By Jeff Keeling
Educational displays. Environmental exhibits. Public art. Pollinator gardens, rain-collecting cisterns and kid-friendly water features. Plenty of potential pizazz has numerous partners interested in downtown Johnson City’s flood prevention efforts.
The primary objective, though, remains one that’s reached more by blocking and tackling than by running fancy plays. That was the message from Johnson City Public Works Director Phil Pindzola in an interview with News and Neighbor last month, and it was reiterated in even stronger terms by a majority of city commissioners at the commission’s Monday night agenda review meeting.
Commissioners considered a request for design work at the former U-Haul property bounded by Commerce and King streets, where a stripped down cousin of Founders Park is scheduled to be built.
A “base bid” of $118,500 was for design of a stormwater retention basin and walls at the site, which covers several acres of very low-lying land along King Creek. An add-on, meanwhile, would have funded design of a water feature at the park for an additional $44,500.
“See, that’s ridiculous,” Commissioner Jeff Banyas said of the extra piece, which the commission may hold off on funding. That wouldn’t come as a surprise to Pindzola, who said last month some of the “fun stuff” he has envisioned for the U-Haul park, which sits below the Johnson City Public Library, “really needs to be paid for from other sources.” He added that the goal will be to get some businesses to partner in funding features ranging from solar panels, fountains, fancy LED lighting and rain cisterns – all part of an educational/environmental experience tied to water, power and sustainability.
Those elements – up to and including an LED/water feature light show, Pindzola said, will help enhance downtown and draw families. “Kids will be all over this thing; the adults will act like kids it’ll be so much fun,” he said, adding: “I’ve got to find the money to do it.”
Commissioner Jenny Brock seemed to agree Monday that such money, even if partly provided by the city, could be well spent.
“It would be great to see a breakdown of what all those features are, but if we go back and look at a recent history of what’s happening downtown, it started with a very unique park, Founders Park,” Brock said. “This is another part of that, which I think will continue to spur the development of downtown. All this will now start going down Market Street, and hopefully up Roan Street, that will start developing as well.”
Whatever the city decides about extras, the U-Haul site and points upstream along King Creek are the next stage in engineering projects designed to cut way down if not eliminate significantly damaging downtown floods. Those have plagued downtown along both the Brush and King creek watersheds for well more than a century.
Founders Park, between State of Franklin Road and Commerce Street, dealt with some of the Brush Creek problems, Pindzola said. (Other less visible work along Brush Creek also has helped.) Meanwhile, aside from a retention basin where several old buildings were demolished at West Market and Boone streets, King Creek has seen less flood control work and become the more problematic of the two. It runs into downtown from beyond Kiwanis Park, largely paralleling West Main Street before entering the Carver neighborhood and largely running underground from there.
“Over the last two years, the only place it’s flooded significantly has been the intersection of Boone and Market streets,” Pindzola said.
That situation should be about to change for the better. The U-Haul purchase will allow for a large overflow pond and the uncovering of more of the creek. Pindzola said with city crews doing much of the work, creating the retention area and a low-frills park shouldn’t cost more than a couple hundred thousand dollars after design is complete. Money will come from the city’s stormwater fund.
Underground, other significant engineering work is set to occur. The public won’t see it, but Pindzola said the results should be extremely advantageous when the occasional big rains hit Johnson City. Upstream near the Boone/Main intersection, the city plans to install a number of large underground pipes – 36 to 48 inches in diameter – that will help store and carry water in large rain events.
“They will capture water that is coming down Market, and also some of the water that’s turning from King Street when it backs up,” Pindzola said, adding that he hoped the results would include a great reduction in the kind of scenario pictured above (from the intersection of Boone and Market).
Under this scenario, King Creek would still be allowed to flood even further upstream, in Carver (also pictured), but the land there has a lot of grass and is designed to allow for flooding more than downtown with its hardtop streets.
As King Creek ducks underground near West Watauga and Fairview avenues, its waters begin to fill the current underground capacity quickly. The creek follows narrow culverts through downtown to its underground confluence with Brush Creek near the back of the Downtown Centre parking garage.
The city also plans to change a valve structure in that area, so that rising underground water in King Creek can back up into the old Brush Creek culvert (near the bus station) where it currently is prevented from doing so.
Pindzola strongly believes that enhancements such as pollinator gardens with rain capture features like the one planned at the library, Founders Park’s extras, or the potential U-Haul park amenities, do result in economic development. Moving forward on the underground work, though, should also go a long way toward increasing investors’ confidence that their downtown investments will stay high and dry barring a 100-year flood.
As City Manager Pete Peterson told commissioners Monday night, “If we can get the retaining walls done and the basin built, we’re going to get done what we need.”