Buildings and Blocks

There Goes the Neighborhood

A transformation is under way on Scott Avenue, at its west end. It's the part of Scott that falls under the Downtown North/I-275 Corridor Redevelopment Plan, an urban renewal document put together by Knoxville's Community Development Corporation (KCDC) and approved by County Commission and City Council in 2007. I attended the public hearing on March 27 of that year, and called attention to some things in the Plan that seemed odd.

Why does the Plan include a panhandle that extends along Grand Avenue (north of the World's Fair Site) and I-40 to 17th Street, one of the main arteries of Fort Sanders? That's a bit south of North Knoxville. Why does the Plan, designed to rehabilitate N. Central Street, end at Woodland Avenue (the dividing line between two city council districts) when Central continues for another mile? Why does the Plan, intended to correct the derelict state of houses within its boundary, exclude the historic districts of Old North Knoxville and Fourth and Gill, each with its own share of derelict properties? (The map looks like a doughnut, with Old North being the hole.) There weren't satisfactory answers to these questions. As a member of the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) said, the planners couldn't do everything at once, and better to get started.

There were other issues. The Plan included some 1300 tracts of land and 400 property owners. About half the land use was residential, but most those tracts fall in C-3 (general commercial) or I-2 (industrial and warehousing) zones. That could be a death sentence for hundreds of existing houses in the area. Under the legal terms of the Plan, any property qualifying as 'blighted' could be removed for other uses that, under the recent Supreme Court decision in the Kelo case, might generate higher taxes or in some other way be considered "in the public good." Even if existing houses remain, commercial or industrial zoning would make infill residential construction problematic. The net effect of a "clean up" (to use MPC's term) west of N. Central would be to create an island of affluence on the east side, a situation not unlike that in downtown Knoxville, where natural and artificial boundaries have limited the city center's growth, making housing within it a scarce and valuable commodity.

An early warning that something was awry was the construction two years ago of Thrashers Pest Control on N. Central at East Scott Avenue. Built next to a refurbished house, the metal building conforms to C-3 zoning borrowed from the suburbs: 25-foot setbacks and off-street, asphalt-paved parking lots. While legal, this approach disregards its neighbors and the retail/commercial rehab work further down Central where traditional buildings front on the sidewalk and pedestrian scale is respected.

Similar development, at even larger scale, is taking place on West Scott. The street, between Central and Branner has mostly been cleansed of houses which have been replaced by a motley assortment of metal buildings conforming to C-3 zoning, but, like Thrashers, of an alien character. Most disturbing is that the disappeared housing, arguably in need of repair, was the most affordable property in the area. This is not just the other side of Central, it's the other side of the stated "vision", where "hundreds of people .. live in townhouses, condominiums and apartments supporting new shops and restaurants." The concept, favorable to someone's bottom line, grossly ignores those already living on the west side (mostly absent at the public hearing), working people who have owned their houses for generations or rent at decent prices. It's argued that economic development of this sort can raise property values for everyone, but who really cares when all you want is to live where you've lived for years.

This leads to a more general question: what is a neighborhood anyway? The dictionary says it's an area with recognizable boundaries (natural features, streets, land use) and distinguishing characteristics. These may be physical (street layout, house typology) or social (class, ethnicity). The word itself derives from nigh, or near. People live near one another; services and amenities are close by and accessible by walking or a short ride. A good example is my former neighborhood in New York City, Jackson Heights, one of the most ethnically diverse in the world. Demarcated by four major streets, it contained everything needed for life: schools, churches, post offices, libraries, a big city hospital, parks, playgrounds, movie theaters, and shops of every sort. We got around by foot, bike, and bus, but in most weather, nothing important was farther than a half-hour walk. The coherence, convenience and vitality were made possible by the density of settlement, some 31 households per residential acre.

Fast forward fifty years and I now live in North Knoxville at a density of under four households per acre. Close-in neighborhoods, suburbs for downtown, have become more like the sprawled suburbs of the late 20th century, where shopping usually means getting in the car and driving at least a half-mile. While the population of the area has remained fairly stable over the years, Big Retail has victimized the small groceries, drug stores and eateries that once dotted the streetscape, replacing most of them with big boxes and fast-food drive-ins along the N. Broadway strip. Hopefully, the process of decentralization will reverse itself, and those supporting it can be commended for their energy and investment.

Through this difficult period of change, though, one should keep in mind that buildings, planning, and money alone don't create neighborhoods. It's people and the relationships between them that make a difference. To build a Butler and Bailey (one of Knoxville's favorite independent groceries) you need a Mr. Bailey to stock the shelves. And to build a Pete's Coffee shop you need a Pete (and his family) willing to get up at four in the morning. To insure that people are part of the formal process, public meetings where decisions are made need to be attended by more than architects, developers, bankers and politicians, rather by everyone who lives, works and plays within the new urban renewal.

2008 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.
Photo: The new urban renewal: commercial and industrial structures replace old houses on W. Scott Avenue. Photo by Michael Kaplan