The Other S-Curve

Did we enjoy the weather last week? I certainly did. Having been out of town for the first round, it was nice to be home for the most recent snow days. Is it tough to get anything done when the boys are out of school? Yes, but while work comes and goes, the joy of pegging small children with snowballs is forever. (On an unrelated note: Dear baby Jesus, please forgive me for considering pegging other people’s children when those bastard neighborhood kids knocked down my finely crafted snowmen.)

Jefferson Heights Park was the perfect stage for a couple of days of snow. The park is my home and a place that I have written about several times before. It was two acres of snowball fights, sledding and snowmen for the two-dozen kids who live on the park (and no, I don’t really think they’re bastards). As well used as the park is, it could handle more. Because of the boundary constraints of Jefferson Heights (railroads, industry, big roads), the park is oversized for the neighborhood. The reality is that a) the park was never really “sized” according to open space standards, and b) later plans assumed that the park would serve a larger area than it does in practice.

The area that we now enjoy as a park was originally the site of an elementary school. Jefferson Street School was built in 1911, and in its heyday enrollment peaked at 406 students. By 1960, when student numbers dropped to less than half that it was designated as an all-black school and renamed the William J. Davenport school. The school was shuttered in 1971, the building was eventually razed, and the site designated a city park. The City probably figured that calling it a park and mowing the grass was far cheaper than maintaining an aging building. From a planning perspective, the site as a park was essentially an afterthought.

Fast forward a couple of decades to the mid-90s and the community had turned some its focus to the neighborhoods immediately south of Main Street. In all of those plans, Cowart Place (Rustville), Fort Negley, and Jefferson Heights were tied together by a strong 17th Street linkage. Main and 17th are the only two streets that run all the way through the three neighborhoods, but 17th is more neighborhood scaled and pedestrian friendly than Main. This linkage was designed to be a corridor for the neighborhood to access resources such as the stadium, the elementary school and Jefferson Heights Park. Unfortunately, a decision was made that compromised the viability of that concept.

The 1996 Dover Kohl Plan
(It's true, planning for the neighborhood started before 2005.)
17th Street in a simple and compelling diagram.
An axis between two major green spaces that serves as
an organizational framework for three neighborhoods.

The 17th street neighborhood connector got off to a great start when CNE did the Cowart Place townhouses. That momentum was carried on when we did the 17th Street streetscape and water tower project. The segment of 17th from Broad to Market is top-notch neighborhood streetscape. The plan was to carry that level of quality through Fort Negley and Jefferson Heights to the park. The corridor through Fort Negley proved to a bit more problematic as the right-of-way was constrained by stone walls on ether side of the street- while this was inconvenient, it is possible to design around that. The real problem came at the intersection with Rossville Avenue.

Rossville at 17th is the one intersection along this corridor where 17th takes a bit of a jog. In the early 2000’s there was an opportunity to make a simple maneuver to push the corridor through and create a cohesive order that would benefit adjacent property owners and the community as a whole. This opportunity was shit upon, disregarded by the chicken plant and the traffic engineers. The extension of 17th through a small portion of the Chicken Plant land on the west, and through a small portion of an industrial property on the east would have reinforced the notion of the corridor and improved value for all parties involved. Mind you, this wasn’t easy- there were negotiations to make and land to buy. In the grand scheme of things, however, a group of reasonable adults with the greater good of the community as a common goal should have been able to broker a deal with wins for everyone. That didn’t happen. What happened was that the Chicken plant didn’t want to play, and the traffic engineers proposed a band-aid of a “solution” that worked for them (read: the car). The silly little “S” curve is hopelessly out of place and undermines the integrity of the corridor.

17th & Rossville. What should have been.
17th & Rossville. When good plans go bad.

Since that missed opportunity, all three neighborhoods have grown explosively. The compelling and worthy concept of the 17th Street corridor is arguably more valid now than it ever has been. The connection of three vibrant neighborhoods to Finley Stadium, Battle Academy, Water Tower Park, Fort Negley Park, and Jefferson Heights Park should speak for itself. As fate would have it, the adjacent industrial site is on the market, I have heard that the chicken plant is trying to play nice with its new neighbors, and the people in charge of designing our roads are more enlightened than in the past. Unfortunately, I doubt anyone in a position to resurrect the concept is particularly fired up to do so.

This was the solution that the engineers came up with...seriously.
The most expensive section of streetscape
along the corridor is also the worst.

Unfortunately, this is once again merely a symptom of the bigger problem. For every incomplete 17th Street project, there are a dozen other great ideas for projects that have been compromised or forgotten about. One of the beauties of an (essentially) independent design entity was that there was long-term institutional memory for plans, thoughts and ideas. The Design Studio didn’t turn over every four years and its focus on good design didn’t change with the priorities of different political administrations. Good ideas were nurtured and gestated until the time was ripe for implementation. We’re now in a position where we start from scratch every four years. That is my biggest lament for what the community has lost.

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