The underside of elevated highways is a universal problem in urban planning. Not only is it a necessarily dead zone—most kinds of construction, and the operation of businesses, is illegal under a highway, both for maintenance and "homeland security" reasons—but it also tends to segregate everything on one side of a highway from everything on the other. Urban-design scholars cite studies showing that given any other option, pedestrians won't walk beneath highways. Some people even prefer not to drive beneath them. If business on one side of a freeway is thriving, it may shrivel on the other side. On First Friday's wildly successful gallery-walk nights, thousands of pedestrians do walk all over downtown—but rarely under the freeway, even though there are a couple of interesting galleries just north of Interstate 40 which might otherwise seem walkable.
To the city, which has been working on several fronts to carry downtown's energy beyond I-40 to create an area to be known as Downtown North, with mixed success, I-40 has always been the equivalent of an invisible fence. And now, with SmartFIX 40, that barrier's wider than ever. There's been speculative talk of trying something imaginative down there—artwork, competitive graffiti, something that might make it seem less than dire to walk beneath the interstate on Central or Gay.
For the time being, according to Bob Whetsel, the city's director of redevelopment, it'll all be free parking: about 200 spaces beneath I-40 and another 200 spaces beneath the James White Parkway. It's paved but not lined yet; Whetsel says the parking lots will be completed during the summer. Some are being used already, and Whetsel seems okay with that. Some of the parking, near the Broadway underpass, is dedicated to Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries, for staff and visitors. Another lot is dedicated to longtime neighbor AAA East Tennessee.
It's not a perfect solution, of course. The undersides of highways tend to be magnets for crime. The parking lots won't be attended, as a regular thing, but the one beneath I-40 already has a new iron fence around it, and not a bad-looking one, as fences go. The parking lots will also be brightly lit, all night, and the administration's been talking with the police about enhancing security there.
Whetsel says it may evolve into an attended-parking situation. But by the city's agreement with TDOT, no one's allowed to profit from the parking area; if the lots ever are attended, the city would be allowed only to charge for maintenance and staffing expenses. Both the under-highway lots are about two blocks from the Old City, where the city operates no public parking lots—and, partly as a consequence, parking's always at a premium, especially at night.
The city has enlisted landscape design firm Hedstrom Design to consider options to enhance the appeal of the underside of I-40, or at least mitigate the problems it causes. Based in the Old City, owner Sara Hedstrom might offer some insight into the neighborhood's problems.
Asked whether SmartFIX's widening of I-40, with the mitigating improvements, is good or bad for downtown development, especially the city's attempts to redevelop Downtown North, Whetsel says, "This is the hand you're dealt. You make the best of it."