The Forgotten Corridor

City planners finally take a look at Magnolia Avenue renovation

Notably absent from most talk of downtown-area rehab and redevelopment is oft-maligned and misunderstood Magnolia Avenue, the aging but vital link between East Knoxville and the rest of the city. Piecemeal efforts like the nearby Five Points grocery store project notwithstanding, Magnolia has mostly remained under the public's radar, even as conspicuous planning efforts move forward on other downtown connectors like Cumberland Avenue.

That may be set to change. A Magnolia Corridor Study jointly authored by the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) should be unveiled sometime in the first half of 2008. With the portion of Interstate 40 through downtown set to close for 14 months beginning in spring, some observers believe the time is ripe for a comprehensive revitalization.

"With the I-40 shutdown, it's a great opportunity to get people on Magnolia, and to make it a flattering experience," says self-described downtown-area cheerleader Jeff Talman, a former member of the Partnership for Neighborhood Improvement (PNI) board. PNI is the former overseer of the city's federal Empowerment Zone, an area which included most of Magnolia.

"It's got huge potential, but we don't pay lots of attention to it," Talman continues. "I think we misunderstand it as just a disadvantaged section of town, or as a high-crime area. Along that road, you've got a community college, an electronic media center, an arboretum, plenty of housing and great building stock. If you strip it of its reputation, there are huge things to work with."

Initiated last spring through a grant from the AIA's national organization, the Magnolia Corridor Study cuts the road into four segments: the downtown end north of Hall of Fame Drive; the section from Hall of Fame to Pellissippi State Community College's eastern campus; from Pellissippi to the outskirts of Chilhowee Park; and from Chilhowee Park to the Burlington Community.

According to MPC Comprehensive Planning Manager Mike Carberry, the early stages of the Magnolia study identified a number of target issues, including the need for mixed-use development, renovation of old and underutilized buildings and lots, beautification, a safer biking path, resolution of crime and safety issues, and historic preservation.

"With regard to historic preservation, Magnolia has some areas that provide particularly good examples of the early 20th century and its architecture," Carberry notes.

The north end of Magnolia into downtown has received the lion's share of attention to date; the Tennessee Department of Transportation will implement a landscaping program on Magnolia at its juncture with I-40 upon finishing the ongoing SmartFix I-40 interstate renovation project.

And plans call for up to 120 spaces of shared off-street parking—benefitting both local businesses and residents—beneath the interstate, a move that Carberry says will entail additional lighting and beautification measures.

Carberry says the Magnolia plan is also looking at the efficacy of implementing a form-based zoning code—zoning that governs according to physical considerations such as building size and setbacks, rather than use—on Magnolia, in keeping with its current disposition.

"We need an urban standard for parking, to allow more opportunities for development," Carberry says. "The form-based code would allow for retail, office and residential development, as well as a continuation of some of the warehousing activities in that area."

One problem planners face is the now-permanent interruption of Magnolia, due to SmartFix considerations, at Hall of Fame Drive. Motorists traveling the avenue from the north must now turn left on Hall of Fame, then back right again, to continue on Magnolia.

"The interstate area is a big issue," notes Bob Whetsel, Director of Redevelopment for the city of Knoxville. "How do we get a better connection between those two sections, and yet make it aesthetically pleasing?

"We know that Magnolia is out there, that these issues are out there. And we've looked at several ideas about connecting that north section to downtown. But right now, there's no specific plan as to, ‘This is what we ought to be doing.'"