It’s Time to Start Treating the Fort Loudoun Reservoir Like a Real River

In Architecture Matters by George Doddsleave a COMMENT

Knoxville has a parkway that is not a parkway (the James White) and a river that is not a river, at least not in the tradition of a naturally flowing watercourse. The Tennessee still looks like a river with a swift current, and according to the TVA, “bass fishing, boating, and bird-watching … including herons, cormorants, gulls, osprey, and bald eagles.” Yet, since 1943, Knoxville has had a reservoir running through it, not a river. The Fort Loudoun Reservoir, its official name, is one of a series of contiguous mechanically controlled engineered bodies of water providing passage for 1 million tons of cargo annually in one of the largest single tax-payer-funded artificial constructions of the last century.

The river that was the Tennessee engages Knoxville’s center in a manner that ranges from the pastoral to the odious. The area around Sequoyah Hills provides a stretch of public green space enjoyed by a diverse populace: costumed reenactments of knightly swordplay, GPS enthusiasts in search of hidden treasure, quasi-organized games of sport, Frisbee-seeking dogs, and dog-seeking owners. One can bicycle, jog, or promenade along Neyland Drive, or dock one’s houseboat at a marina that parallels the James White Greenway. Seven days a year the marina boasts a population approaching that of many nearby towns. Yet, the run along Neyland is sandwiched between fast-moving vehicular traffic and industrial sites, and invariably redolent with the fecund scent of KUB’s Kuwahee Wastewater Treatment Plant. The marina, for its part, is almost always a surreal water-scape of vacant pontooned crafts, artificially turfed and fully stocked, anticipating the next autumnal Bacchanalia.

Between the marina and KUB’s vast sewer-scape, the University of Tennessee has built along Neyland Drive and the reservoir for decades, in a manner that seems in profound denial that either exists. Gargantuan parking garages, the ungainly Thompson-Boling Arena, and the ever-expanding Neyland Stadium present a Normandy-like defensive bulwark better suited to protect the campus from an aquatic assault than promoting a coherent relationship with this vital amenity.

Elsewhere, the erstwhile river is edged by a variety of industrial complexes, some quite beautiful and pristine (Holston Gas Works at sunset), and others just plain ugly—the Buzzi Unicem Terminal opposite KUB’s Kuwahee. Then there is the curious case of the former Baptist Hospital. Not pretty enough, nor old enough, nor historically significant enough to be re-purposed or preserved, this vast complex of homely masonry buildings dating from 1947 onward is now almost completely razed, awaiting the site’s detoxification and redevelopment. One can only hope that what emerges will not be another misplaced car-centric suburban project along the reservoir.

Most American cities have conflicted littoral relationships. The term “littoral” refers to the zone in a body of water (river, lake, or sea) bracketed by the high-water mark and the point at which a shoreline is permanently submerged. This includes within it the Riparian zone, a fundamentally important ecosystem most of us typically think of as simply a river’s shoreline. Los Angeles and Detroit offer extreme examples of cities that have canalized major rivers for industrial gains and land speculation. The state of Illinois reversed the Chicago River’s course (1887) and may do so again to control an invasion of Asian Carp that threatens Lake Michigan. Cleveland’s infamously polluted Cuyahoga River, the original reason Mr. Cleveland founded the city where he did in the 18th century, caught fire on June 22, 1969, a calamitous event that happily culminated in the Clean Water Act (1972).

Then there are those cities that seem to get it right. San Antonio’s River Walk for example. Like the creation of the Fort Loudoun Reservoir, the Paseo del Río, as it is also known, was partially funded by the federal government (WPA) to control periodic flooding that ravaged the city. Now one of the city’s most frequented amenities, it is famous for its permanent landscape that is at once tranquil and lively, wending its way through the city.

New York has its West River Drive, Washington D.C. its Potomac Parkway, L’Enfant Plaza, and Interstate 695, all of which separate their citizens from the water. Yet, those cities continue to find several ways for residents to actively and directly engage their littoral edges.

Knoxville is particularly challenged in this regard, as the river, historically, has been equal parts problem and blessing. Before it was TVA’d and the Tennessee’s littoral zone became so tightly managed, it is common knowledge that it often breached its banks, flooding low-lying land and fouling navigation. It’s the principle reason Knoxville’s earliest settlements were located on high bluffs, why UTK’s Ayres Hall (and before it College Hall, which it replaced) sits atop The Hill. In the area around Muscle Shoals, Ala., at the time of the construction of the pre-TVA dam (1916), one in four residents suffered from malaria and only 2 percent of the population lived in homes with electricity. While the TVA’s engineering of the region denatured hundreds of miles of a multi-state river valley, it also did much to improve the vigor of its citizens and arguably, their standard of living. The health of the former river is another matter.

The water quality of the reservoir has improved much of late but remains a work in progress. The lake’s catfish are a good indicator as they are to a river what a canary is to an underground mine. Several years ago, a UTK biochemical researcher determined that the reservoir’s canaries have abnormally high levels of anti-depressants in their systems, owing to the effluent discharged continuously from the Kuwahee directly into the reservoir; it is difficult for wastewater filtration to remove the drugs. As a result, Knoxville may have some of the happiest catfish in North America. Not to suggest that there is an optimum level of Prozac in an East Tennessee catfish. If the city’s recently unveiled plan for the redesigned and renovated Lakeshore Park is any indication (reported by Joe Sullivan in last week’s issue of this paper), we may not need to add more Lake Loudoun catfish to our diets to adopt an optimistic view of our littorally challenged city.

Knoxville has a parkway that is not a parkway and a river that is not a river. But while the city would profit greatly from releasing itself from the parasite/host relationship to the James White Parkway, the artifice of the Tennessee River operates in a wholly different manner. As development in the city continues to intensify, this seems the right time for Knoxville (and the city’s major employer, UTK) to move beyond the hackneyed American default of locating industry, infrastructure (rail and highways), and big-box black-box entertainment complexes along its littoral edges. Knoxville may no longer have a river running through it, but it sure looks that way. The city will only profit from treating the former river more like the natural amenity it appears to be rather than the artificial construct we know it is.

George Dodds’ Architecture Matters explores issues concerning the human-made environment, primarily focused on Knoxville and its environs. He has been teaching and publishing commentaries on the practice and history of architecture, urbanism, and landscape architecture for over 30 years. He has practiced in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., has lectured internationally, and has served on the editorial boards of several journals. Since 2000, he has been on the faculty of architecture at the University of Tennessee.

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