Sunday, May 15, 2011

City Council Workshop on Henley Street Options

The barely-there view of City Council from the small meeting room.
 As I indicated last week, at the request of George Scott and the Central Business Improvement District (CBID) the City Council held a workshop on the proposal to alter traffic patterns through downtown on Henley Street. The idea has been advocated by Mr. Scott and others in recent months due to concerns regarding the physical barrier presented by Henley Street and the pace of its traffic between downtown and the UT/Fort Sanders/Convention Center area and because of the opportunity presented by the fact that the current closure of the Henley Street Bridge gives Knoxville a window of time in which to make changes while through traffic has been halted.

WBIR was the only local television affiliate present.

Mr. Scott makes his presentation.
The meeting opened with Michelle Hummel making it clear that CBID is not backing the idea as much as asking for a discussion to take place. Bill Lyons then gave some historical background regarding how this issue was addressed by the Nine Counties, One Vision effort and the study done by Crandall-Arambula in 2004-2005. George Scott then gave the presentation previously featured on this blog.

Ms. LaLonde represented Shoney's opposition to the plan.
What followed was a few comments by commissioners and a series of statements from numerous concerned persons as to why this should not be pursued. The worst of the comments came first. Councilman Pavlis made a rather impassioned speech in which he made his frustration abundantly clear. He insisted there is plenty of foot traffic on Henley as it is, implying, it seemed, that no one minds walking there.
Steven King from the City Engineering Department expressed skepticism.
He went on to say he didn't understand why the topic was before council when, in fact, the state controls the road. He pointed out that he felt any plan such as this would cost a tremendous amount of money and in the worst display of inflamed rhetoric of the night, said in reference to Moody avenue, "Over my dead body will I let that turn commercial." Fortunately, the other council members spoke in a more measured manner and no other speakers, though almost all uniformly opposed to the idea, suggested that they would need to be killed for it to go forward.

Mr. Cochran, South Knoxville Businessman, expressed opposition.
Councilman Della Volpe expressed concern that after so much effort to make this an efficient north-south route, the city was now being asked to spend a large amount of money to reverse the process, but he also indicated a willingness to listen. Councilwoman Roddy seemed to suggest that perhaps this type of effort should be discussed when the James White Parkway via the South Knoxville Bridge is connected all the way through to Chapman Highway, which was indicated to likely happen twenty or more years from the present, if ever. Mr. Welch of the Metropolitan Planning Commission indicated that their view is the proposal would cause traffic problems on Henley Street and they doubt that people would change their driving patterns. He seemed to support the idea of waiting until the James White Parkway was completed.

What followed was a series of citizens and business representatives who opposed the idea. Annie LaLonde representing Shoney's in south Knoxville indicated it would be bad for their business, as did Tom Cochran and John Johnson who pointed out that Arby's has been on Chapman Highway for forty one years and has lost twenty percent of their business since the closure of the Henley Street Bridge.

What seemed unclear to me throughout these presentations was how much the specific plan would truly impact these businesses. In the case of Shoney's, Ms. Lalonde talked about the community groups that gather there, but this change would not impact that, as far as I can tell. The same is true with Arby's. If twenty percent of their business is lost due to the closure of the bridge, wouldn't much of that return when the bridge is opened even if the traffic was reduced? Disk Exchange was also mentioned in this discussion, but who wouldn't drive across the newly re-opened bridge to disk exchange simply because the traffic on Henley had been calmed?

Sylvia Woods, Moody Avenue resident objects as Mr. Scott looks on.
The discussion ended with Sylvia Woods, a long-time resident on Moody Avenue pleading for it not to be made into a main highway and Kevin Grimac, eighteen-year downtown resident encouraging the council to strive for a vision for the city and to look for a chance to "do something beautiful." He implied, if I understood him correctly, that as an investor, Chapman Highway would be more appealing if the traffic was slowed and made more local.

The meeting concluded with Councilmen Woodhall and Grieve thanking Mr. Scott for opening up the dialogue and with Councilman Grieve acknowledging that "Henley Street is one of our ugliest streets." Former councilman Joe Holquist expressed an interest in having further discussion about "big ideas" such as this one, seeming to echo the earlier comments by Mr. Grimac.

After the meeting, Mr. Scott expressed disappointment only that others didn't present alternative ideas designed to accomplish some of the same goals as his proposal, feeling the meeting instead was a series of explanations of a litany of reasons his idea will not work.

For further understanding of the apparent staunch opposition, I spoke with Bill Lyons who helped me gain some insight into the city's perspective and, not so incidentally, a personal one since he has regularly crossed Henley Street as a pedestrian for thirty years. He re-iterated the concern that any similar solution to the one being proposed would be very expensive and suggested "the portion of traffic wanting to go far south will resist being routed 2.5 miles out of the way."

Bill Lyons provides background to the Council.
He points out there is a pedestrian bridge, wide sidewalks and limited possibility for development. The best solution to connect the convention center to downtown, he said, would be lowering that section of Henley Street and building a plaza over it, but he points out this would cost many millions of dollars and that money is simply not available, given the current economy and competing priorities.

He suggests that the Henley Street barrier is more a psychological than physical and that the World's Fair Park is a dividing area which the city is addressing or planning to address in several ways, including "a high priority to calm the traffic on Cumberland, create a pedestrian area there," and enhancing the World's Fair Park itself. He pointed out that other plans in the works would unify the area, such as " . . . a pedestrian bridge in the planning stage from the Art Museum into the park . . . a greenway extension planned to connect Jackson to the World's Fair Park from the north" and "enhancing trolley service from downtown to UT." He feels the monetary costs and negative impacts to other areas of the city are much lower by pursuing these approaches to the connectivity problem.

"In short, and unfortunately, Henley is a corridor that we just have to live with in pretty much its present state because the costs - financial and otherwise, drastically overwhelm the benefits. The changes we make there reverberate around the system with a lot of negative outcomes to counterbalance what I think are relatively modest gains."

I wish all of that had been said at the council meeting. It makes sense and I would have like to have heard George or others respond. I would have like to have heard Jack Neely speak as he has written about this more eloquently than anyone I've read. I wish we could have had a presentation by the UT class that Mr. Scott said is studying the issue. I wish others had presented ideas which might have offered less expensive alternatives.

As it was, the conversation was less than fulfilling. At the least, it was a conversation, and unlike councilman Pavlis, I feel it is one worth having whatever the conclusion. Also, I'd prefer nothing had to happen over anyone's dead body, but rather that we might acknowledge the difficulties presented by Henley Street and jointly pursue solutions that minimize its damage. I still fear crossing it on foot and I continue to wonder how many people come into town, stay at the Holiday Inn, attend a convention in the Convention Center and leave thinking what an ugly city we have, oblivious to the fact that just a few blocks east is one of the coolest up-and-coming urban centers in the region.

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At May 15, 2011 at 1:49 AM , Blogger Andrea said...

Sounds very disappointing. Please continue to let people know if other meetings will be held. I wish I could have gone to this one.

At May 15, 2011 at 10:25 AM , Blogger tthurman said...

I'm not surprised! These people obviously never walk on Henley Street.

This sounds typical of my experience in the past, they'll let you speak your mind, but for the most part, their's are made up already. As far as the business' go, I still cross over via the South connector bridge once or twice every couple of weeks from inside downtown, which is the same frequency before the closure. Many times I grab lunch on the way back in the vicinity of the Shoney's and Arbys mentioned here. With the reopening of the bridge, their business will return regardless if people are doing 60 mph or 40 mph. In all likelihood slower traffic would be to their benefit.

The woman who lives on Moody Ave certainly brings the most sincere view of this, but she's okay until Mr. Welch is no longer in the picture apparently.

Sadly, they will likely squander away a once in a life time opportunity because they are close minded and lack vision. I see a change like this being a possible rebirth of the whole south side of the bridge while making downtown "whole", but instead we will just go back to business as usual.

At May 15, 2011 at 3:13 PM , Anonymous Greg said...

Too bad for the city, but not surprising at all. Most people in America have no appreciation for walkable urban spaces. If they have to travel more than 10 feet they do it in a car. Their idea of paradise is suburbia from sea to shining sea, and when given the opportunity they teardown anything resembling a city to create parking lots.

One added note: the "it's too expensive" argument is nonsense. Traffic calming measures are cheap to implement, which has been proven many times across the nation.

At May 15, 2011 at 6:38 PM , Anonymous Art Wagner said...

I think that the less than enthusiastic response to this issue from those mentioned stems from the fact that Mr. Scott's proposal tried to treat several different problems as one big problem that required "domino-type" solutions that seemed to require hardship and suffering for some.

First, history. The construction of the Henley Street Bridge, the widening of Henley Street itself, the connection of it to Broadway (which did not previously exist), and the construction of Chapman Highway, were specifically designed to CREATE an artery from Knoxville to points south and what would become the GSMNP. Trying to undo that with one big solution was almost sure to fail because it does not focus enough on some specific problems and seems to overreact to others.

Second, Henley Street. I doubt that those in the 20s and 30s that planned and envisioned Henley Street and the bridge ever imagined that it would feel like a barrier, psychological or otherwise. Nevertheless, that is what it has become--and I believe that is the real problem. Thanks to the pre-Fair connection of Henley to the interstate it is even more of an artery and more of a barrier. Solutions should address Henley Street itself and how to alleviate the psychological and physical barrier. Attempting to re-route traffic to UN-CREATE an artery is futile. Lowering a section of the street and building a plaza over it for pedestrian traffic may be expensive, but the results would be worth it if coupled with the other WFP improvements.

Third, South Knoxville. Admittedly, South Knoxville depends on Chapman Highway to be both an artery AND a path for local traffic. Over the years, Chapman has achieved that while at the same time it has been horribly destructive to South Knoxville itself. Businesses need the traffic, but not traffic that is passing at 50 mph. However, this is ANOTHER problem that can be tackled concurrently but not lumped together with Henley Street itself.

At May 15, 2011 at 11:06 PM , Blogger Knoxville Urban Guy said...

Hey Guys,

I agree that it was disappointing and yes, I think most minds were made up in advance, which isn't really surprising. I think Bill Lyon's views cited above reflect those of others on the council, and Bill, I'll note again, has probably crossed that divide as many times as anybody over the last thirty years. Good people can disagree honestly about an issue, but, as I said above, I wish there had been more discussion.

I don't know enough about cost and so forth to argue the particular issues. That was why I wished some people who could discuss it intelligently had spoken up. The forum was such that anyone who asked to speak could do so.

Greg mentions that traffic calming measures don't have to be expensive and Art indicates that part of the problem with George's approach may be that it tries to do too many things at once. Maybe others should take the conversation to the next stage by looking at the problems and proposing other solutions. I think that is what George had hoped to see happen.

George will be speaking to a Rotary group tomorrow and Jack Neely may be planning to write something later this week, so the conversation isn't over.

At May 16, 2011 at 9:02 PM , Anonymous TNGEO said...

Several of the City Council have expressed to me that they are in favor of exploring this and other possible solutions. I think, generally, engineers don't like to deal with unknowns, and resist change. I can't say I blame them.
But in the past few decades, many people (including engineers) want to not only move traffic efficiently, but also have a desire to live in a nice city.

At May 16, 2011 at 9:15 PM , Blogger Knoxville Urban Guy said...

It's encouraging to hear that they are willing to explore it. I hope they are sincere in saying so and, like you said, there may be other ideas that could solve some of the problems. If there is ever another work session, there definitely need to be preparations ahead of time to have others speak up who are in favor of doing something. It just seemed so one-sided last time and I know everyone isn't happy with the situation.

At May 17, 2011 at 12:56 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Pedestrian overpass makes Henley easy to cross in just about every situation where I've had to cross by foot.

At May 17, 2011 at 4:13 PM , Blogger tthurman said...

That's great if you happen to be crossing where the overpass is, not so much if you have to walk to it and then cross.

At May 17, 2011 at 4:33 PM , Blogger Knoxville Urban Guy said...

Ah, the pedestrian overpass. Well, it can be fine at times, as Mr. tthurman said above, but what if you are at the City County building and want to go to UT, for example? I'll be honest and say it may be fine for plenty of people, but I always feel like I'm going out of my way when I use it. I generally only go there if I have other people with me who prefer or need to not have to run across Henley. Your feeling about it may depend to some degree on how often you cross that road and your point of origination and destination.


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