Sidewalks in neighborhoods would be a good start

Wendy Smith
Government/Politics columnist

Those Who Pay Attention know that the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission has been working on new subdivision requirements. The final draft was on this month’s MPC agenda, but staff requested a one-month postponement to allow for more public input.

This was primarily because the first draft of the document included language that required sidewalks to be installed on one side of the street in new city and county subdivisions while two subsequent drafts did not.

Those Who Pay Attention noticed the omission.

Representatives from the Council of West Knox County Homeowners, Community Forum, the Community Health Council and Bike Walk Knoxville made it clear to commissioners that sidewalks are important to the community and they don’t want language requiring them in new subdivisions to fall through the cracks.

MPC Executive Director Gerald Green said the language was separated to address issues involving sidewalks, like where they should be and what to do when topography makes them infeasible. A vote on subdivision requirements was postponed until December to allow more time for sidewalk discussion and public input.

A subcommittee, created by MPC chair Rebecca Longmire and Green, has been tasked by the city, county and MPC staff to develop a comprehensive sidewalk policy. In addition to Longmire, committee members are Jeff Roth, Scott Smith and Janice Tocher. The public is welcome at committee meetings, which will be advertised at knoxmpc.org.

The fact that the sidewalk requirement was removed from subdivision requirements makes walkability advocates nervous. Bike Walk Knoxville president Caroline Cooley is already skeptical about local government’s commitment to sidewalks.

One of her “pet peeves” is the lack of a sidewalk next to the Paper Mill Drive shopping center anchored by REI and Whole Foods − two health-oriented businesses. The tenants asked the city to install sidewalks, but neither the city nor the developers were willing to foot the bill, in spite of the fact that there’s a KAT bus stop across Kingston Pike at the Bearden Branch Library.

Cooley thinks there could be pushback on a sidewalk requirement in the county. But if developers are compelled to install sidewalks in new subdivisions, the cost will be absorbed by homeowners, which will allow funding for sidewalks in other parts of the community to stretch further, she says.

Neighborhood groups in both the city and the county are clamoring for sidewalks, yet fewer than half of subdivisions built in 2015 have sidewalks. According to information compiled by MPC staff, two out of four subdivisions permitted in the city have sidewalks, as do 15 of 36 Knox County subdivisions. None was installed due to the generosity of developers. All were required.

Having sidewalks in subdivisions won’t make our community walkable, but it’s a good start. Green pointed out during the September MPC meeting that, to be fair, sidewalks need to be in commercial, multifamily and mixed-use areas as well as subdivisions.

It’s a big elephant, but it’s time to take the first bite.

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