Streetscape Salvation: Will the City's Plan to Improve Magnolia Avenue Help Jump-Start East Knoxville's Revitalization?

On paper, East Magnolia Avenue should work. It's home to Chilhowee Park (and the Tennessee Valley Fair), the Knoxville Zoo, a subsidiary campus of Pellissippi State Community College, Caswell Park, the John T. O'Connor Senior Center, and a YMCA. Chandler's Deli and the Pizza Palace are longtime pillars of the business community on the east side.

But when you make the turn from Hall of Fame to Magnolia you might notice signs for Caswell Park but have no idea about the ball fields. Once you get past Pellissippi State, it's the large, empty buildings that stand out more than the small store fronts—and many of those have windows covered by bars. There tends to be trash on the side of the road. And residents are getting impatient with the state of their main roadway and the neighborhoods overall.

When Mayor Madeline Rogero took office in 2011 (and was inaugurated in Chilhowee Park), part of her vision was to continue strengthening the urban core with public infrastructure improvements from the center moving outward. Happy Holler is now a hip place to be (though it was well on its way before Rogero was elected) and North Gay Street is in the process of getting a facelift.

So now it's Magnolia Avenue's turn.

In April, the City of Knoxville held a public meeting at the O'Connor Senior Center to present plans for a streetscaping project that will eventually go down Magnolia from Jessamine Street to the zoo. The plan calls for wider sidewalks, shade trees along those sidewalks, strategically-placed bus pull-outs (where appropriate), benches like those along the 100 Block of Gay Street, painted crosswalks at intersections, bike lanes, and medians with landscaping and pedestrian refuges down the middle turn lane. David Code, a landscape architect from Kimley-Horn and Associates, headed the design project for the city and emphasized the importance of infrastructure improvements like this at the meeting.

"The other day, I saw a gentleman in a wheelchair make it [across Magnolia]. But he had to make three stops in the middle of the road to do it. That's not good. That's not safe. And that's not the way we treat people in our own community," Code said.

Residents gave a few comments after Code's presentation of the project, such as the idea of planting fruit trees, connecting existing sidewalks, and prioritizing bus shelters along Magnolia. (It's KAT's most-used bus route.) But there were also questions such as "Have you looked at, also, the health care desert?" and comments like, "I do want us to be cautious about all those businesses that have stayed in business all those years." Others questioned what the city would do to address the lack of pedestrian mobility along Hall of Fame Drive and whether it will help preserve the housing stock.

During the public-comment period, Rogero interjected that the infrastructure update was all part of the big picture.

"This is the streetscape part of it. … This piece of it is not comprehensive. But overall, as a community, we want to work on all of it: Health care, housing, businesses and economic development. This is first about making it a better community for those of us who are already here. That is the number-one goal," she said.

Rogero's 2014 budget supplies $300,000 in capital funds for the detailed design of first phase of the streetscape project from Jessamine to Bertrand Street. It will probably need that amount and then some when the city is ready to break ground, and that will probably take at least another year before that happens. The entire project will probably cost millions, though no one's given an estimate of the entire project's cost. The building facade grant program will also likely receive more capital funds (to the tune of $500,000), which will be eligible for use by businesses along the Magnolia Avenue Corridor.

But the questions and comments brought up at the meeting show that to many people, streetscaping is not enough. Will the city's infrastructure investment strategy that has revitalized neighborhoods north of downtown work in East Knoxville? And are people willing to wait to see the results?

***

The neighborhoods surrounding Magnolia Avenue are, simply, historic. Before Eisenhower's interstate sliced through the city, before the James White Parkway made another slice on the east side of town, and before Hall of Fame Drive was erected, East Knoxville (and Old North Knoxville) was the place where people wanted to live. Further back in history, East Knoxville residents commuted up and down Magnolia via streetcar. Architect George Barber designed a dense collection of Victorian homes (some of which are still there today, surrounded by many more Craftsman-style houses). More than one factory employed thousands of Knoxvillians, and most of them were downtown, within easy commuting distance from the neighborhoods along Magnolia. Bob Whetsel, the director of redevelopment for the city, says he remembers using Magnolia as a way to get to town as a child.

"My daddy used to bring me down here for the UT football games in 1962 from Kingsport. We'd come down Magnolia and we'd stop at McDonald's—the first McDonald's in Knoxville," he says with a smile.

Whetsel, along with just about everyone else, says once Interstate 40 was built right alongside Magnolia, the corridor began to decline. Building and development suddenly boomed west of Fort Sanders, where land was plentiful and which was now more easily accessible thanks to I-40. Knoxville also followed the pattern of nearly every other American city as mostly white families left what would become the inner city. As real estate boomed out west, so did the commercial sector. And as people with larger incomes left East Knoxville—some to work for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, some to seek their dream homes in the suburbs or on the waterfront of Ft. Loudoun Dam—so did many businesses.

There are still some successful businesses along Magnolia, as Phyllis Nichols, the president of the Knoxville Area Urban League, points out.

"We've got some great viable businesses along the Magnolia Corridor, but you don't really notice them because they're interspersed with all the vacancies," Nichols says.

But Whetsel says the corridor has at least one feature that could make the city's streetscape an effective tool in filling those vacant buildings: Its design. Not only can the streetscape make it easier to get around on Magnolia, it could also make the corridor a more pleasant destination than its West Knoxville counterpart.

"I think East Knoxville has a bright future. One reason is it hasn't gone through 50 years of change like everything else has. It missed 50 years, and all the things we've learned in those last 50 years. Drive out Kingston Pike now. Is that really a good-looking street, or is that just a busy commercial street? It's where you go to get things. There's only one way to use it," he says.

Nichols says she hopes the streetscape reminds people of the corridor's history, and inspires more businesses or entrepreneurs looking for an interesting, low-cost historic building in which to work will look in East Knoxville. That, hopefully, will draw attention from more preservationists.

"At one point, Magnolia was the entrance to the city. Do we want to be someone else? Or do we want to restore it to our former glory?" asks Nichols. "People are always talking about historic preservation. We've got to claim some of that, too."

That's the area's great advantage going forward, says David Fox, an architecture and urban planning professor at the University of Tennessee. Young adults are looking for houses with character located close to the city center and in an area with a distinct identity—all of which the neighborhoods along Magnolia offer.
"One of the things that it has that West Knoxville doesn't is history, and you could play off that," he says. "There's a lot of potential for younger people who don't want to live in the suburbs [in West Knoxville]. The potential for that demographic is really high."

***

The plan, as the city laid out in April, focuses on improvements that have already shown results in other parts of town. Whetsel has helmed the North Gay Street streetscaping for the last couple of years, which is essentially a smaller-scale version of what the city plans to do on Magnolia. The 400 and 500 blocks are in the process of having the traffic lanes reduced (down to one lane in each direction), better pedestrian crosswalks marked, and sidewalk landscaping done. The Downtown North project, like Magnolia, has also been upgrading its storefronts with facade grants. But the success that area is starting to see didn't happen for several years.

"The facades started up there [Downtown North] about five to seven years ago, and real estate is getting snapped up out there left and right. It's happening," Whetsel says.

Dawn Michelle Foster, the city's deputy director of redevelopment and the leader of the Magnolia Avenue streetscape project, says the whole project originated with a 2009 study of the Magnolia Avenue Corridor, which recommended a complete-street redesign (a complete street is one that facilitates the use of alternative transportation) in order to attract more businesses and development.

"Instead of that wide, six-lane section—someone said it's wider than an interstate sometimes—but with some kind of streetscaping enhancement to it, it can liven up the whole community," Foster says. "I think the overall result is to improve that area, and then you hope to attract adjoining properties to do the same. You have a neighbor landscaping their yard, and you think ‘well, I better do something.'"

The first section of Magnolia slated to receive the streetscape is the stretch between Jessamine and Bertrand. That section was recommended by Kimley-Horn as the start point since there are several amenities there already (like Caswell Park, the YMCA, and Pellissippi State).

"It's [also] close to downtown, so it meets the inside-out strategy," Whetsel says.

Rogero's budget funds a more detailed design—not any construction. But Whetsel is confident that the project will go forward.

"The city's been pretty consistent over the last few years. If we fund the design, we'll fund the construction," he says.

And the city isn't about to sugar-coat the time it's going to take for the entire project and the corridor's redevelopment to see results like those on the north side of town.

"We'll start seeing some real changes in the next decade," Whetsel says. "Downtown's a 40-year overnight success story. It does take time."

That's what people seem to be most frustrated about—how long it will take for the corridor to revitalize. Whetsel says he also wishes these projects could get going faster.

"The public is always frustrated, and we're always frustrated with how long it takes to get these projects off the ground and onto the street," he says.

But, as Rogero said at the April meeting, the streetscape project won't solve all of East Knoxville's problems. Neither Foster nor Whetsel are under the impression new sidewalks, bike lanes, and crosswalks are the ultimate answer for redevelopment in the area. It's just one part of moving the corridor from "disinvestment to investment," Whetsel says.

"It's not a panacea. It doesn't solve all the problems," he says.

Foster agrees, but says, "You've got to start somewhere."

***

While the city is hoping to spur business development by upgrading infrastructure, Nichols and her colleagues at the Urban League are hoping those improvements will transform Magnolia into a walkable neighborhood Knoxvillians seem to long for—and bring in the types of business they'd currently have to travel westward to find.

Nichols says she thinks the sidewalks and bike lane upgrades will extend the idea of Knoxville as a haven for outdoorsy types to East Knoxville.

"In Knoxville, we like to throw around [the saying] ‘Where we can live, work, and play.' Well we want to create the environment here where we live, work, and play. And a greener space helps to create that environment," Nichols says.

But until the city breaks ground, Nichols and the Urban League are trying to stay positive in order to attract business to the corridor before the streetscaping happens. They're hoping the low rent will draw in some creative businesses.

"We need to really make others aware of the great potential on the Magnolia Corridor. I think that we have spent a lot of time and effort promoting other parts of the city, so people haven't really seen the potential that's here," she says of her mission for the Urban League. "Because we have so many vacancies, it's open for creative use. With the large space, somebody could come in and do something different that you couldn't try somewhere else. … We need someone who is bold and has a vision, and who's willing to see the potential in this area. I would dare say that if you did a study, the customer base is here."

Terrence Carter, the Urban League's director of economic and business development, says he's glad to see the city planning the streetscape project, since it's made a significant different in neighborhoods like the Old City and downtown.

"When the city put in those dollars and improved the infrastructure, all of those old junk buildings and buildings that were vacant are now the thriving Old City. And that's the exact same thing that can, and should, and will happen when they go down Magnolia. … And the more it looks better, the more it feels like a viable area to do business in. And people will do that as long as they have the resources to do that," Carter says.

The Urban League will resume a lending program it started in 2007 later this summer, which will help qualified small businesses get started (after they meet certain requirements, including taking a handful of classes). It started as a temporary program, but the Urban League decided 2014 is the right time to restart it, especially since the markets are recovering after the recession. They not only hope to help small businesses (particularly those run by African Americans), but that those businesses will create jobs. Carter says it's important for the Magnolia Corridor to include a wide range of businesses to bolster the hyper-local economy of the Magnolia Corridor so that people will earn and spend money on the corridor. He says he personally hopes that residents won't have to drive out to West Knoxville to spend their money, though everyone at the Urban League realizes that dream is several years away.

"What I'd like to see is Magnolia Avenue Corridor all the way back to the interstate as somewhere where you can do all your shopping, all your eating, all your laundry, dry cleaning—all the services that you would normally see in a community all here. And we're not all going to Farragut and Turkey Creek to do our activities," he says.

But first, says Parkridge Community Organization president Jerry Caldwell, he'd simply like to see a grocery store.

"A good grocery store would be a start. Reasonable prices, not a ‘let's take a photo of the produce because it costs about three times as much as anybody else charges' [place]. We've got a diverse population," he says. He elaborates a bit, explaining that Parkridge is home to both well-off retirees (like himself), families struggling with unemployment, and several types of earners between the two ends of the spectrum. About 37 percent of Parkridge residents are living in poverty, according to the American Community Survey's latest data (collected in 2012). The ACS data also shows that 60 percent of children under 18 in Parkridge are living in poverty. The median household income is $18,205.

Caldwell is a South Knoxville native who left the city, worked in Maryland's Navy Ship Yard for several years, and returned to Knoxville as a retiree a few years ago. He fell in love with the George Barber Victorian house he's been refurbishing in Parkridge. Caldwell attended the April meeting put on by the city and was mostly encouraged by the presentation. But he hopes developers are careful about what goes in along Magnolia as it's revitalized.

"I'm not really interested in reproducing West Knoxville here. West Knoxville, in my mind, is a bastion of consumerism, and that's not quality of life," he says.

Caldwell says he's actually glad the process of revitalization along the corridor is happening slowly, since it gives the area time to adjust to new expectations of performance and welcome new (small) businesses. Caldwell says the type of businesses he'd like to see move into the area are ethnic restaurants and stores that cater to an international population. He implies that if those kinds of businesses, which he says rely on low rents to stay in business, are the ones who take over vacant buildings, it will keep the type of gentrification he worries about at bay.

"If you become too popular too quick, then you become a fashionable place, and the people who are pursuing fashion are really not the kind of people I want living next door," Caldwell says. "It doesn't have to be about fashion, and I really don't want the fashionable businesses there. I want those that are real and exciting."

***

Beyond avoiding popular chain stores along Magnolia, Caldwell says having better-quality schools would be nice for the people of Parkridge. He notes that there aren't too many families with young children in the neighborhood. Austin-East High School, Vine Middle School, and Sarah Moore Green Elementary School all have lower levels of proficient and advanced levels of performance compared to the Knox County Schools average and the entire state's average, according to the state Department of Education's 2013 schools report card. Those schools also have high levels of disadvantaged and minority students, and historically under-perform compared to most other schools in the county.

Caldwell says these persistent performance gaps are a sign that rapid or pervasive gentrification is not quite on the horizon for East Knoxville.

"When gentrification becomes more [talked-about], it's generally because people were playing music at 4 in the morning and the neighbors couldn't go to sleep, and said ‘we're going to move if you don't do something about this.' We're displacing the little old lady who's retired? That's not happening," Caldwell says.

Some in the East Knoxville business community are even less concerned about the prospect of gentrification. Doug Minter, the chair of the East Knox Business Professional Association and the business development manager at the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, says his organization's mission doesn't focus on gentrification.

"As a BPA, our goal is about business, it's about the businesses in this community. We want any business to be a partner in the community. We want businesses to be connected directly to the people who live there, and that's where our accountability stops," Minter says. "[But] we do take a stand and will examine issues when the community says ‘Hey, I don't want this [business] here.'"

Minter adds that even if gentrification is coming to East Knoxville, it can't be stopped, and the community needs to learn to work with it. Minter, unlike his East Knoxville neighbor Caldwell, says looking to the west for ideas of what to bring to Magnolia is the way to go for business development along the corridor.

"I think food trucks have an excellent opportunity to be successful in East Knoxville. I think one of the other big advantages would be [the fact that] there's no coffee shop. There's no place to go sit and have a cup of coffee," Minter says.

The creative entrepreneurs who are the first to bring amenities common in West Knoxville—like coffee shops and food trucks—to the east side could be highly successful on the Magnolia Corridor, Minter says.

Meanwhile, David Fox, the UT professor, says after the streetscaping is complete, residents could look forward to some of those West Knoxville amenities moving east.

"It seems logical that something like Panera would move in. [But] you're not going to have Publix wanting to move there immediately," Fox says. "Spending like this is an investment. It's more than just looks. It sends the message that it's an important place."

Fox emphasizes that projects like these take several years to show results. It took at least 10 years for downtown to catch on, he says, and people should expect a similar timeline for Magnolia's revitalization. In the end, though, Fox says the city could eventually see a high return in tax dollars.

Minter's not under the illusion the corridor will change overnight, or even in a year or two. He says he's not expecting to see much development until the actual construction gets closer or even completed.

"The thing that we have to do, though, is look at [the fact that] private development generally follows public infrastructure improvements. Private developers are not going to invest in an area if no one else is. I think we need to pick good projects that show some early successes. And from there, I think other people will take the chance to invest," he says.

***

David Dewhirst, perhaps Knoxville's most well-known preservationist developer, is once again buying property in an area that others might look at apprehensively. He recently purchased three warehouse-style buildings in the area bounded by Magnolia to the north and First Creek to the south. His buildings are neighbors to Saw Works Brewing's Depot Avenue headquarters, Knox Rail Salvage on Jackson Avenue, Gray Hodges' building (recently updated with a city facade grant) on Jessamine Street, and Nostalgia on McCalla Avenue. Soon, Dewhirst predicts, "It's where all the cool kids are going to want to hang out."

Dewhirst and his business partner Mark Heinz have been responsible for refurbishing many of downtown's historic buildings—most notably along the 100 Block of Gay Street, where Dewhirst's office is located. But in the last few years, he's also developed several buildings on West Jackson Avenue. And that's where he sees a future for eastward connections.

"The real connector between downtown and Magnolia is Jackson Avenue. It's not [Hall of Fame]. [Hall of Fame] is the most enormous sea of concrete. It sucks. And oddly, most of Magnolia's got a great scale. It's one of the few arterial roads in our town that's really intelligently laid out. It just needs something to connect to, to make it great. Jackson Avenue is it. Not that silly-ass sea of concrete they've got poured up there," he says.

Caldwell agrees about Hall of Fame. He says the one thing he was disappointed with at the city's April meeting was that they're holding onto Hall of Fame as the car-centric entrance point to Magnolia and downtown. Pedestrians and cyclists still won't be able to use it very effectively, he says.

"We've got folks who actively want to walk downtown, but to walk downtown, you have to cross Hall of Fame. It's supposed to be the grand entrance to the city. ... But then all along the side you've got trash trees. If you gotta have ‘this is the entrance to Knoxville,' then let's beautify it. Let's do bikeways along there. Let's not have as much concrete along there," he says.

At the meeting in April, Whetsel said there are no plans to change Hall of Fame.

But Dewhirst, at least, says he prefers to ignore the street anyway. His area of interest is below Hall of Fame, and he says his section of East Knoxville will be an easy place to work compared to downtown.

"There are a number of advantages of being sort of on the fringes of downtown that you don't necessarily get in the core. There's no traffic over there, there are wide streets, you get a very easy—the accessibility, the quietness—you get some aspects over there you don't get in the heart of downtown," he says. "You get buildings that are completely different from downtown. I'm here to tell you that people like different, unique, and authentic. That's what a growing percentage of our population is really looking for."

And to that end, Dewhirst says that though the city's Magnolia streetscaping plan is worthwhile overall, they could be doing a lot more to aggressively encourage development on the corridor. Landscaping isn't enough to bring back development, he says. Infrastructure did not motivate his purchase of the buildings on Jackson Avenue ("Was I motivated by the infrastructure? There was no damn infrastructure. There still isn't," he says), nor did the city's plan impact his interest in East Knoxville. And he doesn't think it'll make the difference the city is hoping it will along the Magnolia Corridor. What will, he says, is investing in the actual historic building stock that's all over Magnolia.

"Improve the infrastructure of what's going on there. But the key ingredient is go offer all the folks who own interesting property that's in bad shape—help them put new roofs on the buildings, stabilize the historic windows, save the buildings ... so they can become real assets. Do the one thing that government's so afraid to do," he says. "Discriminate. What's wrong with just saying, ‘Hey, if your building is older than 1936, we want to come out and help you?' If your building was built in 1974 and you haven't maintained it, tough shit. Just say that. Discriminate against shitty new buildings, and reward the maintenance of the ones that can have value in the future."

Dewhirst says it would benefit the city to get in the mindset of a developer. "These things don't happen just because of landscaping," he says.

***

While Dewhirst may see the next hot place to hang out, do shopping, and live in his Jackson Avenue district, Rev. Daryl Arnold says more people moving to Knoxville are told to look for houses anywhere but the east side.

"There's someone that moved here—a member of our church—and when they came to the city, they Googled places to live. And they literally found on the Internet, as they were looking at places to live, an article that said ‘Do not live in East Knoxville.' I think that's an overwhelming sentiment of most people. And it's because of what we see on the news. I don't necessarily think what you see is a lie. What you see on the news is what happens," he says from the office of Overcoming Believers Church on Magnolia.

Crime is still a problem for the east side. Arnold himself works to get kids away from gang activity. But how does the east side compare with other parts of the city? The Knoxville Police Department's 2012 Annual Report divides the city into a west district and an east district, with I-275 as the dividing line. While the report notes that officers attended more than a hundred community meetings in the west district and addressed citizen feedback on traffic violations, property crimes, and crimes against people, the department notes that it saw an increase in felony arrests and DUIs. However, the report notes the department saw a "significant" decrease in property crimes

According to KPD's public crime records, the area of North Knoxville including Fourth and Gill, North Broadway, and Happy Holler saw more sex offenses, simple assaults, DUIs, fights, and incidents of trespassing and prostitution than East Knoxville around Magnolia between Jan. 1 and June 16. East Knoxville saw slightly more aggravated assaults, robberies, and motor vehicle thefts. The area around Sutherland Avenue in West Knoxville saw slightly more burglaries than East Knoxville between the same time period. But the dangerous perception of the east side persists.

Though the news might highlight only the worst of what's happening in East Knoxville, Arnold points out that this part of town still looks bad. "You came in through an alley to get here," he says of his office. The door of his office is also locked, and visitors must ring a doorbell to be let into the brick building. "You know when you hit East Knoxville. And you know when you're no longer in East Knoxville and you're downtown. I don't think that's just a coincidence, and I don't think it's intentional," he says.

OBC is planning a move to a new location just across Magnolia on a quieter side street. Arnold says they'll try to make it look a little more welcoming than the current stark building they're in. Arnold is well aware of the city's streetscaping plan, and he compares his own church's move and slight upgrade to the city's goals.

"We're moving into our new building in a couple of months and we're going to make it pretty nice. I really believe that sometimes you can have a nice environment and it changes the mindset of people. So it might help," he says. "The facade that's put up, and the sidewalks—it might help. But I think that shouldn't be what we focus on."

Instead, Arnold would like to see stronger efforts to improve schools on the east side, prison reform to give less-privileged kids caught doing stupid things a better shot at getting back on track, and more awareness of East Knoxville's issues throughout the city. But Arnold isn't just sitting around waiting for the city to break ground on some landscaped medians. He's actively engaging with the government.

"Local government is actively involved in developing East Knoxville outside of sidewalks, facades, and walking tracks," he says, explaining he's part of a task force that includes city leaders and KPD Chief David Rausch. Arnold says the task force hasn't been widely publicized. "We haven't figured out all of the answers, and we just got to the place where we realized we don't have to have all the answers," he says.

Arnold says the task force's theory is that if specific tactics haven't eliminated violence in places like Chicago, New Orleans, and Cleveland, they probably won't work in Knoxville. So the task force is working on encouraging youth to stay in school and be active in their communities.

"Stopping violence is a result of encouraging young people," Arnold says. And he's under no false impressions that the community's problems can be solved overnight or within a few weeks. "This is not a bass boat we're trying to turn. ... It's a Carnival Cruise [ship]."

Though Arnold sees the streetscaping project as a step in the right direction, he empathizes with the community's frustration on the entire project's 10-year timeline.

"By nature I'm an impatient man," he says.

Recently, Arnold says he was speaking with church member Tomica Jones, the mother of slain young mother Uniqua Brown, an Austin-East High School graduate and also a member of OBC. Brown was killed in a drive-by shooting in Mechanicsville just a week after giving birth to twin daughters in June 2013. Arnold says he recently asked Jones about whether she'd seen enough change in her community.

"She said ‘Things are changing, but my daughter's still dead,'" Arnold says. "The hole [we're in] is deep. It's going to take a minute to climb out."

***

On a warm spring Saturday morning, Magnolia still looks pretty barren thanks to all the concrete on the turn from Hall of Fame Drive. A few people amble along the sidewalks. But further down, there are signs of life. A kids' group is holding up signs and waving at people to get them to come to their car wash. Other businesses open in the morning have filled parking lots. In the neighborhoods, friends are walking to each other's houses to sit and chat on the porch. A group from Overcoming Believers Church has gathered at Vine Middle School to participate in the nationwide prayer walk Soles for Souls in honor of the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. Things are happening, and they're not bad. It's not perfect, but Caldwell says that's part of the beauty of the east side of town.

"You've got the opportunity for hope [in East Knoxville], and hope is what defines the folks who live here," Caldwell says.

Now the key is to hold onto that hope long enough to see actual results.