Not Our Smartfix

Interstate 40 certainly helps travelers zip past downtown. But what has it done for Knoxville?

The mainstream media trumpeting the reopening of Interstate 40 makes it sound like Christmas, or the Vols winning the SEC, or our boys coming home from the war. Some of us may have difficulty mustering the suggested glee. I get around a good deal in town, by car, by bus, by bike, and on foot. I have not missed it. If I had never heard I-40 had been closed for the last 14 months, I might not have noticed its absence.

Maybe some did notice a gap in their lives, but I get the impression that few Knoxvillians have been much put out by the absence of I-40. Early last year, there were dire predictions of disaster for downtown restaurant retail, as if downtown were a big interstate exit and might dry up without I-40. The few businesses I know which have suffered a sag lately have attributed it entirely to the recession, not to lack of interstate traffic. In fact, business downtown during the closing of the downtown leg of I-40 may have fared better than business elsewhere. During our 14 months without an interstate barreling through the middle of town, more businesses have opened than closed.

A more congenial sort than I am might see that as part of the Smart of SmartFIX40. The Fix was so extraordinarily smart, we didn't notice the interstate was closed. But it also leaves some of us wondering whether it really needed to be reopened.

I don't doubt there might be some who are happy to hear about it. If you live in Holston Hills, for example, and work every day in Turkey Creek, you may save a couple of gallons of gas a month. If you live in West Hills and like to watch Tennessee Smokies games, you'll likely be able to leave a few minutes later without missing the first pitch.

For most Knoxvillians, it just doesn't matter at all. Yes, it fixed that dangerous left-side on-ramp at James White Parkway, at great expense. It seemed dangerous even when they built it, also at great expense. I know people who've been badly hurt on it. But as a frequent downtown-area driver, I'd been avoiding it so long I no longer thought about it. Is there no one still alive who can apologize, or perhaps face charges, for building it that way? I don't know. But other folks are happy to take credit for fixing the problem.

And, of course, interstate construction casts a big shadow. Multiple residents were forced out by the expansion. Some businesses didn't survive. Some people, and I'm not the only one, think of SmartFIX mainly as what killed the Glenwood Sandwich Shop, one of the last authentically local Knoxville eateries (and the only place I know of that sold creditable versions of both of Knoxville's old-school eccentricities, Mets and Beans and the Full House). Historic neighborhoods, cut apart by the original construction of the highways, are more separated now than ever, and a little smaller. Thanks to SmartFIX, streets that used to make linear sense, like Magnolia and Depot, no longer do. The area in the vicinity of the Knoxville Opera Company, which a few years ago held promise as a sort of Downtown East, now seems like some remote netherworld, cut off from everything.

I know, it could have been worse. That's what cheerful people say, just as they always say after any car wreck that you survive. Original plans, drawn up in the '90s, called for wholesale demolitions of entire blocks. More than a decade of deft negotiations did mitigate some of the ruin.

But here's what I still don't get: If we could do without I-40 coming through the center of downtown for a year or more, why not do without it forever? Just route I-40 north, along I-640. Has that been intolerable?

Some who live along I-640 did complain about that prospect a few years ago. As it turns out, with the possible exception of Cracker Barrels and Taco Bells, nobody much wants the interstate near where they are. Which drives home a humbling point: I-40 wasn't built for our benefit. It's an interstate. It's for driving between states.

It's an old Tennessee tradition to blame the federal government, but I-40 follows the course of a long-ago city project called the Magnolia Expressway which was perceived to be a boon to downtown. When I-40 came through, it seemed all good, this routing of thousands of cross-country strangers through town every day. Our city fathers of the '50s and '60s didn't have the benefit of national studies suggesting that highway traffic never helps downtowns very much. It usually has the opposite effect. This highway's first 20 years of existence in downtown witnessed a decline in downtown from a thriving and diverse commercial center to something like a big office park with restaurants there mainly to serve the business-lunch trade.

There's no reason any downtown needs a big highway. Consider Chattanooga, a smaller city than Knoxville which has recently become nationally famous for its innovative and extremely successful downtown development. The busiest part of downtown Chattanooga is about two miles from the nearest interstate, I-24—and even it's not nearly as big as I-40. (Higher-traffic I-75 is still farther away.) Downtown Chattanooga braggers, and there are a whole lot of them, boast that one of their advantages over Knoxville is that no interstate plows through their downtown.

Some cities, like Milwaukee, have removed existing highways to replace them with boulevards or parks. Longtime Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, who oversaw the successful removal of a downtown highway there, has been quoted in the national media declaring, "Highways don't belong in cities, period." Some I-40 exits, like Oklahoma City, have actually been finding ways to move their highways away from downtown, to minimize damage. By 2012, their crosstown highway will be a nice long park.

The original construction of our particular stretch of the interstate highway, back in the '50s, destroyed more than a dozen busy city blocks or tax-revenue-producing business. Moreover, other blocks which survived technically intact, but in the shadow of the elevated highway, shriveled. It turns out thousands of tons of concrete and steel, a block-wide strip of permanently ruined land underneath, and truck noise at decibels much higher than the speed limit don't do much for property values. Who knew? Gosh, we thought it would help.

Not only did the highway irradiate its immediate vicinity, but with only a few exceptions, business north of the new highway—the old northern quarter of downtown Knoxville—atrophied. Middle-class apartment buildings became flophouses. Neighborhoods north of the interstate declined in value for a generation or two.

Just as TDOT was planning to make I-40 much wider, the city has been struggling to mend the problems cause by the original construction of the highway through downtown Knoxville more than 50 years ago. When Knoxville was a smaller city, downtown Knoxville was, strangely, much larger, stretching north past the intersection of Broadway and Central, encompassing old Knoxville High, Emory Park, a few churches, and institutions like Harb's Oriental Rugs. Emory Park had once been considered a reasonable walk from the banking district. But—another big surprise, apparently—it turns out that people don't like to walk under highways. The construction of the highway became a de-facto DMZ. It's possible to pass beneath I-40, of course. There are sidewalks beneath it at Broadway and Gay Street and Williams Street and Central. It's just that it's noisy, uninteresting, and maybe dangerous. There may be a reason medieval folklore had it that the underside of bridges were the best place to find trolls. I don't want to offend the sensibilities of trolls by comparing them to the actual people who tend to hang out underneath I-40. Elevated highways are a magnet for crime.

After the construction of the highway, people grew acquainted with thinking of downtown Knoxville as a smaller thing. Now, as central-business-district properties available for redevelopment are scarcer than ever, the city's been trying to re-stitch the trans-interstate Downtown North—just as the chasm-like highway that separated them gets much wider.

With a great deal of expense, including government, business, and philanthropic dollars, the old northern part of downtown—Downtown North—has gotten shown some fresh life in the last few years, mitigating some of the interstate's damage. It shouldn't have taken this much effort.

A few years ago, a neighborhood-activist group proposed replacing the urban part of I-40 with a grade-level boulevard. Any passer through that didn't want to deal with it could take 640 around town. Call that I-40, if you want to. They found themselves slapped down by TDOT as well as city authorities, who more or less said, Why that's just crazy talk. But today, some larger cities in the region, including Nashville and Louisville are reportedly taking elevated-highway-removal projects seriously. We missed an opportunity, I think, to just get rid of the thing.

But, again, it wasn't built for us. Those happiest about the completion of SmartFIX are the literal interstate travelers: the Charlotte-bound truckers, the Florida-bound tourists, the through-motorists for whom the fact that there's an accumulation of people called "Knoxville" is chiefly an annoyance. Our smartest fix would have been to get rid of the thing.