Across America the Universities that teach urban design and planning have a mantra that preaches high density, walkability, bike lanes, and mass transit. Single family homes and automobiles have been designated as the enemy. There are many buzzwords to disguise the prejudice against single family homes and cars; Sustainability, Sustainable Design, Energy Efficient, Eco-design, Green Building, Triple Bottom Line, Zero-Carbon-Footprint, and People/Planet/Profit. What these Universities teach has quickly been incorporated into city governments across America and the results are not good for anyone.
Two weeks ago The Knoxville Focus reprinted an editorial from the Wall Street Journal titled, “New Left Urbanists Want to Remake Your City” by Christopher F. Rufo which reported, “These activists have big dreams. They want local governments to rebuild the urban environment – housing, transit, roads, and tolls – to achieve social justice, racial justice, and net-zero carbon emissions.”
In Nashville over time the urban environment has spread out to the suburban environment with disastrous results. It has been a tide which only raised a few boats. Housing in Nashville has exploded in price creating an affordable housing crisis. Yet that was the opposite of what was planned. Experts advised that mixed use apartments would solve the housing crisis. Experts said build as many apartments as there is demand. The result is now a city in traffic gridlock. The truth is high population density has problems that are difficult to solve once a certain point is passed. High density brings in state dollars to cities, dollars that cloud sound judgement. For every resident in a city the state rebates a portion of state sales tax money to the city. Sadly, for poorly run cities these rebated tax dollars are like a narcotic. Once addicted it is very tough to get clean. They crave more and more people whether they can provide the needed services or not.
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero has pushed through the disaster known as Recode with a goal of greatly increasing the population of Knoxville by building mixed use apartments where the renters will walk, ride a bike, or ride the bus. Rogero also has pledged to reduce carbon emission 80% by 2050. These goals are a dangerous illusion. The war on single family homes and automobiles in Knoxville will have a perilous outcome. Taxes will rise to create the infrastructure. KUB bills will rise. Knoxville Area Transit bus service will consume even more tax dollars. Gridlock will increase. Local businesses will suffer as employees cannot show up to work on time. Quality of life will decline. Poor urban planning is very difficult to fix after serious mistakes are made. There is a tipping point.
Knoxville is doing what Nashville did, expanding the urban into the suburban in a war on single family homes and automobiles to achieve social justice, racial justice, and net-zero carbon emissions. This is not the role of government. It is the opposite of planning. Just as Nashville refused to control its planners Knoxville has given free rein to experiment on the citizens for their social justice fantasies.
Rogero is not alone in these unrealistic social justice aspirations. Former Great Schools Partnership President and current First District City Council member and Recode Stakeholder Advisory Committee member Stephanie Welch was asked in a radio interview on WETR FM 92.3 recently, “How do we get people to understand that taking public transportation is a good thing?” Councilwoman Welch replied, “I absolutely think it is a good thing and nobody will like my answer on this but I think you have to make it harder for people to drive. When it is so much easier to get in your car and drive, people don’t take public transportation. That is really what it comes down to.”
Former School Board member and Knoxville Mayoral candidate Indya Kincannon has pledged to put affordable housing in every neighborhood in Knoxville. Is this move to place affordable housing in far flung city neighborhoods a cudgel to force more bus ridership, walking, and bike riding? Are more road diets and bicycle lanes the real objective? The last thing Knoxville needs is more disasters like Cumberland, Central and Magnolia Avenues where four lane roads are turned into two lane traffic gridlocks.
The city of Knoxville as spent well over a hundred million dollars to save downtown. They built an unneeded and underperforming convention center, spent millions of dollars on the brick fascia of the buildings on Market Square, given many tens of millions of dollars in TIF (tax increment financing) and PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) and yet only one thing saved downtown. Building parking garages. Now after all that taxpayer investment the social justice warriors want people to give up their cars? So what do we do with the parking garages that saved downtown? Turn them into permanent supportive housing (AKA homeless shelters)? Or a depot for the coming rickshaw craze? As insane as the planning is in Knoxville rickshaws do have a near zero carbon footprint. And apparently that is all that matters in the city of Knoxville.
Few people in Knoxville have paid attention to the urban expansion outside the city limits. The attempts to do this go back more than a decade. Mayor Bill Haslam directed his then Senior Director of Policy Development Bill Lyons to solve the issue of middle aged men who were alcoholics and drug addicts by building permanent supportive housing outside the city limits. The first of these was in far West Knox County near Lovell Road near a daycare and a liquor store. There was no bus route and sidewalk for the patients to use and they had no cars of their own. Being next to a liquor store infuriated the public and the surrounding neighborhood stormed Knox County Commission and this location was voted down in flames. The next try was near West Town Mall and again no sidewalks or bus routes. This too was voted down in flames. Then came the Ten Year Plan which advocated over $100 million dollars for homeless permanent supportive housing. After a yearlong battle then county Mayor Tim Burchett told the city the county would not participate and the Ten Year Plan died.
This method of solving homeless and chronic alcohol/drug problems by dispersing the people throughout the county is actually a HUD method for affordable housing and HUD pays incentive to cities that follow this plan. Affordable housing brings with it transportation challenges that are not easily addressed. Not only does the city pay out of city funds for the affordable housing the city must then invest in more bus routes and in some cases has created bicycle lanes that frustrate automobile traffic.
Elmington Capital Group is a Nashville based affordable housing company and has three projects under way in Knoxville with a fourth proposed for Cedar Bluff in West Knoxville. On Hollywood Road in Pond Gap Elmington Capital Group is building the Flats at Pond Gap which will have 102 apartment units. Elmington’s 172-unit Southside Flats project in South Knoxville will open this November. Elmington got approval in December 2018 to build 144 apartment units on East Young High Pike, just off Chapman Highway in South Knoxville. This past Friday September 12, Elmington got rezoning approval for a fourth complex: 192 apartments on a 14.5-acre hillside tract in West Knoxville, on Moss Grove Boulevard just south of Kingston Pike. Last Thursday rezoning for the project came before Knoxville-Knox County planning commissioners. It passed unanimously, with no discussion. There is a serious problem here.
Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commission is little more than a rubber stamp for Mayor Rogero. The prior model of affordable housing was to consider transportation ability as a key factor. Now it is blindly rubber stamping the apartments and paying to move the transportation there and create bike lanes if possible. There are more than 1,100 apartment units under construction and scheduled to be completed in the next 24 months in Knoxville. This is exactly how Nashville created an affordable housing crisis. They let the planners go wild with no restrictions rubber stamping every apartment proposal that was brought to them. The desire for state and federal dollars really is this addictive.
The irony is that the Mayor and the Planning Commission call this planning. It isn’t. It is about getting state money and HUD money and it will end up the same way for Knoxville as it did for Nashville.
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero has a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning. Mayoral candidate Indya Kincannon has a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning. Both Rogero and Kincannon were grant writers for the city of Knoxville. Have the taxpayers learned their lesson yet? If you are a hammer you tend to see everything as a nail.
Knoxville needs a mayor who understands business and can break this state and federal money addiction. In November the taxpayers will decide the future of Knoxville. The planners need to get back to basics. The war on single family homes and the automobile will end badly. It has in Nashville and, if it continues, it will in Knoxville.