By Jeff Keeling
The scene I pedaled past near Brush Creek on Monday almost made me yearn for the undeveloped old days (anyone remember Bud’s Radiator Shop?) between University Parkway and Watauga Avenue. With the unseasonably warm air whistling in my ears and $30 million or so in post-2010 investment passing in a blur on my left, I shouldn’t have had much to complain about.
I have a safe cycling route. South Johnson City has revenue-generating new development, not just in this location where ETSU’s baseball stadium and the University Edge apartments site, but all over the State of Franklin corridor and downtown. Parks, restaurants, stores, trails and public art all have proliferated where once empty warehouses stood like grim sentinels or vacant lots sprouted hardy weeds.
Much is to be commended about the changes that the public and private sectors, working together, have achieved to transform my side of town over the past decade and more. The birth of the Public Building Authority and creation of Millennium Park and the Millennium Centre far pre-date downtown’s resurgence, but were keys in their own right.
I remember riding my bike along Harris Drive to the VA back in the 1990s when the only thing between University Parkway (Tennessee Street back then) and the VA campus was the Bank of Tennessee branch at that land’s western end. Where Elizabethton Federal, Pal’s, Cookout and the Carnegie Hotel and Millennium Centre now stand was just a thin stretch of vacant property that would get showy a few months out of each year with the whites of Queen Anne’s Lace, the blues of chicory and the pinks of sweet pea.
Even after that land began developing, I remember walking down the hill from our old house on Lamont Street with the lovely and talented Angela and the kids to pick blackberries along railroad tracks between Tennessee Street and Watauga. An old foundry and other empty buildings harbored who knows what and the overgrowth sometimes shielded homeless camps, but no one ever bothered us. And at the east end of that section, near Watauga, the creek widened into what we called the “Duck Pond,” a broad grassy stretch down the hill from Bud’s Radiator Shop.
Tax increment financing (TIF), growth at ETSU and athletic boosterism have completely transformed the stretch now. The stadium, at its west end, is an attractive feature. University Edge is tolerable, though the fountains that were among “water features” shown in its early site drawings led me to envision a somewhat more aesthetically pleasing greenway than the one we got in exchange for a boatload of TIF dollars.
Still, I can tolerate all of that. These changes, on balance, have been good for our city and neighborhood. The ruination of Highland Avenue, above University Edge, that was predicted by some naysayers hasn’t materialized.
What has materialized, unfortunately, is litter – lots and lots of litter. The area along Brush Creek between the VA and University Parkway is bad, but the stretch from there to Watauga is worse. We have much to appreciate in how downtown and the corridor west past ETSU is seeing new life. It’s a shame so many thoughtless people are detracting from it with their littering.