cover_story (2007-05)

Jeff Welch (top), director of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, and Ed McKinney (bottom), the study’s project director, on hand to explain the details.

The question in the minds of the scores of people who have been considering the future of the Cumberland Avenue Strip is not whether it can be salvaged, but what the area will be like in 10, 20, 50, or even 75 years.

That's quite a projection to tackle, but the Cumberland Avenue design team that drew up its draft of proposals for the Metropolitan Planning Commission, the city, the University of Tennessee, the neighborhood's merchants and property owners, and the area hospitals is quite comprehensive and looks a long way down the road.

The object of the elaborate process that led to the set of proposals was in the words of Jeff Welch, the executive director of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, who guided it from its inception last spring, to "turn the Strip into a 'Place'." The goal was to make it a center for the university, the neighboring medical complex and the city itself with a "Main Street character" allowing for a broader mix of commercial and residential activity in an environment safer for motorists and, especially, pedestrians.

Released last week to representatives of a 36-member advisory committee and then to the general public, the overall thrust of the report, described as the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Study, was met with approval bordering on enthusiasm by those who attended its unveiling sequence. About 45 citizens who have been following the planning process showed up to view the draft document, which addresses traffic, parking, greenspace and zoning issues and offers a blueprint of how the stretch of Cumberland between 11th Street and Volunteer Boulevard might be turned into an attractive and easily navigated western gateway to UT and downtown Knoxville.

Membership on the advisory committee consisted of representatives from MPC, the city, the two hospitals in Fort Sanders, the Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association, Cumberland Avenue Merchants, Knoxville Utilities Board, the Tennessee Department of Transportation and UT.

The design team, headed by consultant firms Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin of Orlando, Fla., and Kennedy, Coulter, Rushing & Watson of Chattanooga, gained recommendations from the public at an introductory session last November and a more thorough charrette process, in which about 75 participants drew up their own ideas on paper, in December.

Those sessions produced literally hundreds of issues that the participants identified and answers that they suggested to problems. There was a remarkable amount of concurrence. Pedestrian safety, traffic flow, parking needs, the quest for a better business mix and the advisability of more greenery and less signage came up again and again.

Those issues were taken up by the planners. Walter Kulash, a transportation engineer and partner at Glatting Jackson, says, "That's what we try to do, to incorporate as much of the public input as we can." Ann Coulter, a Kennedy, Coulter principal, says of the draft of the proposals, "It has seemed so non-controversial." The public input, she says, was "so consistent, especially considering the wide variety of people, from property and business owners to university students and hospital workers and so many more."

Foremost among the governmental, institutional and private citizens' concerns were the safety considerations involving the street itself, which is also a state and U.S. highway, and the sidewalks and crosswalks along it.

The study's cost was $285,000, with $275,000 from a TDOT grant and $10,000 from the city of Knoxville. The consultant fees include any revisions in the plan and a final public review to be held Feb. 22. There may be some slight revisions put forth at that time, but changes to the street itself and its traffic flow seem firm.

MPC had been thinking of reducing Cumberland from four lanes to three, with a center turn lane, for more than 20 years, and that is one of the recommendations in the draft plan. It would allow for better access to and from the side streets and the commercial curb cuts, and a widening of the sidewalks, with offsets at several points to permit transit stops, deliveries and temporary parking spots.

Through lanes would be 14 feet wide, to accommodate both motor vehicle and bicycle traffic. The center turn lane would be 10 feet wide, and the sidewalks would be widened from nine feet to 16 feet, allowing for more pedestrian space and for more plantings of trees and shrubs between 22nd and 17th Streets, the heart of the commercial Strip.

Bill Lyons, the city's senior director for policy development, says of those measures, "I think the Cumberland traffic problem seems to be solvable."

The solutions as envisioned may result in brief delays in traffic flow. "It may take 30 to 50 seconds longer to drive through there in peak traffic conditions," says Ed McKinney, an urban designer who was Glatting Jackson's project manager for the study. McKinney says such a slight inconvenience to through traffic should be viewed with the question: "Is it a good trade-off for livability?"

Entitled "A History of Connection," the draft report itself looks into the deepest past of the street, once Kingston Pike and the main artery from Knoxville to Nashville and beyond. Development of the university was the initial cause of its change of character, when it became the hub of commercial activity. Fort Sanders Hospital, now called Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, and East Tennessee Children's Hospital, two blocks up the hill to the north, contributed to its busy nature, and the commercial activity on the Strip itself devolved over the years to its present state. It's now mainly a string of restaurants, bars and fast-food outlets, punctuated by bookstores, a drugstore, a dry cleaner, a florist, a couple of banks, service stations and a few odd businesses, such as a palm reader, and others mostly geared toward UT students and passersby who struggle to find a place to park their cars.

The study of traffic flow took into account all of the inflow and outflow of vehicles from Alcoa Highway to Henley Street and from Interstate 40 to Neyland Drive, with the Strip itself bearing an average of 20-25,000 vehicles a day, and Neyland seen as the principal alternative route from Alcoa Highway and the interstate to and from downtown.

While the three-laning option is most likely the first facet of the study to be put into effect, it may be the most controversial.

"I like the look of the overall plan a lot, but I'm a little concerned about three lanes," says Denise Barlow, UT's vice chancellor for finance and administration and an advisory committee member. "I wonder how much traffic will actually divert to Neyland... if safety is improved without too much delay, it may be worthwhile."

On the all-important UT football game days, when traffic multiplies by the tens of thousands in the area, Knoxville Police Lt. Mark Pressley, who helps direct that traffic and looked in on the plan's unveiling, says, "At first look, it would push a lot of traffic away from Cumberland, toward Neyland Drive and Henley Street." The alternative, he says, would be "to make all [Cumberland] lanes one-way west from about 16th [Street] after a game. My advice is to ride a bus to the games, but our advice is always to park and ride the bus."

In the three-lane plan, the center turning lane would be dedicated to emergency vehicles when they are using their flashing lights and sirens.

Cost of the improvements to the street and sidewalks, including greenery, lighting and traffic signals, is estimated roughly at $7.1 million by the planning team. That does not include the burial of overhead utility lines, for which the KUB is still compiling estimates. Recommended removal of the web of wires from over and alongside the street may be prohibitively expensive, but it would be much less costly if it were conducted concurrently with the street and sidewalk work. Welch stresses that the estimated cost is "very preliminary."

On the broader, longer-term issues, such as expanding and enhancing the greenspace along and around the corridor and upgrading the landscaping on what's called UT's "front porch" between 17th and 11th Streets, Barlow says, "Greenspace is very important to us" with the caveat, "Is that the right design? I don't know. It's very attractive on paper."

It's also very ambitious, as most observers agreed at the unveiling.

Among its provisions: The study recommends adoption of "form-based coding" for future development, replacing the current C-7 zoning, which is specific to the neighborhood and allows for a myriad of commercial options. Form-based coding, such as the consultant Kennedy, Coulter has also advocated for the South Knoxville Waterfront initiative, sets requirements for new buildings based on height, footprint and mass of those structures, rather than the property's uses.

For the Strip, the recommended coding would require a 24-foot minimum and 70-foot maximum height for new buildings, and for its closest parallel streets, White and Lake Avenues, the minimum height would be 20 feet and the maximum 40 feet. Those dimensions are meant to encourage mixed uses, with commercial storefronts on the ground floors and residential or office units above.

Setback would be eliminated along the Strip in the long run, with parking moved entirely to the rear of the buildings or to underground parking decks taking advantage of the slope to the north of Cumberland or to parking garages developed jointly by the city and the university or by the city and the hospitals. All new buildings would have to front directly on the street under the form-based coding provisions.

The study also envisions expansion and reconfiguration of the university's Mount Castle Park south of Lake Avenue into a linear park connecting Caledonia Street to the south with Cumberland and creating a community greenspace in the middle of the Strip. That would require considerable university participation along with the acquisition of some private property along Mount Castle Street, and UT's Vice Chancellor Barlow says that hasn't been taken up fully by the university. "I don't know if that's the way," she says of the park proposal. But she concedes that the park idea is "attractive." McKinney says the park proposal is "conceptual" and could be reconfigured in a number of different ways

Street lighting and signage changes are also recommended, with street lighting lowered and enhanced to focus on pedestrian "visibility and comfort" and minimize "light pollution," and signs encouraged to be located at the pedestrian level on awnings and windows and projecting from storefronts. The city's Lyons says he's sure that "signage will be addressed" when coding changes are taken up at MPC.

The ambitions in the overall plan gained as much attention as any of its individual components. As MPC Chairman Mark Donaldson told the gathering of the 45 citizens at the unveiling, "A plan is just a plan. Implementation depends on the city, the university and the hospitals working together, pooling their resources."

And that means only the changes in infrastructure and public facilities, not the private components. Lyons says he feels that prospects for the joint establishment of new parking garage spaces for the public, especially between the city and the university, are open. "The attitudes are good. I think that there can be cooperation" in parking development. He says he hasn't talked with the hospitals.

Julie Dougherty, a representative of Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center on the advisory committee, was non-committal on the specifics of parking, saying the center has just built a new garage. She did say, "If we all work together we can accomplish a lot," and that any improvements in traffic or parking problems will benefit the hospitals. "Access is very important to Fort Sanders," she says.

"I think the reason we're participating is that we're a part of the community," Dougherty says. She says there will be benefits to Fort Sanders employees in terms of better retail and perhaps residential opportunities as well. "I'm an eternal optimist, I guess, but everyone seemed pleased [with the draft proposals] on the advisory committee," she says.

The private components are less predictable. "How the recommendations for property owners pan out is hard to project," Dougherty says.

Welch, director of the overall project, says, "I sat at a table with six or eight property owners at the December charrette. First they told their horror stories of 'how the university screwed me, how the hospital screwed me, how the city screwed me,'" but by the end they had some good ideas and they were receptive to others' ideas, Welch says, and he says he believes they'll be engaged if the plan moves forward. "They're wanting to see something happen," he says, and they're aware that changes being advanced would increase their property values.

One of those property owners is Debbie Billings, proprietor of Graphic Creations, a graphics services business on Lake Avenue. Billings, 40, and a 1988 UT graduate, also owns property on Cumberland. She participated in the last Cumberland Avenue study organized by the city in the late 1980s. "We had some of these same ideas then, and it came to nothing," says Billings. "I believe it was all for show... I think it will happen this time, and I'm excited about it."

Among the inducements for private development under the form-based coding proposal is encouragement by the planners for the city to employ tax-increment financing to allow owner/developers property tax breaks in the early years following their investments. Project manager McKinney also says the residential uses of the upper floors of new buildings should help with financing.

Although the envisioned design of new buildings, with storefronts right at the sidewalk to give the Strip its Main Street appeal, appears extravagant, McKinney says the proposals are not to be taken as things that will occur overnight. The important thing to consider is the potential, he says, for about 130,000 square feet of new commercial space and about 1,400 new residential units that such reconfigured structures would eventually bring to the Strip and its immediate environs.

"We think these proposals should establish guidelines that will remain effective 50 to 75 years out," McKinney says.

Jenny Shugart, a second-year graduate student in planning at UT, says she's followed the progress of the study since it was commissioned, and is impressed with the amount of work that went into it, the scope and the outcome. She won't be doing a Master's thesis on the subject, however, as the degree she's seeking doesn't require writing such a paper. "I'd love to see it come to fruition, maybe not exactly as it's proposed, but [redeveloping Cumberland] is so important to the university," Shugart says.

The residential component is particularly appealing to Rob Dansereau, the president of the Cumberland Avenue Merchants Association, who, like Billings, says the Strip's businesses can't succeed on UT student patronage alone. New residents in the area, along with making the Strip more appealing and usable for all Knoxvillians, would be the keys to bringing in a better business mix and make traditional retail viable there.

"We'd be able to have a food store, a shoe store, a clothing store," says Dansereau, 30, the owner of Flashback, a retro merchandise and specialty gift store in the 1800 block of Cumberland. A UT graduate (in history and political science), Dansereau started a business on Cumberland before graduation, and in the last decade he's tried "eight business plans involving clothing, gifts and jewelry at four different retail spaces in the 1800 block. He and his wife also operate Indigo, an upscale fashion outlet for women on Union Avenue just off Market Square downtown.

Dansereau, who does not own Cumberland property himself, says his own experience was that retailing there peaked in the 1990s, and that the turnover in retailing along the Strip and the rise in Internet sales have cut into the market there. But he sees the redevelopment of Cumberland as a way to draw more business.

Internet sales have impacted retailers everywhere, but business turnover has been more drastic on the Strip than most retail locations. Aside from enduring institutions such as the Copper Cellar, the Longbranch Saloon and the Old College Inn, few businesses remain that were there 25 years ago. But Dansereau says he's convinced that turnover rate will change for the better if the plan is put into effect.

"People are buying or wanting to buy property along here right now for development," Dansereau says without consenting to be specific. A complication in that investment momentum, he says, is that "a lot of the property down here is split up among many owners, absentees and heirs and the like." He says the positive effect of property values going up may drive those multiple owners to sell; at least he hopes so.

There is no one who thinks the renovations as recommended would fail to raise property values, and that is part of the plan's appeal, according to Welch, who says that notion, along with the worries over safety and the general feeling of desperation over the Strip's well-earned reputation as a commercial nightmare, made it "not that hard, really, to shepherd the process along.

"It's too important for the city to ignore," Welch says. And McKinney adds, "Nothing about the street is working as it should." Lyons   agrees. A long-time UT political science professor who took a leave of absence from the university to take up a city administration role, Lyons says, "I've always been struck by Cumberland Avenue not being what it should be."

This latest study and its proposals, Lyons says, could well lead the Strip to become the "Place" it always could have been.

While not a skeptic of the plan, Todd Napier, director of development for the Development Corp. of Knox County, looked over the presentation last week and remarked, "The city is taking on a lot at once with the South Knox Waterfront, the continued redevelopment downtown and this." But Napier says he's sure that Cumberland Avenue needs to be a priority. "I support this both personally and publicly," Napier says.

It should be noted here that there was one consistent skeptic who caught the attention of the planners at all of the public sessions so far. It was a woman who wouldn't identify herself and avoided the sign-in sheets, according to Renee Davis of the MPC staff, who helped organize the meetings.

"She said she didn't want us to track her down," says Davis, "and all she was concerned about was the Panera Bread on Cumberland. She didn't want anybody forcing Panera Bread to move or change. She wants Panera Bread to stay just as it is." Coulter says she and the other planners were puzzled by that one. "We never indicated that our work would affect Panera Bread, but she kept showing up and saying the same thing."

If that's the extent of the dissent, this Cumberland corridor study's recommendations should have smooth sailing. Any other complainants should attend the final revision hearing at the University Center's ballroom on Thursday, Feb. 22, at 6 p.m. The study team will wrap up its work in March, and the project will move to the implementation phase after that.