The Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project Is a Big Pain. Will It Pay Off?

In Cover Stories, News by Clay Dudaleave a COMMENT

cover_0820_cacp3945 Clay Duda

UPDATE: The Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project has been completed.

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It’s another sweltering August afternoon in Knoxville, and things are getting heated along Cumberland Avenue. Cars zip and zag through the gauntlet of plastic barrels and lane closures most of the morning without any real delays, but as lunch hour hits, throngs of hungry motorists pour out of nearby office buildings, hospitals, and off the University of Tennessee campus in search of a meal. Lines quickly grow long and tempers grow shorter.

Brakes light up—again. Traffic stops—again. The culprit this time? Zaxby’s. The chicken emporium’s drive-thru queue has spilled onto the main drag, causing even those uninterested in fried poultry to wait in line. Just as soon as one car makes it through the food line another noses in, clogging the road—again.

Some brave individuals on foot are just trying to get across Cumberland, wading through the rows of idling cars. A woman clad in red leggings, clutching an iPod, steps out into the crosswalk and immediately a car horn sounds. “Pedestrians have the right of way, asshole!” she screams.

Yes, it’s just another day on Cumberland Avenue.

As you may have noticed, most of the orange along the Strip isn’t in support of the Vols. Instead, it’s a smörgåsbord of bright-colored cones, barrels, and reflective signs marking off work zones and redirecting traffic around the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project, a nearly $17 million streetscape and infrastructure renovation the city of Knoxville hopes will give the historic commercial district what some say is a much-needed makeover.

The constant lane shifts and ever-evolving construction patterns are now part of daily life for the thousands of people that live, work, study, and play around Fort Sanders, and it’ll continue for at least the next two years as crews upgrade utility lines, pour new sidewalks, put in landscaping, and ultimately cut the four-lane thoroughfare down to just two lanes of travel. It’s all part of an ambitious attempt to add some more character to this chunk of asphalt many have long treated as a cut-through to somewhere else, and it’s a plan that has drawn more than a few complaints voiced in media coverage of the construction.

Business owners hate the traffic snarls that may be costing them customers, nearby residents ache over the added struggle to get home, and commuters moan about anything that delays their forward progress. If you’ve been anywhere near this vehicular mess, you likely know the headaches. But the city administration has a dream, and that dream is to foster the sort of college strip other cities enjoy—a pedestrian-friendly boulevard that attracts quirky shops and unique restaurants, that serves as a lifeblood for students and families alike, and that draws out visitors to what could become a vibrant extension of Knoxville’s blossoming downtown.

It’s a dream even those most affected by the construction say they believe in, too. The question is, can it become a reality?

BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME

Stanton Webster has lived in Fort Sanders for 20 years, and he’s happy to see the Strip finally get some attention.

“For a lot of people this is one of the first places they see when they come to town, and it’s been in need of some upkeep for years now,” says Webster, president of the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association. “It’s going to be tough to get there, but man if we can pull together as a community and make an extra trip for lunch or dinner to some of these businesses—even go out of our way perhaps—it will be so worth it once the project gets completed.”

In the works for nearly a decade now, the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project has taken shape from a series of public meetings, studies, drafts, and revisions spearheaded under the administration of now former mayor and present Gov. Bill Haslam. Following the first public brainstorming meetings in late 2006, an advisory panel of local stakeholders—mostly businesses owners—was appointed to oversee consultants’ work on the first Cumberland Avenue Corridor study, which was penned in 2007. In the years that followed, additional studies on traffic, parking, and other aspects were fleshed out, and innumerable public meetings were opened and closed.

With all the continued input and research, the overall plan shifted some from its original form, but the goal has remained the same: to revitalize Cumberland into an enjoyable, urban destination. Gone will be the store-front parking lots and suburban-style strip malls. In will be spacious sidewalks lined with bushy trees, abutted by street-level storefronts with apartments stacked overhead. Bringing more foot traffic to the roughly six-block corridor—and to the neighborhood in general—will help attract and sustain more businesses, officials say, and hopefully ease what can be a brutal cycle of feast or famine that ebbs and flows with the school year.

That’s the vision, at least.

To get there, the city is shaving some lanes off Cumberland Avenue, completely revamping its feel, and changing standards for future development. But once the asphalt gets paved and the concrete cures, it will still be up to free market economics to make good on those ambitions and build up instead of out. New form-based building codes should help move the area toward more urban development, city officials say, allowing buildings on Cumberland to rise up to eight stories above this street currently filled with mostly one-level, free-standing shops and eateries. It’ll also require things like underground parking, short-term and long-term slots for bicycles, and signage geared toward pedestrians instead of towering billboards aimed at the interstate, among other things.

Those all sound good to Debbie Billings, treasurer of the Cumberland Avenue Merchants Association, who remembers more vibrant days on the Strip as a young UT student.

“The foot traffic we used to have in my college days is nonexistent,” says Billings, owner of Graphic Creations on Lake Avenue. “You just look at the Strip, the vacancies, and it just looks old and worn out. It’s been hard to draw some new life into it, and it’s time to revitalize it.”

The recently opened Evolve building is a close example of the type of development the city hopes to attract—a mixed-use box with stores on the bottom and apartments up top—though if built under the new building standards, some features would have to be done differently. One example: Buildings reaching more than three stories will need step-backs away from the sidewalk to let in more light. Evolve shoots straight up, permitted under the now-defunct C7 regulations that long governed construction in the area.

cover_0820_home2Source: City of Knoxville

The street itself is shaping up, too. Cumberland’s current four-lane configuration will be chopped into a “three-lane cross section,” engineer speak for a roadway with two lanes of travel, divided by a median, with turn lanes at intersections. It’s a narrowing technique known as a “road diet,” and it’s proven successful in other college towns looking to promote pedestrian traffic and slow the pace of commuters trying to blow through in a hurried rush.

“Research has shown that when you reduce from two lanes in each direction to one lane, it has benefits for motorists and other modes (of transportation),” explains Libby Thomas, a researcher at the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, which has done extensive research analyzing road diets. “There are fewer opportunities for conflicts and it often reduces rear-end and side-swipe types of crashes from where motorists try to go around other vehicles attempting to make a turn.”

It makes things safer for pedestrians, too, in part by slowing the flow of traffic and giving more of a buffer for those exploring on foot. Case studies have shown auto accidents on roads post-diet dropped an average of 29 percent, according to reports from UNC.

Knoxville’s deputy director of development, Anne Wallace, who oversees the Cumberland project, says the Strip has long functioned as a two- or three-lane road as cars attempting left-turns clog up the roadway—so why not use that space for wider sidewalks and turn lanes? Those changes will make it harder for folks just trying to use Cumberland as a connector to downtown, but that’s also part of the plan. City officials expect Neyland Drive and Interstate 40 to pick up as much as 20 percent of the commuter traffic that once passed along the Strip, about 6,000 cars daily.

“What we’re really trying to do is shift the perception of this being a college area or a cut-through street to it really being a destination like Market Square or Gay Street, where people really have a vested interest in the area,” Wallace says. “If we truly want this to be a destination street then we want to shift that behavior pattern. We want people cutting through Cumberland Avenue to choose a different route.”

There’s still some outstanding issues, though. One is addressing the lack of public parking in the area, and some wonder how the already crowded neighborhood can handle even more motorists vying for a spot in its already packed surface lots. It’s a conundrum that has long led white-knuckled motorists to circle the block in frustration or dive-bomb a spot at a neighboring business. Nothing permanent has been pegged down yet, but the city says it’s still working on it. For now, there are a limited number of free nights and weekend parking available in a surface lot at 19th Street and Cumberland Avenue.

There are naysayers to all of this, of course. Many have wondered if creating a bottleneck on one of the main surface streets connecting downtown to the affluent western suburbs will benefit the city or its residents in the long run, or at all. And some local businesses are already feeling the pinch as construction work drives would-be customers to other parts of town. Those issues will likely persist as the bulk of the work moves slowly east along Cumberland, from Alcoa Highway to 16th Street, over the next two years.

GROWING PAINS
cover_0820_cacp4148Clay Duda

Sunspot manager Ben Breedlove noticed a drop in business almost immediately after construction kicked off in April.

“Pretty soon after the whole thing started the news had a big report about Cumberland Avenue, basically saying it should be avoided at all costs,” he recounts. “But I don’t want to be negative about it. It’s a goal that they (city officials) have, and we’re going to support it. There’s just no better way to go about it.”

Like many other businesses nearby, Sunspot has trimmed some workers’ hours and ramped up marketing efforts in hopes of drawing more people in. It’s been forced to cut two or three server positions each shift and scale back kitchen schedules by three or four hours weekly, Breedlove says.

Just across 22nd Street, Jason’s Deli killed four positions after walk-in sales dropped by more than 25 percent, according to General Manager Scott Evatt. But it has also added a delivery driver.

“Our walk-in has been impacted immensely, but luckily we do a lot of delivery catering, and we’ve really been focusing on that,” Evatt says. “Those catering orders are the only thing keeping us alive down here.”

There’s also a hesitation even to talk about impacts from construction, and many owners and managers did not return our calls seeking comment for this story. That, at least in part, centers on concerns that more negative media coverage of traffic hassles and road diversions could persuade even fewer people to venture into the neighborhood.

Yet many of the folks we talked with that have seen a loss in business are quick to put their support behind the project. In the long term, anything that makes the area more appealing and brings out more people should be good for the bottom line. It’s just a matter of surviving the messy interim.

Mellow Mushroom is still half-baked and doing fine, manager Stephen Peake says, but he’s stoked for the start of UT’s fall semester and the influx of students it’ll bring. The pizza joint’s front doorstep gives way to a sidewalk lined with chain linked fencing and piles of gravel, but the current inconvenience should pay off down the line, he says.

“Honestly, I think it’s going to be a really good thing because right now the Strip looks kind of industrial,” Peake says. “This is going to make it look good and bring more people out.”

While none of the businesses we talked with said they were in immediate danger of closing, Wallace says it’s a sad fact that not every business operating on Cumberland Avenue today may be there when the final construction signs come down in 2017.

“We’ve worked to minimize the impacts, but the reality is for some of our marginalized or underperforming businesses going into this season, we may see some businesses fail,” she says. “It’s the nature of the beast, unfortunately, but we worked diligently with our merchants to know what to expect and when.”

Most business folks have said the city has done what it can to keep them in the loop, from holding regular meetings to posting updates online about upcoming changes, but the city isn’t about to compensate businesses for revenue lost, Wallace says. That would set “a dangerous precedent” and could undermine its ability to keep up needed infrastructure fixes in the future. However, when the Henley Street Bridge was shuttered for several years, the city did chip in to a business marketing fund for South Knoxville, though there’s been no talk of such an arrangement for the shops near Fort Sanders.

Businesses can advertise and offer coupons for free on the city’s Cumberland Connect website, cumberlandconnect.com, a dedicated URL set up to track the twists and turns of construction. There’s also a free cell phone app by the same name to help folks navigate on through, and free bus service connecting downtown. You can hop on bus routes 10, 11, or 17 between the Strip and Gay Street and ride for free. Just look for the “KAT Free Fare Zone” sticker pasted on a bus window.

So far the hardest-hit parts have likely been on the west end of the Strip where the bulk of construction has ground down, but soon those jackhammers and backhoes will start a slow crawl east after the second phase of construction starts in early 2016.

WHAT TO EXPECT
cover_0820_cacp3824Clay Duda

The good news? The most disruptive work is already done and over with, construction overseers say. Wrapped up are two major installations that completely shuttered Cumberland Avenue twice last month and limited traffic flows to one westbound lane: the sinking of a 42-inch storm drain and polishing off of a street-level railroad crossing near University Commons Way.

By year’s end, crews should have phase one work tagged and bagged, if all keeps on schedule. Still to come is pouring a new sidewalk on the north side of Cumberland between the entrance to Tyson Park and 22nd Street, resurfacing and restriping the road in the same area, and making improvements to access Metron Center Way and Tyson Park. Once the roadway is refinished it’ll feature a spiffy new westbound turn lane to access northbound Alcoa Highway.

Knoxville Utilities Board crews have already started their work further east along Cumberland ahead of phase two, which will involve extensive reshaping of the road and sidewalks. KUB is replacing a staggering amount of infrastructure—most of which needed to be dug up and replaced anyway—including 3,200 feet of sewer line, 7,300 feet of 8-inch water line, 14 fire hydrants, 17 manholes, and 150 domestic water connections, according to KUB project manager Shane Bragg.

“We look at several variables when assessing our system, but mostly we look at the age of pipe,” Bragg says. “For Cumberland, most of the pipes were approaching 100 years old. At some point those water mains would have to be replaced anyway, but with the streetscape project coming through it was advantageous for us to help push that along and get our infrastructure replaced at the same time.”

That’s right, for all the headaches the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project may be causing, some of that work was bound to happen eventually anyway. Replacing those pipes was already on KUB’s to-do list, though Bragg says it would have been at least another five years before it got there had it not been for the city’s revamp.

You’ll see a big shift as phase two work moves along. Construction crews will be working their way east into the fall of 2017 as they widen sidewalks, plant trees and landscape, and rework the street into its new minimalist design, complete with a raised median and turn lanes. The city doesn’t expect any more full lane closures, and much of the repaving and restriping work will be done one lane at a time so cars can keep edging along.

If all goes as planned, work will be done in August 2017, but already the area is seeing an influx of investment dollars that city officials say are tied to the road improvements and the plan’s vision. Private investment in the area since 2011 totals $142.5 million—a figure the city provides as proof its vision is coming to life—ranging from new mixed-use build outs like Evolve to a new outside shell for McDonald’s. Yet many developers we spoke with say the streetscape revamp is all well and good, but didn’t play a definitive role in their independent decisions to build in the area.

“I think it’s ultimately a pro, but I don’t believe it actually factored into our decision to develop this particular property,” says Tate Tatum, an associate with CHM Development, the Knoxville-based firm behind the $65 million University Commons retail shop with anchors Walmart and Publix that opened last year. “The main things (we look for) are the traffic counts, household incomes, and the amount of people living in the area—but upgrading the Strip is a huge pro for the students, the university, and the city, and I believe you’re going to see a lot more development along the Strip in the coming years.”

A spokesperson for Evolve, the $20 million, 59-unit student housing new build, echoed those comments, noting Cumberland’s redesign will make the area “more unique and vibrant,” but other factors played a more pivotal role in development.

“The first thing we looked at is the university itself: It’s a nationally-ranked school and there was a lot of desire to do something in that market,” says Michael Weiss, vice president of asset management for Chicago-based CA Student Living. “The location of our site was the next desirable factor. We think we’re pretty conveniently located between the university only a block away and an entertainment district. So there are a lot of reasons we wanted to do the project, but I think (the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project) was a huge plus.”

Likewise, The Standard, a $39 million student-oriented apartment construct at White Avenue and 17th Street, would have likely happened with or without the streetscape project, though it certainly was a bonus, explains J. Wesley Rogers, president of the Athens, Ga.-based Landmark Properties. “We think the streetscape is a huge asset to the property and it certainly weighed into our decision making, but we would have probably done the project even without it.”

The Strip redesign mattered more for Atlanta’s Paramount Hospitality Management when it was looking to convert the shell of a vacant six-story building to an updated Hilton Garden Inn on Cumberland, says company president Nikunj Lakha. “Anytime you’re able to take the environment and reshape it to be more upscale, it makes a big difference,” he says. “Just knowing it was going to be a more walkable area made it a little bit more desirable.” That $17 million project opened in 2013. McDonald’s completed its $1.5 million facelift in 2011.

Then of course there are two other big players currently booming with construction that aren’t said to be tied to Cumberland’s new identity, but still add to the chaos of present-day Fort Sanders. East Tennessee Children’s Hospital has dropped $75 million on an expansion of its surgery center and neonatal intensive care unit, and UT is investing a staggering $1 billion in capital projects, including the construction of a science lab, residence hall, student union, and support services complex.

Funding for those projects came from a variety of places, but the city got most of its money from the feds. Eighty percent of the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project, or about $16 million (the actual budget for the project is $20 million, $3 million above projections, in case added costs surface), came from federal surface transportation funds divvied out by the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization. The city of Knoxville kicked in $4 million.

Whatever the outcome, Cumberland’s reconstruction is well underway, if slow, and it’s the shaping of a dream we’re all going to live with.

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Clay Duda

Former Mercury staff reporter Clay Duda has covered gangs in New York, housing busts in Atlanta, and wildfires in Northern California. And lots of stuff about Knoxville.

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