Where Will the Next 10 Years of Greenways Construction Take Knoxville?

In Cover Stories, News by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

Jump on your bike in East Knoxville and ride all the way to Lakeshore Park, or even to Cedar Bluff, completely on greenways: Golden-tinged leaves rustling overhead, laughing children in the parks you pass, the burble of a creek nearby. Or maybe you’d like to race a train from downtown, outside the bustle of traffic on Jackson Avenue, then continue east through the new urban forest to the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum?

That idyllic vision is possible—with, perhaps, some more realistic swerves onto the road along the way—if Knoxville pushes forward with a greenway design project being assembled by landscape architect Ross Fowler.

The city and the Greenways Commission have already spent about a year reviewing and tweaking routes for as many as 13 potential greenway extensions, totaling more than 20 miles. The final version won’t be complete until sometime around April, when city officials will consult the commission and the public on which to build first.

But with less than half a mile of new greenways added since Mayor Madeline Rogero took office four years ago, some greenways supporters are growing impatient.

“We’ve been planning for well over a year,” says Will Skelton, who retired as Greenways Commission chairman in 2007. “The bottom line from my personal standpoint is: I want to see some greenways built.”

Under former Mayor Victor Ashe, Skelton negotiated most of the right-of-way for more than 30 miles of greenways built over about 15 years.

Now, greenway supporters argue that an expanded greenways map is also a map to Knoxville’s future. Rogero and city tourism promoters have begun to pin the city’s identity on outdoor recreation. Greenways can weave together parks and urban wilderness trails, which draw a growing number of physically-active tourists. A more connected city can not only better accommodate visitors but also ease commutes, improve public health, reduce air pollution, and even attract big corporations.

The greenway options being considered now are likely to determine where these paths take root—or don’t—over the next two decades, says Lori Goerlich, city greenways coordinator. If your community is slated for a new connection, you could be racing ahead to new recreational and commuter opportunities—and even a boost in property values. Those that don’t make the list are more likely to straggle at the back of the pack.

So where can these potential new trails take us?

What’s at Stake
Construction efforts to shape the South Waterfront will include a new greenway segment north of Sevier Avenue.Clay Duda

Construction efforts to shape the South Waterfront will include a new greenway segment north of Sevier Avenue.

From the beginning in the early 1990s, Knoxville built greenways across the city, and the proposed new corridors continue that approach. Cities like Chattanooga, which developed a single, centerpiece greenway as a major attraction along its river, have chosen to harvest dollars from their greenways. It could be argued that Knoxville has chosen to harvest healthier neighbors.

Rogero calls expanding and better connecting parts of the greenway system “a key part of our overall efforts to encourage healthy living” and sustainability, along with actions like adding bike lanes and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. These paths to better public health can improve quality of while reducing taxpayer costs in a state where 30 to 35 percent of residents are considered obese by the federal Centers for Disease Control.

National studies demonstrate trails and greenways also boost property values. A 2007 Charlotte, N.C. study published in Southeastern Geographer showed median-priced homes within 5,0000 feet of a greenway increased in value an average of $3,200. Trails come second only to highway access in importance to home buyers, according to a 2002 survey conducted by the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Realtors.

Trails offer businesses and communities broader economic benefits, too. A 2013 Furman University study showed businesses near a Greenville, S.C. trail almost doubled their sales after the trail opened. A recent study of a potential West Knoxville-to-Oak Ridge regional trail highlighted local successes in attracting corporate headquarters with trails: downtown Maryville scored Ruby Tuesday’s headquarters in 1999 partly because the site was on the Maryville-Alcoa Greenway, and ProNova Solutions located their headquarters and research labs at Pellissippi Place directly accessible to a greenway. Local media have reported that Regal Entertainment is being offered financial incentives from state and local governments to move its corporate headquarters to the South Waterfront, where the city is building a new riverwalk greenway and a park.

“At first we had a lot of problem convincing people (greenways) were good things,” says Skelton. “They fought them, actually. And that’s totally switched now.”

Today neighborhoods clamor for greenways. At last week’s Greenway Commission meeting, David Price was there to ask for a Northshore Drive greenway, potentially over the area where the Knoxville Utilities Board is already digging up right-of-way to install a gas line. Price says he’s forming a non-profit called the Northshore Scenic Drive Action Committee to advocate for safer and more beautiful pedestrian paths along the road.

Skelton cultivated this attitude among Knoxville residents after traveling to other cities and jogging on their greenways, wondering, “Why can’t we have this?”

But for all their perceived value, Knoxville’s path to greenway expansion practically hit a dead end in the past decade. So Rogero ordered up a menu of greenways, which include rough budget figures based on realistic estimates of right-of-way and engineering costs. These are meant to serve not only recreational joggers, bikers, and dog-walkers, but also families and bike commuters, Goerlich says, stressing that no user group is favored.

Initially, the $197,900 greenway design contract with Fowler was for 12 greenways, with an emphasis on weaving isolated greenways into a thriving web. But later, city officials decided East Knoxville was underrepresented and added $12,500 to cover planning another greenway in northeast Knox, Goerlich says.

Originally, the contractor was also supposed to prioritize the projects, but Goerlich says instead she wants to hold public sessions next year to solicit feedback from residents. Still, the choice will ultimately be up to Rogero.

Rogero budgeted $1 million for greenways during each of the last several years. The city has about $4 million in its Greenway Capital Fund.

Only three of the proposed greenway sections have budget estimates as low as about $1 million; the remainder run from $1.5 million to $13.1 million.

Cultivating Corridors
An old railroad bed on Second Creek between downtown and Baxter Avenue is one of the corridors that may become a new greenway.S. Heather Duncan

An old railroad bed on Second Creek between downtown and Baxter Avenue is one of the corridors that may become a new greenway.

The greenways being considered extend like tendrils of a green, living organism, from downtown across the city map. They would connect isolated, short greenways—some that are currently, let’s face it, little more than park paths—and extend longer ones.

A few of the proposed greenways take advantage of railroad easements—some that have been abandoned and trackless for years, and others that would run alongside active tracks. Brian Hann, Greenways Commission chairman, is excited about the city buying an abandoned CSX rail spur running from World’s Fair Park to Baxter Avenue. Goerlich notes that it runs through post-industrial brownfields areas, which should lower the CSX appraisal while boosting city redevelopment efforts. Plus, it could serve the Lonsdale and Belmont areas, which are “kind of a recreational desert,” she says.

Closer to downtown, it is harder to discern the CSX right-of-way from the tangle of other railroad routes. But at Bernard Avenue, its path north closely follows Second Creek. There’s no doubt you are still in an urban environment, with the hiss of the BESCO gas plant and the beeping, clanking, and grinding motors across the creek.

But pavement soon gives way to a grassy, wide path only 6 feet from the bell-like tones of the bubbling creek. Robins, woodpeckers, and cardinals skip from branch to branch. A cabbage white butterfly and a scrap of a monarch bounce with abandon among the late daisies. South of Bernard, a new bridge would be needed to cross Second Creek, but the old railroad bed visible beyond is covered in an invitingly thick layer of verdant grass.

Another railroad corridor greenway could run beside the active Norfolk Southern tracks connecting First and Second creeks through the Old City and the Jackson Avenue warehouse district.

“It will be hard, but the benefit will be so great,” Goerlich says of her favorite proposed route. “A lot of people who bike would use this… It provides more safety, and by the railroad tracks, you’re on a different level from the city. It’s an opportunity for a unique experience.”

A Vestal would take advantage of portions of the old Smoky Mountain Railroad right-of-way that runs behind homes, with recreation and commuter potential.

“That would be awesome,” says Katherine Johnson, president of the Vestal Community Organization. The community demonstrated its enthusiasm for greenways earlier this year, yanking up underbrush to increase the length and safety of the existing greenway.

After vetting the greenway routes foot by foot for the past year, the Greenways Commission last week drafted a letter to the mayor with its compiled comments. Suggested changes, many already incorporated into the designs, most often dealt with avoiding steep inclines and preventing greenways from becoming glorified sidewalks.

What’s a Greenway?
Edmundo Menacho, 21, of Knoxville, walks along a segment of the Third Creek Greenway that follows Sutherland Avenue in West Knoxville.Clay Duda

Edmundo Menacho, 21, of Knoxville, walks along a segment of the Third Creek Greenway that follows Sutherland Avenue in West Knoxville.

Some of the greenways identified, such as many portions of downtown and First Creek Greenway corridors, might be more accurately called “designated pedestrian routes” because they’d travel on roads for more than half their length.

“I would say every effort has been exhausted with providing an off-street experience,” Goerlich says. But she says in some cases, it’s just not possible. Factories and warehouses were built overhanging creeks, with no extra space to run a trail. Railroad tracks and highways, particularly Interstate 640, create choke points.

“All the routes were more on-street before the commission saw them,” Hann says. For example, the contractor’s original route to the Knoxville Botanical Garden was all on-street but is now slated to run through the city’s Williams Creek Urban Forest and land owned by the Knoxville Community Development Corporation, he says.

This is just one of the routes that remains in flux. Goerlich says the commission members seemed most unhappy with the “mush” of how routes exit downtown to go north and east. “It’s the most perplexing,” she concedes.

When greenways do become street-ways, Goerlich says, they won’t just be a sidewalk with a sign. These “on-street connectors” will have extra-wide sidewalks (usually 8 feet), if possible set back from the street with planted parkway trees and landscaping, Goerlich says. Streets with these connectors will have lower speed limits and either a bike lane or a painting of a bike with arrows on the street to keep Greenway riders on the right path. Although these will basically be sidewalk and street improvements, they’d still have to be funded using greenways money.

Yet, Hann (who is also president of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club) says these aren’t greenways at all. “These are great multimodal routes, but these aren’t greenways,” he says. “We’re not purists. But if you’re going to call it a greenway plan, let’s make sure you’re trying to do as many greenways as possible.”

Hann argues that blurring that line can be dangerous.

“From a safety standpoint, you’re going to take your child who’s 8 years old and let them ride the greenway out in front or behind you, because you’re surrounded by grass and trees and parks,” he says. “You can’t call these things (on the road) greenways, because it isn’t as safe…. If you tell your kids stay on the greenway, they can be riding on a heavy street and still say, ‘Hey, I stayed on the greenway.’”

Greenways Commission member Monika Miller made similar arguments at commission meetings. She says a greenway should be separated from a road by at least a 10-foot strip of plantings, similar to the Bearden Greenway as it passes Highland Memorial Cemetery.

Amy Midis is president of the homeowners’ association in Forest Heights next to the cemetery. “When I think about where I feel safe riding my bike with my kids, it makes such a big difference for me to have that division from the street—at least a few feet of grass or shrubs or something,” she says. “I love to see my daughter and how empowered she feels being able to get on her bike and ride someplace.”

Miller says greenways that follow streets, such as large portions of the First Creek Greenway corridor around Broadway, should be put on the back burner until more property owners next to the creek allow the greenway to follow the water instead.

In some cases, even local governments aren’t accommodating. On one stretch, the First Creek greenway corridor was drawn to pass through property Knox County had acquired through condemnation, but the county wouldn’t allow the greenway through because it wants to sell the land, Goerlich says.

Sometimes the off-street ideal is a challenge because of Knoxville’s hilly terrain. Attaching a greenway to a steep hill is expensive and can cause erosion that harms the creek, Goerlich notes. To prevent increased flooding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency must sign off on any trails built in a creek’s 100-year floodplain.

Goerlich is excited that the city may have found a way to avoid this problem on a possible greenway linking Jean Teague Greenway and Victor Ashe Park. The city will propose to close Third Creek Road, buying some undeveloped property to do it. The former road can become the greenway that Goerlich thinks will be “the most pastoral and beautiful” of the proposed routes.

How to Choose?
The popular greenway ballfields and playground at Lakeshore Park could be linked to the larger greenway system with a new greenway along Northshore Drive. S. Heather Duncan

The popular greenway ballfields and playground at Lakeshore Park could be linked to the larger greenway system with a new greenway along Northshore Drive.

At last week’s greenways commission meeting, Robin Hill of Farragut asked who would be responsible for prioritizing the projects. “There are things here you might call low-hanging fruit, but those don’t necessarily connect to everything else,” she observed. She says she’d like priority placed on building greenways slated for rapidly redeveloping areas, before new projects interfere with those plans.

Many factors could decide which greenways are built first: The easiest and cheapest to finish, the ones providing the best commuter routes, those opening up under-served areas of the city (like East Knoxville)—or even the prettiest.

City communications manager Eric Vreeland says the city will use information about trail use, gathered from using laser counters on the greenways starting last year, to help prioritize. For example, the counters found that Sequoyah Greenway was the city’s most heavily used last year, with an average of 4,450 people using it weekly—many more than previous estimates had guessed.

Goerlich and Hann say they think the first priority should go to greenways that can be built with partnerships that require faster action or provide partial funding. “When you’re able to synchronize efforts, you’re able to get more bang for your buck,” Goerlich says.

For example, TDOT can provide transportation enhancement grants to cover 80 percent of construction costs for greenways constructed in tandem with state road projects. About $600,000 of the First Creek Greenway segment from Fulton High School to Edgewood Park will be covered this way and is expected to be built by the end of next year, Goerlich says.

The route connecting Victor Ashe Greenway to Weisgarber would cross an intersection of Western Avenue that TDOT is reworking, and the city is talking with the state about a pedestrian bridge there, Goerlich says. The city has also met with TDOT in an effort to get a greenway easement through the I-640 interchange project at Broadway, although the reception has been less promising.

Luke Grieve, owner of the Fountain City Pedaler, says he knows many more cyclists would commute from the Fountain City area to downtown if there was a safe way. Grieve describes a torturous route he takes between his shop at Old Broadway and his home near Fountain City Elementary.

“I already watch people every day (bike) through here,” Grieve says. “Imagine if it was obvious and easy to use.”

On the opposite side of town, Tennova offers a promising partnership possibility, Goerlich says. One proposed greenway extension would run through the back of the company’s new hospital property off Middlebrook Pike.

After taking advantage of partnerships, Goerlich says she’d like the city to use its capital funds to build the greenways that would likely be used most, with the first few projects balancing commuter and recreation users.

Miller wants to focus on greenways between major destinations, such as the connector between Bearden Greenway and Lakeshore Park, and a corridor to better link downtown with urban wilderness trails in South Knoxville.

The soccer and softball fields and brand-new playground at Lakeshore Park are too far down the unsafe bottleneck of Northshore Drive for Midi to let her kids bike there. “I think it would be wonderful to open up that Lakeshore Park area for the kids in the area,” she says.

Hann says he thinks some routes are obviously low priorities. One corridor would follow the Tennessee River on bridges and overhanging boardwalks. Although this sounds like an amazing recreation experience, Hann thinks the $13 million project is a pipe dream.

“Everyone on the commission was like, ‘Wow, that’s like a million dollars a foot. That’ll never get built,’” Hann says.

Seed Planted, Watering Required
Bridgette Boudreaux, at front, leads her family along the Will Skelton Greenway in South Knoxville.Clay Duda

Bridgette Boudreaux, at front, leads her family along the Will Skelton Greenway in South Knoxville.

Some of these proposed greenways through downtown and along railroad tracks can be hard to imagine as the kind of green tunnel of natural beauty the word “greenway” calls to mind.

But for the past 25 years, the city has been lucky enough to have some residents who had a superhero talent to rival X-ray vision: They saw the future possibilities—and, in some cases, the past beauty—of forgotten corridors near Knoxville’s hidden urban creeks.

As the first chairman of the Greenways Commission when Ashe created it, Will Skelton was the original.

“Under Mayor Ashe, we were opening 2 miles average of greenways every year, and it hasn’t come close to that since then,” says Skelton, noting that the city had less than 3 miles of greenway when Ashe took office. “(Mayor Bill) Haslam basically finished the greenways that Mayor Ashe had started, and Mayor Rogero came in and for the first few years, nothing happened on greenways at all, basically.”

Although less than half a mile of greenways were built during Rogero’s first term, 3 miles are in the design-to-construction phase and should be completed in the next year or so, Goerlich says in an email. The city has also repaired or enhanced greenways and has pending contracts to repair 1.5 miles more during the next year.

Vreeland says the Greenways Commission had essentially fallen dormant before Rogero appointed new members and revived it.

“Expanding our greenway system and making better connections is a key part of our overall efforts to encourage healthy living,” Rogero says in a prepared statement. “Working with the Greenways Commission, we are developing a comprehensive plan for a connected greenway system. We’re laying the groundwork for alternative transportation and outdoor recreation for the next 20 years.”

Ashe, who recalls opening 4 miles of greenway a year, criticizes the slow pace of the current process.

“Too much time has been wasted on process and form,” says Ashe, who lives on Third Creek Greenway. “I think there’s an effort to talk the talk, but we’re not yet—no pun intended—walking the walk.”

Ashe says Rogero, while billing herself as a green mayor, has failed to make greenways a priority. That would include using her close relationship with Gov. Bill Haslam (her former boss) to eliminate TDOT red tape stalling greenways projects, he says.

Ashe opened more greenways, but it was easier and cheaper back then, city officials say.

Ashe started funding greenways in 1992, spending an average of about $162,000 ($240,000 when adjusted for inflation). More grants were available in the 1990s, so less local money was needed, Vreeland says. Vreeland adds that the city now foots the entire bill for most greenways.

Rogero has spent an average of $612,500 per year during her administration, or about 2.5 times what Ashe spent annually. (Haslam spent an average of $130,700 a year, or $144,500 in 2015 dollars.)

Ashe complains that Rogero is slow to open the greenways she does fund, like the section of the Knox Blount Greenway from Buck Karnes Bridge to Marine Park that has been complete for five months. (Skelton notes that he got approval from the governor for that section 10 years ago.)

When he was mayor, Ashe says, “We opened (greenways) the day the asphalt was dry.”

Goerlich says the city has been waiting for its contractor to finish the trail to the bridge, where positive changes to the route created a long TDOT approval delay. The contractor resumed work last week, and the greenway should be open by Thanksgiving, Goerlich says.

Ashe does credit Rogero for a “masterful” job killing the James White Parkway Extension during her first term, thus protecting the city’s popular urban wilderness trails and the greenway named for Will Skelton.

Skelton says that when he was in charge of greenways, his strategy was simply to build the easiest first. “We did cherry pick,” he says. “Back then, it was a little easier, because we had the whole city to work with,” including a lot more property that was already publicly-owned.

Given that their price tag has risen, Miller wants to see the city invest more in greenways.

“One million dollars a year doesn’t buy a lot of greenways,” Miller says. “I would like to see a bigger push on this.”

Also: A Map to Knoxville’s Existing, In Progress, and Proposed Greenways

S. Heather Duncan

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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