By Gary Gray
A Nashville-based company has begun digging its teeth into a mass of documents, meeting with Johnson City business and property owners and East Tennessee State University officials in the initial phase of a coming master plan for the redevelopment of the West Walnut Street Corridor.
“We understand well why this project was important,” Kimley-Horn & Associates Project Manager David Coode told West Walnut Street Corridor Task Force members and others at a public meeting last week.
The task force’s overall goal is to develop Walnut Street into a pedestrian-friendly urban corridor that encourages commercial, residential and office uses. The corridor runs from Buffalo Street to University Parkway, and a section of Ashe Street from Buffalo to Sevier streets.
Johnson City commissioners have only so much they can budget towards the project in the 2018-’19 budget cycle, which begins July 1, 2018. It’s a lock money will be devoted to keep the project moving forward through next year, but that likely will include only further planning and proposed conceptual documents.
“Part of what we’re dealing with is local government work during the fiscal year,” said Joe Wise, city commissioner and task force chair. “It will be at least until the next cycle before any monies for construction can be approved. We’re in the territory now where the process takes time. The outlook is, ‘What will West Walnut Street look like in 2025?,’ not ‘How will it look by Christmas?’”
Though Coode said it may be 2020 before construction begins, he revealed in a presentation a flow chart of a 30-member team pushing to gather all the necessary input, information and general costs for delivery to the City Commission in April. At this point, the company is only under contract to produce a satisfactory master plan.
In December 2015, the Johnson City Regional Planning Commission created the task force to solicit ideas for redevelopment on West Walnut. Public hearings were held, public surveys were distributed, business and property owners were gathered, and about one year later the corridor was rezoned.
The playbook for development and redevelopment of a major downtown Johnson City corridor got a final review last spring when city commissioners approved an ordinance setting the ground rules for the West Walnut Street Overlay District.
Four zoning designations were applied to the area, but those morphed into a hybrid of business and central business designations. There will be no other designation to reference other than the rules and regulations for the newly created district.
The intent is to revitalize properties facing either way along the corridor, including cross streets and properties facing West State of Franklin Road. The invigorated urban corridor is expected to bring long-overdue changes from which both commercial and residential uses can thrive, as well as special consideration for walkers and bicyclists.
On Nov. 2, commissioners unanimously approved a $221,500 contract with Kimley-Horn to design the West Walnut Corridor Redevelopment Plan. The company, which bested five other bids, is a nationwide heavy hitter that specializes in public infrastructure and private development.
City and university officials, with strong input from business and property owners, want to keep the momentum moving with the company’s master plan. It is expected to include recommended improvements, including storm water fixes, underground utilities, sidewalks, trees and landscaping, roadway/intersection improvements as well as a number of other renovations and changes.
“We want to make sure when private investors come in, we can give them all the information they need,” Coode said. “Our goal is to make sure the improvements last through our children’s and our children’s grandchildren’s age.”
The company is analyzing key environmental issues, traffic, parking and pedestrian needs and options to meet those needs. Coode said all data collected will be put before city staff in February. In April, a public-input meeting will be held to discuss plans and opportunities after a general construction cost is established.
“We’re going to need to communicate well with the smaller businesses along the street,” said Tom Seaton, who owns Firehouse Restaurant on West Walnut. “We need to assure them we have a plan to keep them there.”