By Gary Gray
King Commons, Johnson City’s latest functional yet pastoral downtown gem, was home to an official ribbon-cutting ceremony late last week as officials, those involved in the project, and about 100 guests, christened the public park.
“Look around,” said Johnson City Mayor David Tomita. “It’s beautiful. Pretty nice for a flood control project, huh?”
The 3-acre public amenity began as a solution for flooding problems, but the storm water fix blossomed into a people-pleaser that also has stimulated private investment around its periphery. Redevelopment and various business ventures already are in the works along Commerce Street, including a new art gallery, lofts and various commercial enterprises.
“In 2003, we received a flood event, and that’s when we said we’d had enough,” Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said about chronic downtown flooding. “That’s when we pursued a storm water fee. We also listed our priorities for downtown. The first was Founders ark. The private sector did respond, and there were other projects that followed.”
In 2007, city officials began formulating a plan that resulted in Founders Park (along State of Franklin Road) and the reshaping of Brush Creek. Since then, about 2,000 feet of Brush and King creeks have been opened up. Detention ponds have been created and a major culvert and piping system is all but complete that will allow flood water to ebb and flow without destruction to downtown businesses.
King Commons, which was created on a previously impervious surface when it served the former U-Haul business, has become more than a location where King Creek has been opened up and tied in to the old Brush Creek drainage route to alleviate flooding. Today, visitors likely would have to inquire as to the park’s original purpose.
Trees and other landscaping have been planted above new grass, and boulders have been strategically placed for viewing, sitting or child’s play. Pathways grace the park, a large mural colorfully represents the area’s lineage and natural beauty and 4-foot-high custom handrails reflecting a pollination theme are in place above the park’s culverts.
New water lines were installed. Commerce Street and King Streets were completely redone, with King Street now serving as a parking area. The former U-Haul sign was stripped down and rebuilt to serve as a downtown beacon, and its base is adorned with brick matching that used in much of downtown and a concrete overlay is deeply etched with the park’s name.
Pindzola said there have been three main lessons learned from doing the large downtown projects.
First: When the public sector commits, the private sector will respond. Second: There is a finite amount of financial resources, but if you do a first-class job, property taxes that come back to the city are double that the city might borrow to complete the project. Finally: Pick projects that achieve multiple objectives.
In December 2017, city crews began ripping up and hauling away old asphalt and concrete at the 3-acre space. Since that time, both creek beds have been dredged and widened and a large basin has been created.
Water in King Creek flows under North Boone Street and connects with water channeled in what formerly was Brush Creek (now an underground storm water connector/feeder). The two join at the center point of what is now a large detention basin.
Thomas Construction was the general contractor. They were paid roughly $1.8 million to produce a park-like setting with an area in front of the Johnson City Public Library that could end up being an amphitheater or ice rink. Land acquisition, design and engineering, grading and other work cost about $1.3 million.
Once the former U-Haul site was demolished, and debris removed, Jonesborough’s Southern Seeding went into full swing, removing debris, including soil, stumps and rocks to create a trench along the basin before installing “coir logs,” used to control erosion.
The park’s design, done by Knoxville’s Barge Design Solutions, incorporates walkways made with Van Gogh iridescent materials, which absorb sunlight during the day and glow at night. The same material was placed in the areas where runoff flows into the basin from Commerce and McClure streets.
Stone walls now grace the park’s plaza and at points along the walkway nearest King Street, at three bridges and along a wall behind Campbell’s Morrell Music on West Market Street, which will be illuminated at night.
Smaller walls have been constructed in a semi-circular position at the plaza, known as “seat walls.” These same walls will be placed on a portion of the walkway nearest King Street.
An additional 60 parking spaces — 30 near King Street and 30 on Commerce Street at the park’s main entrance — have been built, and the portion of Commerce Street fronting the park was be repaved.
The city recently applied for a $150,000 grant in an effort to create a playground in front of the Johnson City Public Library on King Street. Pindzola also is working to install solar-powered features, a fountain and a splash pad.