Downtown’s Garrotte: Can We Reimagine Urban Highways to Prevent Strangulation?

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

At a recent public forum, citizens and city leaders discussed the several recommendations of the Urban Land Institute’s short study last October. One of them concerned the urban scholars’ impression that Henley Street was a barrier between downtown and seemingly adjacent origins and destinations, including Fort Sanders, the most densely populated neighborhood in East Tennessee; World’s Fair Park, including the Knoxville Museum of Art and the Convention Center; and one rather large university.

That same concern was a significant point in the report of their forerunners’ more-exhaustive study in 1999. The problem has come up repeatedly. About 20 years ago, a UT architecture-school study came to the same conclusion, and a semester of fifth-year student projects presented solutions.

But several administrations in a row have declined to address it. At the forum, a South Knoxvillian spoke passionately in favor of Henley’s status quo. “It’s not a barrier!” she said, twice, without elaborating.

I’m not a traffic engineer, but I’ve been crossing Henley on foot a couple of times a week, on average, for about 36 years. I recommend the pedestrian walkover. Twice in the last 15 years, including recently, it’s been closed for construction projects for several months at a time. It offers us an opportunity to experience Henley’s dysfunctions up close.

The highest-demand crossing, at Clinch, is the longest pedestrian wait I know of downtown, with a walk sign that’s up for four percent of the cycle. And what you wait so long for is the chance to dodge right-turning motorists who are pretty sure you have no business being in their way, regardless of what some flashing sign says.

For decades, city officials have kind of pre-rejected traffic-calming solutions, to save the Tennessee Department of Transportation the trouble. But four or five years ago, when I mentioned the familiar “TDOT would never let us” refrain, I got a call from Nashville, a TDOT executive saying they’d never received such a request from the City of Knoxville, and that calming Henley Street might be a very good idea, worth at least a study.

I hoped that closing the river bridge would allow us to reimagine Henley Street as the business and residential boulevard it once was. I’m afraid it’s had the opposite effect. There’s a feeling in South Knoxville that, having shut down the Henley Street Bridge for two years, Knoxville should apologize by maintaining Henley Street forever as South Knoxville’s uninhibited interstate exit, without even contemplating anything that might slow it down a bit to make it nicer.

Whether it’ll be improved in our lifetime or not, for the pedestrian, Henley Street is unpleasant, it’s dangerous, and yes, it’s a barrier.

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Different kinds of highway barriers trip up the north and northeast sides. Once presented as a savior to downtown, elevated roads enable high-speed automobile traffic above. Below, there are sidewalks, and little worry about getting hit by traffic, as on Henley. But highways create bleak dead spaces on their undersides, miles long and often a city block wide. Preventing business and residential development underneath them, highways create firewalls that stop urban momentum.

Studies of pedestrian behavior demonstrate that most people won’t even walk under highways. Who wants to walk through a dark noisy concrete space with nothing to look at? And then there’s the fear of people who hang out under highways. I rarely encounter one whose manners aren’t at least as decorous as those of a Sigma Chi sophomore, but it’s a perception.

Elevated highways form a concrete curtain.

In recent years, the city has developed parking areas under highways, and it’s appreciated by some, including this reporter. Lately, downtown’s recycling center has moved under the highway, and it seems to work there.

More surprising, and something like a revelation last month, was Rhythm N’ Blooms’ use of the underside of the James White Parkway alongside East Jackson Avenue. Known this year as the Cripple Creek Stage, in honor of the 19th-century name of the complicated community that existed here, it uses the highway’s superstructure as an auditorium.

It forms a huge room, bigger than most cathedrals, that contained a concentration of happy people and activity that seemed to suggest conjury.

Within was a sort of concentrated village of food trucks and mobile bars and other vendors, on the fringe of a crowd of several thousand people watching a band on a stage. All under the highway.

Attendees seemed like a colony of happy refugees, or a medieval village during a harvest festival. There was a high ceiling without walls, but the real world, represented by the vacant Lay’s meatpacking plant, with its painted instructions to truckers who no longer visit, and especially the Knox Rail Salvage water tower, seemed like something far away, as if it were a stylish neo-noir painting on the wall. But again, there were no walls.

And it was all in this place that 360 days a year is a bleak, mostly empty space sacrificed to be permanently wasted in service to the dysfunctional highway above.

If you do it right, and I’m told it does require some sound work, it’s a great place for a concert. Might this suggest something in terms of some permanent therapy for our highway constrictions? Obviously, a big part of what made the Cripple Creek Stage appealing was overwhelming it with numbers of people and activity, and that’s impossible on a daily basis.

There have been some admirable efforts to beautify some underpasses with murals, notably one under I-40 in Parkridge. There’s not anything of that sort under highways downtown. One of the surprises of this month’s festival, though, was the vertical aspect of the space, out of easy reach of most painters. Maybe underpasses present an opportunity for other kids of art, like aerial sculptures, mobiles, urban chandeliers, something.

Would a daily food-truck community work there? It would be hard to be confident about that, but a once-a-month event, perhaps with a theme, like tacos, or tamales—a century ago, Cripple Creek was the Fertile Crescent of local tamale culture—could work, and bring some attention to the areas and, for a few hours, make them less intimidating.

Jack Neely
Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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