Henley Bridge is Falling Down

And it's got to be fixed. But how TDOT goes about it has big implications for both sides of the river.

The Henley Bridge is in need of repair. About that fact there is little dispute. The Tennessee Department of Transportation has a slide show of scary-looking photographs of lesions where the concrete has fallen away, exposing the scab-colored rust of the 80-year-old steel. TDOT officials aren't sure it will last more than two more years without posting weight limits, forbidding heavier vehicles including delivery trucks and fire trucks.

The repair will take place at a date yet to be determined, pending the estimated $30 million in state and federal dollars necessary for the job, and the bridge will have to be closed for 30 to 36 months. If that funding package passes in this spring's session, which remains uncertain in this cash-stressed state, work may begin in about one year. The bridge would be closed from January 2011 until mid-2013 or early 2014.

Many, especially on the south side of the river, are worried mainly about that interim, and whether businesses along Chapman Highway can survive without the bridge for two-and-a-half to three years. Closing it for only a couple of days, for fireworks shows, causes disruptions; that closing the bridge for three years or so will hurt South Knoxville businesses, especially those between the river and Moody Avenue, seems a regrettable certainty. The prospect exposes how much we are still, in the era of Twitter and Facebook, still dependent on bridges to cross rivers. Chapman Highway, which was built to connect to the Henley Bridge, will be less accessible than it has ever been in its history.

TDOT spokesman Travis Brickey says they tried "three ways to Sunday" to find a way to keep part of the bridge open during the work. "The entire deck has to come down," he says. "The spandrels, every one of them, has to be removed," referring to the big supports beneath the deck. For a while during construction, the Henley Bridge will be nothing but arches.

Southside businesses, especially those that depend heavily on traffic from central Knoxville, like Knoxville's biggest locally owned record store, the Disc Exchange, will feel the bite. Allan Miller, manager of that record store that employs about 20, says business is good—which may surprise those who assume all music is being bought off the Web these days.

"The vinyl end of things is doing well," he says. "And the quality of CDs is still good, compared to downloads. Our customers are into quality-sounding stuff."

But he's very worried about that bridge. He says they're going to recommend customers use the narrow, old Gay Street Bridge, which under normal circumstances gets only about one-fourth the traffic Henley does. "But it's going to be backed up," he assumes. The music merchant has talked to engineers so much he can sound like an expert in bridge construction himself. He can tell you why the whole bridge has to close, and why it has to be closed so long.

"We would have liked to see it worked on all the time, 24-7-365," he says. "But they say it's a safety issue."

He sees closing the bridge as more of a threat to his business than the recession or the download trend, and he's frankly not sure how Disc Exchange is going to fare. Rocky Stanley of Stanley's Greenhouse is concerned, not only for his customers but for the tractor trailer trucks that service his family's big plant store. He doubts long trucks can navigate the Gay Street Bridge—and "you can't hardly tell somebody how to go from James White to here." He wishes TDOT would find a way to fix the bridge without closing it altogether. "Where there's a will, there's a way," he says.

Several other entrepreneurs were among the 65 or so who attended TDOT's public meeting during a cold driving rain at South Knoxville's Graystone Presbyterian Church last month. The crowd, mobilized by five south-side neighborhood organizations, expressed concerns about additional traffic from likely detours, official or unofficial, to other bridges. TDOT is suggesting a detour via Moody to James White Parkway, via the South Knoxville Bridge, about one mile upstream from Henley and never used to full capacity since its construction in the 1980s. But no one can predict where shortcut-seeking drivers will wander. Most of the worries expressed at TDOT's public meeting were about that three-year interim.

TDOT has determined that the bridge needs to be 12 feet wider than it has been for the last 80 years, adding a sixth lane; whether that lane will be used for traffic or bicycles is yet to be determined.

Several folks on the downtown end are more concerned about the long-term effects of the work, and some oppose expanding the Henley Bridge. Even after it's all done and the bridgeless months are over, they say, the resulting widened bridge, connecting to a partially widened Henley Street, will fail to address a long-standing design problem for downtown—and may make it worse.

Janet Hogan, a partner in the law firm that built its beach-house-like headquarters on Hill Avenue beside the bridge, strongly opposes the widening. TDOT has condemned part of their property, a small patch that now supports a tree. She doesn't like the widening in part because it may bring higher-speed traffic almost flush against their building.

"I think it's a beautiful bridge," she says. "I've never noticed the traffic is horrible there. I sit there and watch it every day. I really don't see the need to widen it. I grew up in Chicago, which has all kinds of old bridges, narrow bridges. They just reverse traffic flow in some lanes at different times of day."

No one spends more time in close proximity to the Henley Street Bridge than Brian Pittman. An architectural designer, he works at the firm of McCarty Holsapple McCarty, which is located a stone's throw from the bridge. But he lives in a restored modernist house on Hill Avenue, even closer to the bridge, and intends to move into the 100-year-old Temple House next door. Almost torn down a few years ago, the tall brick house at Henley and Hill, now surrounded with renovation scaffolding, was saved when Pittman bought it in a complex effort involving the city and preservationist group Knox Heritage.

Pittman fears the result of widening Henley will be more traffic, moving faster, dangerously close to the house he expects to be living in before the bridge work is done. Though TDOT says use of lanes is partly up to Knoxville and its citizens to determine, Pittman says in drawings the asphalt by his house looks to him like an interstate-style turn lane.

Pittman thinks TDOT's priority is to hasten more traffic across the bridge faster. "They fly through there," he says. "But there's no reason they have to. TDOT treats it as a highway between the interstate and South Knoxville."

"I'm all for making the Henley Street Bridge safe," he says. "I'm not for making it wider, or making it faster."

***

Though the bridge began life in 1930 as a city project, TDOT's in charge now. Brickey says the TDOT thinks of Henley Street as part of State Route 33, which includes Maynardville Highway and Chapman Highway. He says it's been TDOT's plan to widen the bridge ever since they determined the existing archwork could bear 12 more feet of deck width, and another lane, for a future total of six. TDOT has used computer models to project that the bridge may be getting a 36 percent increase in traffic in just 12 years, a total of about 53,000 a day, and Henley may need extra lanes to accommodate that.

One surprise turned up in their research: Henley Bridge was originally six lanes, back in the days when a typical car was a Model A Ford, and before federal standards for lane width trimmed it to five. Brickey says because the bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places, repair to it had to go though historic-commission review; despite the fact that the new bridge will be wider, TDOT is obliged to rebuild the deck as a close match to what's there now. Brickey says that will include the balustrade lights installed by the Ashe administration in the 1990s.

They're going to build it wider mainly because they have the opportunity to. But he emphasizes that what's not yet determined is how the extra space will be used in the near future. Devoting the new sixth lane to pedestrians and bicycles seemed popular with the big crowd that showed up for the public meeting last month. Several advocates for a bicycle-pedestrian lane spoke at that meeting, and the TDOT representatives present seemed agreeable. The prospect that TDOT is pushing widening the bridge while citing the prospect of rising automobile traffic, though, leaves some with the impression that any bike lane is likely to be temporary. Brickey acknowledges that the use of the extra lane may change over the years. "We just want to give TDOT and the city flexibility," he says. "No one knows what we'll need 15 years down the road, 25 years down the road. You don't know what the world's gonna be like in 30 years."

"We always planned on extra width," he says. He says TDOT didn't study the idea of rebuilding the bridge as is, and can't suggest how much less it might cost.

***

In criticizing the bridge-widening project, Pittman doesn't want to seem like a crank. He wasn't at the TDOT forum last month because he didn't know about it. No downtown issues came up at that meeting. But he has approached city and TDOT officials about his concerns.

"They've been nothing but nice," he says. "I don't want to come across that they weren't. But it always ended up with ‘We're going to do it anyway.'"

As an architect, he says, he's impressed with much of TDOT's more recent work downtown: the Gay Street viaduct and the Church Street viaduct.

But he thinks widening the bridge will worsen a downtown problem called Henley Street. Pittman says Henley Street "creates a wall between UT and downtown—between the two biggest pedestrian places in Knoxville. There are 30,000 kids who'd love to be able to walk over here—but it ain't worth it!"

He's also concerned about the convention center, whose lack of clear connection to downtown's attractions has long been subject of criticism.

"What do they do when they go out? They see traffic, vuh-vuh-vuh-vuh! They say screw it, and go back to the hotel."

He and Hogan both think drivers in the habit of using Henley Street to get to the interstate would be better off using James White Parkway.

"There's another bridge, a big bridge," Hogan says, referring to the South Knoxville bridge, the interstate-style crossing about a mile upstream. "We never use it."

Though it's physically a longer trip, Pittman claims that because James White requires few stops, it's just as fast from most points south as traffic-light-bedecked Henley Street is.

Pittman would like to see the city take this opportunity to transform Henley Street into something more manageable, and prettier. "We should treat Henley Street more like a boulevard," he says. "TDOT and the city need to look at Henley Street differently than in the past. We should treat Henley Street like a boulevard. Make it much more pedestrian friendly."

He'd like to see raised planters in the medians, and other measures to "calm people down, slow people down." Adding more lanes, he says, will "just fix it for a little while, until we're in the same predicament in a few years. If you've done what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got."

Pittman isn't the first to suggest a boulevard. For more than 20 years, urban-planning professionals have insisted that Henley Street is a major problem for downtown Knoxville—especially as the central business district links, or doesn't link, to the University of Tennessee as well as Fort Sanders, East Tennessee's highest-density residential neighborhood.

In 1989, a much-publicized Downtown Plan proposed making Henley more pedestrian friendly, as something like a boulevard, with better walkways and more plantings. In 1997, the Urban Land Institute's study of the convention center siting determined that Henley Street was a barrier that needed to be overcome, especially for the then-prospective convention center to be a success. In 1999, ambitious private firm Worsham Watkins International proposed building a retail street above it, a broad pedestrian overpass with retail built in. Later, as part of the Nine Counties One Vision process, the nationally known design firm of Crandall Arambula underscored Henley Street's dysfunction, and proposed burying Henley so the city could cross back and forth on grade.

Each proposal was considered over a period of months or years, and eventually scrapped as financially impractical.

Others have talked about more modest "traffic calming" measures, either to slow traffic or make crossing Henley Street less intimidating.

One narrow footbridge at Clinch Avenue, built for the 1982 World's Fair, gets some use, but it involves 35 steps, or an elevator wait, and it's only at that one point. The city installed a no-right-turn sign at the Main Street crossing a few years ago, to make crossing safer, but as Nathan Benditz, an engineer for the Transportation Planning Organization, observes, "Some pay attention to the no-right-turn sign, some don't."

He has seen pedestrians fleeing before oncoming traffic, even when they're crossing with the walk light.

Little has actually been done to address the problem. Sidewalks were widened on part of the convention-center side, but after all the talking and drawings, Henley Street is still there, and as daunting as ever. Downtown still turns its back on Henley Street.

Architecture Professor Mark Schimmenti, UT's expert in urban design, first moved to Knoxville about 15 years ago. The international award-winning scholar has more recently worked on reconfiguring post-Katrina New Orleans. Henley Street was one of the first problems he noticed when he moved here. He assigned his first fifth-year architecture class to find creative ways to deal with Henley Street.

Later, during an interim when he served as head of Nashville's Civic Design Center, he helped with a successful push to stop a highway project called the Franklin Corridor. In speaking to audiences, one trick was especially effective.

"I showed them pictures of Henley Street—and asked, ‘Is this what you want coming through downtown Nashville?'"

He said then-Mayor Phil Bredesen was at one of those meetings, and said—Schimmenti is quoting from memory—"When I stay at the Holiday Inn, I have a hell of a time crossing that thing to go to Chesapeake's for dinner."

Schimmenti calls Henley "a huge barrier" between downtown and UT. "Nothing faces it. It has no life of its own. No one ever takes a walk down Henley for fun."

Schimmenti remarks that almost all the buildings on Henley have their principal entrances elsewhere. "I can think of only one building that faces it, and that's the church," he says. Church Street Methodist has a particularly impressive marble front, even though most parishioners enter the church from the sides.

According to Schimmenti, "We need to make Henley a wonderful street if the convention center is ever going to work." Lack of interest in the convention center has been a major disappointment for the city, and an expensive one. Schimmenti thinks the city's failure to address Henley Street is part of that problem.

When considering Henley, developers seem to throw in the towel before the bout. The first draft of a recent proposal to build Metropolitan Plaza, a hotel complex that some hoped would enliven Henley's street presence, offers only one main entrance, onto quiet Locust Street. Chesapeake's, one of downtown's longtime stalwart restaurants, fronts Henley Street, but greets it with a blank wall. Only the UT Conference Center greets Henley, in a modest way, with a satellite bookstore that gets very little walk-in traffic and seems to serve mainly the offices in its own building—which most employees enter from Locust. Nobody likes to look at Henley Street—or, apparently, walk on it.

"If the city had any kind of idea to modify [Henley Street], we would want to be partners," TDOT's Brickey says, implying he hasn't heard much in that regard. "But it carries a lot of traffic."

***

Bill Lyons, Knoxville director of policy development, sounds resigned to Henley's status quo. He says he doesn't see Henley ever being a pedestrian-oriented boulevard, the sort of place that supports storefronts and sidewalk cafes. "I think the odds of that, given the way things have evolved—in my mind, I don't see that any time in the near future. There are other places for sidewalk cafes, Market Square, Gay Street, or on Clinch, where Le Parigo is. But for Henley, I don't see that happening."

Lyons cites the "wayfinding" measures recently supported by City Council—mainly better signage to get past Henley's barrier, to ameliorate some of the street's problems.

Lyons says the city accepted TDOT's recommendation to widen the bridge to six lanes. "There's not any sense that the city wants the bridge to slow down traffic itself," he says. "Traffic projections are what they are."

TDOT's officials admit their projections of 53,000 cars a day by 2022 aren't bankable. "A traffic projection is just that," Brickey admits, based on a computer model formulated in the Nashville office and adopted as TDOT's standard. The likelihood of major development on the south side, as proposed by the Haslam administration, he says, will likely increase traffic. But traffic counts on the bridge over the last 20 years show no clear upward trend. In fact, Transportation Planning Organization figures suggest the bridge has already borne traffic in numbers well past TDOT's impressive 2022 projection in its own past: in 1996, the bridge's daily log was just shy of 53,000; and in 1998, about the time the Gay Street Bridge was closed for repairs, the Henley Street Bridge logged 58,289 vehicles a day.

There's wide fluctuation in those numbers, but figures available for the 2000s so far suggest that, on average, traffic on the Henley Bridge has actually declined by about 1,600 cars a day since the 1990s.

And other factors, especially another TDOT project, may eventually decrease traffic on the bridge more dramatically. If the completion of the James White Parkway's long-delayed southern route is finished, the expectation is that drivers from Seymour and points south will begin to take it to get to the interstate, and will no longer mess with the more congested parts of Chapman Highway. That final link is still under environmental review and is, at best, years from completion.

***

Widening of the bridge, which has been contemplated for years, seems almost certain. No one in charge is considering other options. But some would like to see the city take the rare circumstance of closing a bridge for three years—perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to finally fix Henley Street itself. Stroud Watson is a retired UT professor whose best-known achievement may be his adopted city of Chattanooga, where he's widely heralded as the urban-planning genius behind that city's seemingly unlikely downtown renaissance. The cafe at the successful Chattanoogan Hotel and Conference Center is named "Stroud's." Since retirement, he's joined the design firm of Kennedy, Coulter, Rushing, & Watson. Though he has visited Knoxville infrequently in recent years, Watson had worked here as a consultant on several downtown projects, including the Cumberland Avenue plan, and is familiar with Henley Street, which he considers, for better or worse, "the front door to the town."

Front doors are important, and he thinks ours needs some serious work. "The problem is that it is a typical car-truck dominated road, essentially an extension of the freeway," he says.

He sounds skeptical of bridge-widenings, which he says have become a "mantra" for departments of transportation in general. He hadn't been in touch with Pittman about his ideas, but Watson sees the bridge closing as a rare chance for Knoxville to reimagine Henley Street itself. "If widening the bridge is inevitable," he says, "consider a boulevard.... This is a huge opportunity to make a quality street statement that integrates pedestrians, bikes, and cars."

He offers several specific suggestions, including pedestrian-scale lighting, landscaping, textured crosswalks—and lowering the speed limit to 20 mph, perhaps just for about four blocks. As if anticipating the balking, he adds, "This is acceptable to any traffic engineer that understands multi-use conditions."

Whenever it's closed, Henley Street will be quieter than it's been since the Hoover administration, and stay that way for about three years. Whether the city takes any initiative or not, it will be very easy to cross; UT students and others will become acquainted with it as a quiet street. Its tens of thousands of drivers may grow accustomed to other routes.

Brickey is confident that even after drivers do become accustomed to using James White Parkway and other routes, they'll inevitably flow back to Henley and the newly widened bridge. But after doing without the bridge altogether for three years, will drivers complain about having to drive a little more slowly and cautiously than they used to, back in 2010?

To Pittman and others, redoing Henley now seems a chance that will not come again.

Watson's ideal is a "boulevard prototype infrastructure that is as grand an expression of civic values as the great park that was accomplished after the World's Fair." He says Henley Street should be "an introduction to the urban center of Knoxville and its major university, alive with visitors from convention, students, and park users," a sort of entryway that "complements the role of the convention center, the potential neighborhood at Maplehurst, certainly addresses the UT connection."

Does the traffic volume forbid Knoxville's reclaiming Henley as the pleasant boulevard once envisioned? The Champs-Élysées, the most famous pedestrian boulevard in the world, gets more than twice as much automobile traffic as Henley does. Granted, it's about twice as wide as Henley, and it's in Paris.

***

Jeff Welch, coordinator of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, like Lyons, doesn't expect any major changes in Henley Street any time soon. "I think there are other opportunities out there that we as a public should be investing in," he says.

He mentions Cumberland Avenue, Magnolia, North Central where city projects are afoot. "Given our limited resources, those other corridors deserve our attention."

Some improvements wouldn't be very expensive. "The ideas outlined are not super expensive," Watson says, "but very high-impact-dollar initiatives."

Public input has focused on the bridge itself, and the likelihood of bike lanes and whether they'll be raised or otherwise separated from automobile traffic. The city's Neighborhood Coordinator, David Massey, formally closed the public-comment period last Friday, Jan. 8, but he says there will be a further forum on the implications of the bridge project later this month.

Beyond Pittman and the urban-design academics, there's been no public clamor to fix Henley Street. It has little natural advocacy. Few businesses face Henley, no businesses depend on it. With hardly any residents, it has no neighborhood organization.

Still, its traffic makes it the most-viewed street downtown. A perusal of online news comments suggests that many even in the Knoxville area still think of downtown Knoxville as bleak, dangerous, or dead. Those who deliberately go downtown know different—but almost none of Gay Street or Market Square's activity is obvious from any major through route, including SR 33. For the most part, downtown Knoxville from Henley Street's vantage may look even less lively than it did, say, 20 years ago, when there was still a department store with on-street display windows and customer entrances on Henley, and restaurants in the L&N.

It has none of that now. But it's where we put our convention center, and it's the downtown Knoxville seen by the occupants of about 40,000 cars a day.

***

As appealing as advocates make a Henley Boulevard sound, Welch says "this is not a walking culture," unlikely to prioritize such a major pedestrian initiative. TDOT representatives have told some boulevard advocates that the driving public wouldn't stand for it. Pittman says he was told, "We'll send the phone calls to you."