New zoning code will shape how Knoxville grows

Wendy Smith
Government/Politics columnist

Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission Executive Director Gerald Green has been talking about Knoxville’s outdated zoning code ever since he came to town in July 2015. Now that the city is on the cusp of updating the code, MPC staff needs guidance from the community.

“Knoxville is driving to the future in a Maserati going 150 miles per hour − looking in the rearview mirror,” he said at last week’s Fryer Talk, hosted by the East Tennessee Community Design Center. The talks, named for ETCDC cofounder Gideon Fryer, explore design issues.

Five companies are in the running for the job of rewriting the zoning code. Green hopes to have a contract by November and start the 20-month process in December. It’s detailed work that relies on community input, he said, and there will be opportunities to express opinions online and at multiple meetings.

Knox County is expected to grow by 170,000 in the next 20 years, so decisions have to be made about where density can be increased and how people will get around.

Multimodal transportation is one topic that needs to be addressed. We can’t continue to drive everywhere, he said.
Redevelopment should be a priority in order to limit sprawl. The community needs to decide how to encourage redevelopment of existing commercial property through tax incentives or limits on new development, and redevelopment of corridors like Broadway, Chapman Highway, Magnolia Avenue and Central Avenue would result in more revenue for business owners and the city.

At the same time, preservation of older neighborhoods should be considered as new development is incorporated. Neighborhood commercial zoning could direct such development.

MPC is looking for ideas about how to reuse former industrial sites. Innovative redevelopment could keep young people in Knoxville, he said.

Connectivity is another local challenge. Residents should have easy access to natural resources like the Tennessee River, and there needs to be better connection between downtown and the University of Tennessee campus. Henley Street creates a chasm, he said.

MPC and elected officials need to know how the community feels about such issues, Green said.

“Get out and be involved. Don’t just wait for us to make it happen.”

City Council member Marshall Stair has taken it upon himself to help educate the community about how current zoning code negatively impacts walkability.

Stair shared his message at last month’s PechaKucha, a forum used to present design issues using slides.
Walkability requires more than just sidewalks, he said.

He used photos of Kingston Pike to illustrate that sidewalks don’t necessarily make people feel safe and comfortable.
Separation of commercial and residential areas requires more driving, while mixed-use development makes walking an option, he said.

Parking requirements need to change because big lots are underutilized and increase space between buildings. Downtown is walkable because there is a mix of residential and commercial with few parking lots.

“The way I see it, residential areas can be left alone. It’s about improving commercial corridors.”

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