Downtown’s $1.2 Million “Wayfinding” Sign Project Includes a Few Wrong Turns

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This sign not only directs drivers on Church Avenue to turn the opposite way to get to the John Duncan Federal Building, but to also drive the wrong way on a one-way street. The arrow is now taped over.

This sign not only directs drivers on Church Avenue to turn the opposite way to get to the John Duncan Federal Building, but to also drive the wrong way on a one-way street. The arrow is now taped over.

In some cases, Knoxville’s new “wayfinding” sign project downtown seems to have lost its way.

A sign for the John Duncan Federal Building tells drivers to turn in the opposite direction and go the wrong way down a one-way street. Signs on Henley Street indicate that eight different attractions, including Gay Street and the University of Tennessee, are in the opposite direction from their actual locations. A sign on Walnut Street says the state Supreme Court and federal courthouse are in the direction of Union Avenue.

The new sign project was supposed to clear up confusion rather than create it, and many of the signs receive high marks from downtown boosters. But, as installed, some of the signs could drive drivers crazy.

Knoxville’s downtown is woven out of one-way streets and bridges crossing highways, parks and rivers. These threads mesh into a tapestry of theaters, galleries, and restaurants that can make visitors feel enfolded in a blanket of rich experience—or trapped in a web like a bug.

One of the main goals of the city’s $1.2 million “wayfinding project” was untangling for the uninitiated Knoxville’s snarl of streets. The effort, which was seven years in the making, involves putting up 250 new street signs and taking down about 400 to eliminate “visual clutter.” (Those will come down at the end.)

Anne Wallace, project manager for the City of Knoxville’s office of redevelopment, said last week that 50 to 75 percent of the wayfinding signs had been installed. Because of February’s dramatic winter weather, contractors probably won’t be finished for another month or so. Wallace emphasizes that the project is a work in progress. She says the city wants residents to report any incorrect signs so contractor Jarvis Sign Company of Madison, Tenn. can make the changes while still on the job.

“We are finding some of the folks doing the installation work don’t know downtown Knoxville and are working from a plan sheet,” Wallace says.

She estimated “less than 10 percent” of the signs are wrong. The city won’t have to pay to correct errors that are the contractor’s fault, but about half the errors so far were in the city’s plan sheet, Wallace says.

This pedestrian sign next to the Walnut Building indicates that the federal courthouse and state supreme court are in the opposite direction from their actual location. Fortunately, the sign was hung on a light pole at an angle that allows only diners on the porch of the building to see it.

This pedestrian sign next to the Walnut Building indicates that the federal courthouse and state supreme court are in the opposite direction from their actual location. Fortunately, the sign was hung on a light pole at an angle that allows only diners on the porch of the building to see it.

For example, the city chose to have one pedestrian sign placed on a lamp post on Walnut Street—but the sign is mostly visible only from the porch of the Walnut Building. Perhaps that’s fortunate, since part of its directions are incorrect.

Replacements aren’t cheap. The blue pedestrian signs, which list attractions in small type with arrows, cost $600, Wallace says. The directional signs for drivers cost $670 to $1,500, depending on their size.

The type of errors vary. Some signs are correct but oriented in the wrong direction (north/south instead of east/west, for example). In other cases, the signs may be incorrect or installed in the wrong location, like the one that indicated the theater district is on Summit Hill.

In an email, Wallace writes: “Typically the contractor is addressing incorrect signs as they are noted (especially when they are vehicular signs).” But some sign corrections will wait until the end of the contract.

Foam was duct-taped over all the arrows on one Henley Street pedestrian sign last week, but not all incorrect signs are being covered.

“A variety of issues have come up, and we address them as people tell us,” Wallace says. “The quality of the (sign) fabrication and installation is very good, in my assessment. Will it be perfect? Probably not.”

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

The city has been attempting to unify its signs for years to create a clearer downtown identity and to better market downtown’s assets. The process began in 2008. The next year, Knoxville chose Philadelphia-based MERJE Design to work with local stakeholders on sign location, design and maintenance.

Downtown business owners, the Arts & Culture Alliance, and historic preservation advocates were among the stakeholders, Wallace says. The project was discussed at three public meetings as well as at City Council, Downtown Design Review, or Transportation Planning Organization meetings, she says.

The city first considered funding the project over a period of years, but instead it asked for the signs to be included in the regional Transportation Improvement Program. This allowed the city to receive a Federal Highway Administration grant to cover 80 percent of the cost, with the city’s capital improvement program covering the rest. But federal money always comes with bonus red tape. Environmental permitting and construction review put the effort in the slow lane, and the city had to switch gears from MERJE to an engineering firm pre-approved by the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Gresham, Smith and Partners are handling the engineering construction and inspection using MERJE’s designs.

There are a variety of sign types: large, red “gateway signs” at the entry points to downtown; small blue pedestrian wayfinding signs, many of which are attached to light poles; larger blue directional signs for drivers; green and yellow parking signs; and large, two-sided kiosks.

The first kiosk is set to be installed in the Old City late this week, Wallace says. Kiosks will feature a pedestrian map as well as a map to help drivers find resources outside downtown.

According to the City of Knoxville’s web site, the general boundaries for the sign project are the Norfolk Southern Tracks to the north, the Tennessee River to the south, Hall of Fame Drive on the east and 11th Street on the west.

Some signs are very specific (directing someone to the zoo via the interstate, complete with exit number), while others are so vague that they might not be meaningful (“East Knoxville”).

Wallace says MERJE decided how much detail to include on these “trailblazer” signs for attractions outside downtown based on how many visitors they receive and how important they are in the community. In some cases, they are intended simply to help visitors find the right exit point from downtown (i.e., head toward East Knoxville if you’re trying to reach Austin East High School).

Confusion: What Are You Driving At?

Here are the locations of the two new wayfinding signs in question  in relation to the buildings they're supposed to be pointing to. Corey McPherson

Here are the locations of the two new wayfinding signs in question in relation to the buildings they’re supposed to be pointing to.

Chyna Brackeen, producer of the Rhythm ’n’ Blooms Fest and a member of the Market Square Association board, says she welcomes the directional signs, especially for parking lots.

“It’s definitely something that’s been needed for a long time, and great that it’s a consistent design,” says Brackeen, who owns Attack Monkey Productions. But she found the delay, while understandable, still frustrating. When downtown business owners wanted to post signs to help drivers navigate from the often-full Market Street parking garage to other garages, they were told no new signs were allowed until the wayfinding signs were installed.

“My concern is that because it did take so long to get this done, there are things that are just outdated,” Brackeen says.

For example, the Three Rivers Rambler has moved its station from Volunteer Landing to a commercial area closer to Cumberland Avenue, but the new street signs still point visitors to the riverfront for the train.

Michele Hummel with the Central Business Improvement District served on the steering committee for the wayfinding project. She says she thinks the signs look good and are meeting the needs and goals of the program.

A team meeting weekly during the installation phase knows a few signs needs correcting, she says. “The city and team was very mindful this would happen and developed an on-going maintenance budget to update signage when necessary,” Hummel writes in an email.

Completely incorrect signs are not the norm. Most of the new signs around the Old City, World’s Fair Park and Hall of Fame Drive appear correct.

But some are nevertheless unclear. For example, many signs intended for drivers correctly point straight ahead for various landmarks. But when the time comes to make a turn onto another street to find the destination, no sign indicates that.

That may change, since Wallace emphasizes that many of the driving signs have not been installed yet.

Other issues, however, may be intrinsic to the design. For example, the pedestrian signs are posted at the edge of the street, and they include no design element that makes it clear they are intended for walkers. (We should know from the small print, Wallace says.) People on the street who were asked their opinion for this story generally said they thought the signs were for drivers.

If drivers think so too, that could pose a problem. Brackeen expresses concern that these signs could set up a slightly dangerous situation for drivers who are slowing down and squinting to try to read the small fonts on the pedestrian signs. And in some cases, the signs direct people on foot to take a route that isn’t legal (or safe) for cars. For example, a sign directing pedestrians to Volunteer Landing from Main Avenue points down a one-way street that cars can’t enter. (There are currently no larger signs on the street showing drivers the correct way to Volunteer Landing.)

“Once we get it all in, people will be able to understand which signs are for who,” Wallace says, although she adds that it might be worth considering adding some sort of pedestrian symbol.

The pedestrian signs are sometimes confusing in other ways as well.

On Main Avenue, a pedestrian sign directs walkers straight ahead to get to the post office—half a block after a left turn should have been made. The sign directly next to the Tennessee Supreme Court Building and the sign next the Knoxville Convention Center both direct a walker to continue straight for those destinations.

“The biggest flaw seems to me to be placing a sign on the opposite side of the street of a destination and showing the destination straight ahead,” says Knoxville resident Bruce Butler, who felt driven to complain to the city about the signs.

Wallace says wayfinding is intended to help people reach the general vicinity of their destination, then depends on the attraction’s signs to take over.

Brackeen says the parking signs are not as easy to see as she had hoped, and both she and Butler find some of the routes odd.

“I kind of feel like some of these directions were chosen by people who know downtown well enough that they are not going to be confused, but they aren’t always the most direct or easiest way,” she says.

So far, visitors to the Knoxville Visitors’ Center on Gay Street have expressed nothing but enthusiasm for the signs, says Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville. “Visitors like the design of the signs and their open, welcome feeling,” she says, adding that most new initiatives need some tweaking.

But it would have been better if signs had not been outdated from the first day, Brackeen says.

“The bottom line is that it still has to be correct, and it still has to work for people,” she says. “Especially if it’s taken (more than) six years, at this point I would have waited six more months to make it perfect.”

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

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