year or graduate students in architecture, are proposing specific buildings, parks, and street and sidewalk connections. Their classroom used to be Schriver’s Men’s Clothing, and some of them work near the old three-sided mirrors, where lawyers used to give freshly tailored suits the once-over. The front display windows, which once advertised the latest men’s fashions, now function as a showcase for architectural ideas. On a television screen is the prospective Southside development in motion, a virtual rendering.

Across the railyard viaduct, in a much-smaller old retail space, a small cadre of urban-design professionals from an upstart educational foundation called the Center for Urban Pedagogy fashion striking representations of other Knoxville plans. The curiously-named foundation, headquartered in an old can factory in Brooklyn, enlists bright, mostly young professionals, some of them volunteers, to study how cities change and come up with educational representations of urban evolution. The people putting it together had never been to Knoxville before they began studying it, at the invitation of Chris Molinsky, owner of the relatively new Art Gallery of Knoxville, across from Regas.

The exhibit, which opened this week, points out that fact in a graphic way. “It’s a crazy shape for a city,” says one CUP staffer from New York.

Up and down the street, fresh eyes are looking at the old city. Each group was, when we spoke to them, unaware of the other.

Making sense of Knoxville turns out to be a pretty big job. Some American cities—New York, Chicago, Washington—were at one time laid out carefully. Knoxville, for the most part, just happened. A street might follow its particular course because it was a convenient place for a dusty horse-cart passage between log buildings now long gone. A building’s size and shape might be prescribed only by a long-dead developer’s personal taste and bank account. When residents relocated from one neighborhood to another, it was rarely in an orderly fashion, with careful consideration of the impact on schools, highways, or other infrastructure; white flight was more akin to a slow-motion panic. Knoxville grew lopsidedly, a lot on this side, but for reasons people don’t understand or don’t want to talk about, not on that side or that side.

There’s never been much rhyme or reason to Knoxville’s growth, and some claim that’s part of its charm. But there has been, along the way, a lot of waste. By some accounts, Knoxvillians spend more time commuting than most Americans, even those who live in much-larger cities; Knoxvillians may also pay higher taxes for lesser services than they might if the city were more compact. Sprawl, which taxes the infrastructure, eats hours of commuting time, and occasionally demands the unexpected construction of a new high school, has found Knoxville an especially gullible host.

Is urban planning the answer? The sheer number of city plans that don’t go anywhere has understandably bred some skepticism that sometimes extends to the study of urban planning itself.

Congressman Jimmy Duncan tells a story about an unnamed UT urban-planning professor who some years ago called for some information, and inquired about where the congressman’s Knoxville office was, so he could come pick it up. Duncan said he was in the Howard Baker federal-courthouse building. When the professor asked where that was, Duncan, a little taken aback, mentioned the old Whittle Building, one of the largest and most striking buildings downtown. “You know where that is?” Duncan asked. To the professor, it didn’t ring a bell.

“Well, you know where the Bijou Theatre is, don’t you?” The professor wasn’t quite sure where that was, either. The example of a professor so lost in the city where his university is located can undermine impressions of urban-planning scholars’ connection to reality.

Whoever that absent-minded professor was, the description doesn’t fit Mark Schimmenti. Winner of the prestigious Rome Prize, regarded as one of the founding members of the New Urbanist movement in America, Schimmenti was recently tapped to work on some urban redesign problems in New Orleans. For most of the last 11 years, he has lived in downtown Knoxville, intimately involved with several downtown projects, and opened his first students’ studio on Market Square in the late ’90s. UT pulled the plug on that one, but after an interval of a couple of years when he headed up Nashville’s Urban Design Studio, while still on UT’s faculty, Schimmenti returned and opened the UT studio at the old Schriver’s early this year.

He says the building’s current owners, the major wholesale grocery firm H.T. Hackney, headquartered upstairs, offered them a generous deal on the old retail space.

Student reaction is mixed about coming about a mile away from the Art and Architecture Building just to be downtown in Schimmenti’s class.

“Some of the kids are not happy about going back and forth,” Schimmenti admits. “But it is much easier to park in downtown Knoxville than anywhere on the UT campus.” With him, the downtown-parking bugaboo is an old joke.

He thinks the students will appreciate it later, this work in a functioning downtown, next door to a convenience store that sells cigarettes and lottery tickets and bananas to street people, across the street from a bank, on the same block as a cinema-construction site. “From a teaching point of view, it’s a good idea to have one foot in academia, and one foot out the door,” Schimmenti says. “It’s important to remind them that we’re still in academia, and we should perfect the ideal, but we’ll have to learn to deal with real-world issues.”

Today his students are working in teams, pecking at laptops, discussing specifications, making drawings of streets and buildings with careful notations, almost as if they’ll actually be built. Schimmenti and his colleagues Mark DeKay and Tracy Moir-McClean sometimes interject impromptu lectures into the workday. Schimmenti, in particular, never stays in the same spot for long.

“A lot of times I’ll be talking, and I’ll say, ‘I’ll show you exactly what I’m talking about,’ and take them out on Gay Street. Say something like, ‘Look, the buildings are not all uniform in height, but the bottoms of the buildings all behave the same way….

“At the university, we tend to stay in the building. This gets them out of the building in a real way. And it’s also a good way for people who never go to the university to meet students.” People do come in off the street. As he’s talking about that, Pat McHugh, an insurance man and downtown resident has just dropped in, showing around his friend Tierney Bates, assistant director of UT’s Office of Minority Affairs. Though Schimmenti and Bates both work at UT, their paths had never crossed on campus. 

“See what I mean?” Schimmenti says.

“And it’s good just to have 45 more people just mixing it up with the downtown.” Good for Knoxville, that is. Schimmenti is such a downtown partisan that he talks about what’s good for the class and what’s good for downtown Knoxville as if it’s the same thing, and maybe it is.

“I’m trying not to make a differentiation,” he shrugs. He thinks the question of where downtown is going next is a provocative one for architecture students to consider. “Ten years ago, we were fighting to save historic buildings downtown,” he says. “Now everything is being renovated.” It’s likely new construction will follow, of forms and functions yet undecided.

“Next semester, we’re studying university housing downtown as a project,” Schimmenti says. Such a plan isn’t yet approved, and is controversial in some circles. “We can juggle political hot potatoes,” he says. 

What his class is doing now, though, is different from anything they’ve done before. Schimmenti’s urban-design course has most often used real-world local examples—a troublesome intersection, a vacant factory—studied mostly in the abstract at the Art and Architecture Building on UT’s campus, mainly via architectural  renderings and schematic diagrams. Student projects are often “juried,” or appraised, by nonacademic professionals with some familiarity with the real-world project. Rarely do they make any difference.

“What we’re doing is what we would usually do as an exercise. We’re looking at this master plan to see what it will really look like.” What the students are studying this year is a real master plan, and they’ve been working directly with Dave Hill, who’s heading Mayor Haslam’s most ambitious proposal, the Southside development.

Sometimes, when they have a question about the site, the students just walk over there—it’s right there at the far end of the Gay Street Bridge—to have a look. “If you don’t know something, you just walk over there,” says DeKay. “Go to the drop-in center, talk to Joe Hultquist.” Students often endure a college career without knowing the name of a local city councilman, but Hultquist, who has pushed the Southside development, is one of several officials this class has interviewed.

“We’re able to go into more detail than the consultants can,” says Schimmenti. “The consultants aren’t paid to go into detail.”

A lot of the study is strictly practical, dealing with sewer capacities and runoff, the new density of residential development and its implications for transportation and other infrastructure. A lot of urban design is algebra.

The students have already stirred up a few potential design problems with interesting solutions. One is to plant a roof of green grass on top of a parking garage. Another is talking about cantilevering buildings at a steep spot near the river. One team suspects proposed buildings, as sited in the master plan, may come with unnecessary ventilation and sunlight problems; slight alterations could improve it.

Charlotte Moellendick is a little frustrated that the project area’s southern boundary seems arbitrary, along Sevier Avenue; hence the plan offers no connection to the area’s most obvious geographical feature.

“There’s this big green beautiful hill,” she says. “The plan doesn’t show it, has no connection to it. They just stop there. But with development, other things change, too, and you have to adapt to the change. I would at least make it back to the hill.”

She sounds decisive, then adds, “But I’m just a student. That might be a lot more money, and I don’t know how these things work.”

Nobody’s speculating that any of the students’ ideas will ever be adopted on the real Southside project. Moir-McClean says, “We take the actual configurations of the city, the streets, buildings, parks, trees, and work in a more idealized world. In order to learn, you have to operate with a certain unreality. You have to simplify the complexities of a real-life street. We’ll try things that aren’t appropriate or realistic, in order to learn. We’ll try things that are too urban or dense for Knoxville, because the students may someday live in Atlanta or New York.”

Schimmenti seems a little more optimistic than his colleagues. He talks as if his students might actually persuade a city planner of one point or another, and says there’s precedent for hope. He mentions Camden Yards, Baltimore’s much-admired baseball complex, which began as a graduate student’s thesis. He also believes that UT studio dialogues helped shape the surprising growth of downtown Chattanooga—where his UT architecture colleague Stroud Watson is regarded as a sort of municipal hero. Watson’s attempts to convince Knoxvillians to adopt sound urban-planning principles in the 1980s were mostly ignored, but his workshops and a permanent urban-design studio have guided and facilitated much of Chattanooga’s famous downtown.

“Of course, we need a process that can make that happen,” Schimmenti says. (In Chattanooga, Watson had the advantage of not only agreeable politicians, but well-heeled philanthropists.) “If we come up with an idea for a dorm downtown, at least it gets discussed.”

“They’re always interesting conversations,” says DeKay, of their interchanges with real-world administrators. “They’re not objecting . They’re interested in seeing What If.”

Schimmenti means to commence, later this month, a Knoxville Urban Design Forum; the first topic of discussion will be landscape architecture, which Schimmenti hopes can become a major concentration at UT. “Because it’s downtown, it’s set up in a way we can discuss the issues. In the past, things are discussed in the university, and sometimes leaked out. Now things are discussed in public.”  He hopes his downtown efforts will yield “better dialogue between those in college and outside community.”

DeKay can seem more practical than Schimmenti; we caught him giving a lecture to students planning Southside homes about comparative insulation, in which he made calculations based on latitude, square footage, and the “daylight factor” expressed in percentages. His 15 students are concentrating on environmental agreeability, making the Southside project as green as possible.

On tables in the same big room, DeKay has been working on schematic plans for a separate and very different project: on maps, Solway, Karns, Powell, and Halls appear on a roughly straight line called Beaver Creek.

He’s working with the Beaver Creek Task Force, a joint venture of Knox County, TVA, and the Knox Land and Water Conservancy to make some practical recommendations for those North Knox County communities. The formerly rural area is rapidly suburbanizing, and DeKay is leading a UT team that’s working on a plan to employ conservation easements and other inducements to improve water quality, transportation, and general sustainability.

“By the MPC plan, it’s a carpet of low-density residential with commercial along the highways; it’s just institutionalizing the sprawl pattern,” he says. “We’d like to do a multi-nucleated system of small and larger centers: villages and towns at the fringe of the city.”

As the ideal laboratory for urban-planning students who might someday be working anywhere in the country, he says, Knoxville has certain strengths. “It’s good for looking at sprawl,” he laughs. “We have some of the lowest housing density in the country.” He cites a “Sprawl Index” that listed Knoxville at No. 5 in America. “East Tennessee has a lot of non-farm residences, people who live in the country, but don’t have any business or farm in the country. It’s historically a low-density pattern.”

“There are some remnants of urban neighborhoods, but there are very few good examples of multi-family urban housing. What we have is multi-family suburban housing, surrounded by parking—not a good example. So you go straight from the downtown apartment building, like the Pembroke, or Gay Street lofts, to single-family or duplex.” With the exception of some historic buildings near downtown, he says, “There’s an odd lack of anything between big buildings and suburbs.”

Part of what makes Knoxville interesting, DeKay says, is that after more than two centuries, the city is architecturally still a blank slate. “It gives us an interesting opportunity to learn what’s a Southern Appalachian urban building . Everything here is historically imported. Urban buildings are not that different from other urban buildings on the east coast.

“Knoxville never developed its own vernacular. You’ve got log cabins and cantilever barns in the Smokies, but in the city, where are the buildings that fit the site and climate? Gay Street is just building-building-building without gaps,” he says, which is not ideal for humid weather. Savannah, another humid city, developed parks in open spaces that allowed for shade and breeze.

“One thing great about Knoxville is the nearness of topography,” DeKay says, bringing the conversation back to the original subject. “South Knoxville has wooded slopes. But hilltops and ridges can disappear, can be cut off, clear-cut. There’s very little to keep that from happening. It seems to me that’s almost an emergency situation. If nothing’s done, within five years, half the hilltops will be developed.” 

“Knoxville is an excellent laboratory,” Moir-McClean says. “It’s a really human-scale city, in the size and shape of its blocks. Knoxville does have some wonderful streets, wonderful neighborhoods. There’s a lot of character in the landscape of the city that makes it a wonderful learning environment. Coming from the Midwest, which is flat, I appreciate the topography, the terrain, the bridges. It’s an extraordinary landscape, and we should preserve the character of it as we build a city here.”

Like Schimmenti, she thinks the working downtown offers students advantages. “We have downtown right outside the door,” she says. “Knoxville’s downtown has good bones.”

Another advantage of the old Schriver’s location is that it happens to share space with the downtown office of the East Tennessee Community Design Center, a 36-year-old non-profit that offers planning assistance to the community. It employs two full-time staffers, four more part time, and typically also hires several fourth- and fifth-year architecture students to work on real-world projects; some members of the UT studio are working with them this semester.

The center’s office is right in the middle of the UT workshops, which swirl around it. Executive Director David Watson keeps his desk in the old anteroom of the Schrivers’ changing area. “They get their academics in the classroom,” he says. “We expose them to real clients, real budgets, real projects.” But now they’re at work on a speculative project of their own. They want to spruce up some of downtown’s neglected alleys. 

 “Alleys were always perceived to be dark and dangerous,” Watson says. “We at the Community Design Center wanted to see if we could make them more functional pedestrian ways, or even destinations.” The ETCDC has identified 19 alleys in the Central Business District. Watson suggests new finishes, signage, work on entrances, maybe a series of historic murals. He says façade grants are rarely used in alleys, but considering they’re also public rights-of-way, they may qualify. “The first thing we have to do is make people comfortable.”

He shifts, with a comment that might seem surprising. “A design center doesn’t have to be controversial.” Nothing about what’s on his desk seems very controversial. But, he says, some people are alarmed to hear they’ve established a beachhead downtown. “A few think we’re here to create more hurdles for developers. That’s not what we’re about.” Another project they’re working on is helping people find their way around town, “wayfinding,” as it’s known in the design racket. There may be a need. He mentions a recent encounter with a longtime Knoxvillian who couldn’t find Market Square, even though it’s stayed put in the same place for more than 150 years. “We’re trying to make Knoxville a friendlier place,” he says.

Students look at what’s possible. Last semester’s designs may well be forgotten, as students move on to the next challenge. But in another old retail space, in another studio down the street, another exhibit focuses entirely on the past.

The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) is funded mostly by New York-specific foundations, and most of its projects concern the New York area. In its short history, the unusual group has done work in Chicago, Detroit, Leipzig, and Vienna.

As CUP’s colorfully complex website broadly defines its mission statement: “CUP makes educational projects about places and how they change.”

The newest item under its News tab starts, “If you happen to be in Tennessee, CUP is planning an exhibit for the Art Gallery of Knoxville’s show, ‘Building Communities.’ The exhibit covers developments in Knoxville’s history, from the failed to the fanciful.”

As researchers learned, Knoxville’s urban-design projects are often both failed and fanciful.

They came here at the request of maverick gallery operator Chris Molinsky, who is underwriting their work in Knoxville. Their show, which opens this Friday, Nov. 3 at the Art Gallery of Knoxville, will run for one month. The upstart gallery at 313 N. Gay is now celebrating its first anniversary. (It is, by the way, no kin to the Knoxville Museum of Art.)

Its first year has been something like a small war. On its south side, the Gay Street Viaduct closed for demolition and replacement just as it opened, cutting it off from downtown, and the popular monthly First Friday art-gallery walks; just as it reopened, Gay Street closed on its north side, jackhammered up for the interstate-expansion project, cutting the gallery off from North Knoxville. Despite its star-crossed transportation issues, some are calling it one of the city’s best galleries for real, fresh new art. But it’s safe to say most have never heard of it.

Molinsky, who studied at the famous Art Institute of Chicago, is a constitutionally cheerful guy, but you have to wonder if the gallery’s battery by major construction projects may have inspired the theme of this new show; if it’s not art, exactly, it’s provocative. The subject is major urban plans and how they’ve affected Knoxville in both positive and negative ways. The researchers from CUP—mainly, Lize Mogel and Angela Starita—have learned a lot in a few weeks.

Mogel has worked as a grants officer for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and for the Center of Visual Studies at MIT. “I really liked Knoxville,” she says. “We spent most of our first four or five days downtown, because that’s where the archives were. Our first couple of days downtown were actually really nice. A lot of attention has been paid to it.”

One drawback, Mogel says, is that downtown “does seem somewhat a homogeneous environment. It’s different if you go a little bit further east. The freeway creates that demographic barrier.” 

“It’s pretty interesting. There’s a good example of every kind of development practice in a city its size. Urban renewal made a pretty big impact on the physical footprint of the city, but also socially, especially for black Knoxvillians.”

One aspect of the exhibit at the gallery is focused on the always-a-bridesmaid, never-an-actual-project State Street Site. “It’s a very extreme, but also very interesting, location,” remarks Mogel. “So much interest and funding has been focused on it, from reasonable and necessary to—” she reaches for a word—“ incredible , in the case of Universe Knoxville. And after 10 years, and vigorous public participation, in the end, it’s now just a parking lot!”

Worse, it’s one that’s not used much. Mogel and Starita went there on a Saturday when several things were happening downtown, including the ¡Hola! Hispanic-heritage festival, which drew more than 1,000 to Market Square, hardly two blocks away. But there were only two cars in the giant lot. They took a picture to show us.

That reminds her of another striking observation about Knoxville. She’s studied aerial images of central Knoxville, and sounds awed by one aspect of downtown. “There’s a lot of parking! And it’s really only completely filled six times a year, on game days.” Her understanding is that the city’s professed need for parking is driven more by businesses insisting on the necessity of parking adjacent to their businesses rather than by actual municipal need.

Another aspect of the exhibit focuses on annexation, one of the touchiest municipal issues of the last 45 years or so. One part of the exhibit will show Knoxville’s geographical conquest from 1792 to 1998. “It goes from a little dot in the 1700s,” Mogel says, “to something that takes up over a third of the county today.”

They’re going to present a blue Styrofoam cutout of the city’s boundaries to be laid out in table fashion, just because it looks so “weird.” Knoxville’s multiple finger annexations, mostly from the Ashe administration, are not as obvious on a roadmap, but are striking, and a little frightening, when shown in relief. “It’s a splatted spider,” she says. But one with a few too many legs. Some are so long and thin they’ll have to install them with dowels to keep them from breaking off.

“The  annexation story in Knoxville is interesting and unique,” says Rosten Woo, the Program Director for CUP. He didn’t come to town for the research, but he’s been fascinated by what his researchers turned up about the city down in Tennessee. “It’s the 14th most elastic city in the United States. It has grown by 250 percent since 1960.” He means in sheer geographical acreage, not in population, which has grown only 50 percent in that time. “There’s a pretty active debate about whether that’s good, and healthy.” On the one hand, it looks sprawly, but he admits there’s also a matter of “equity in taxation” concerning residents and businesses that profit from proximity to the city.

“It’s such an interesting case study, I’d like to show it to people outside of Knoxville,” says Woo.

In this regard, the city’s largest commercial development, on its far westernmost tendril, caught their attention. “Knoxville is a condensed case study of suburban development,” says Mogel. “Like Turkey Creek: Look at what happens when you put a giant shopping mall on a wetland. It’s bustling—but there’s also a downside, depending on whom you talk to.”

Urban renewal, which dominated much of Knoxville’s municipal efforts in the 1950s and ’60s, is outlined in the exhibit, partly by way of an anecdote of black entrepreneur Madison Smith, who was booted out of his old Vine Avenue location, who was a rare minority retailer who was able to make a go of it on Gay Street.

Also examined is urban renewal’s modern counterpart, the recent Empowerment Zone initiative of the late ’90s, a federal program that originally promised $100 million, but had run out of money before Knoxville had received as much as one-quarter of the total.

“$100 million can make a huge difference,” Mogel says. “$24 million can help, and it’s been used in good ways: jobs, training programs. But it’s a shame the program was underfunded.”

They’ll tell the EZ story, in part, by way of a “Tale of Two Supermarkets.” The one under construction at Mechanicsville Commons, and the one at Five Points, which opened promisingly only to close a few months later.

“One thing has really struck me,” says researcher Angela Starita. A freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times and the Village Voice , she is concentrating her Knoxville work on a couple of federal programs over the last 50 years. “In New York recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about whose planning policy works best, Jane Jacobs or Robert Moses?” Jacobs was the writer who posited that the healthiest urban development is pedestrian-oriented, diverse, and executed on a human scale. Moses was the Big Idea guy, the New York urban planner who, in the postwar era, directed the demolition of whole swaths of urban neighborhoods to build highways.

“It’s something of a silly, false debate that often makes people conclude that there’s no place for big government-funded programs, that by their nature they’re going to be corrosive to the community,” Starita says. “Urban renewal here, like everywhere else, was a top-down process: local powerbrokers using federal money to make huge decisions with almost no community input. Seems like that program really created rifts that are still far from healed.” Older blacks, in particular, are still bitter about what they call “Urban Removal.”  

So when Knoxville gets named an Empowerment Zone city, it’s run in a very different way: It’s much more community-driven. That’s not to say that getting popular opinion makes a program a success—clearly it doesn’t—but I feel like Knoxville is very consciously wrestling with the way to make large-scale publicly funded initiatives suitable for the greatest number of citizens.”

The gallery will offer visitors large posters with the strangely shaped city of Knoxville outlined, inviting them to draw in their own blue-sky dreams.

For better or worse, that big-picture Moses style of development doesn’t seem to be the fate of the Southside project that Schimmenti and his class are studying. It seems to be, as far as urban master plans go, one with a light touch. “The big surprise is that the plan had a very big faith in capitalist economics. ‘The market will sort it out’—we hear that a lot,” Schimmenti says. “There aren’t any civic buildings, institutions, beyond a cultural museum. But more residences will affect schools, public libraries, fire stations, police stations.

“Let’s locate places for those things in the plan, and save those sites.” The market may well sort out condos and restaurants, but Schimmenti doesn’t want developers to paint themselves into a corner without providing for the possibility of public amenities in the future. Sometimes the best plan is to make room for future plans.

It’s likely that most or all of the UT design studio’s concepts won’t be implemented in reality on the Southside development. Coping with the silence after a long-wrought plan is never implemented may be one of the most accurate real-world lessons the students learn.