New MPC director wants to talk

Wendy Smith
Government/Politics columnist

Gerald Green doesn’t have many positive memories of downtown Knoxville from his graduate school days in the early 1980s. He interned in a leased office with no windows, and he recalls a restaurant on Market Square but can’t remember the name. Beyond Miller’s Department Store and Big Don the Costumier, nothing else stands out.

Now, he thinks the city is great. Downtown, the river, the university, neighborhoods, greenways and people provide a great foundation, and Knoxville is building on it, he says.

Green is the new executive director of the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission, and he’s getting his feet wet by reading and by meeting with people. His definition of planning is 70 percent education, 20 percent counseling and 10 percent planning.

He was a planner in Asheville, N.C., as it was growing up. During the month he moved there in 1989, the fourth downtown restaurant opened. The city’s successful growth led to a lack of affordable housing − something he hopes Knoxville can avoid. The city also lost its friendliness, he says, which contributed to his decision to accept a job as planning director for Jackson County, N.C.

The county seat of Jackson County is Sylva − population 2,603. But a rapid population increase was underway when Green arrived in 2010. The change allowed him to do different things, like environmental planning, protecting natural resources and working with small communities.

Working with small communities is the same as working with larger ones, just more personal, he says. He left that post to return to Knoxville.

His experiences have led him to value good communication. In Asheville, he had good relationships with neighborhoods and developers alike because he communicated with them.

“Nobody likes to be told no without an explanation.”

He hopes to get off on the right foot here by meeting with neighborhood groups. The city needs to have a balance of single-family and multi-family housing, and he plans to talk to residents about where high-density housing would work best. Building high-density housing in the right place enhances commercial development and discourages developers from putting it in the wrong place, he says.

The biggest challenges he will face in Knoxville, aside from communication, are getting buy-in for the city’s vision of growth from the center and identifying where county growth should happen. He’s heard that some want to preserve areas in the southern part of the county, and some want to preserve farmland in the east, and he aims to find out if those are shared goals.

When asked for his opinion on historic preservation, he chooses his words carefully. There’s real value in historic properties, but the economics have to work. There has to be a way to re-use them, he says.

While he’s glad to return to Knoxville, he doesn’t anticipate being able to relax anytime soon. He plans to spend his evenings meeting with the community. His wife, Ashlea Green, still teaches part-time at Western Carolina University and plans to commute between Knoxville and Cullowhee, N.C.

Those who wonder which part of town the Greens will call home will have to wait. They are still house shopping.

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