The City of Oak Ridge has been developing a vision for its future and a stack of plans to make it happen. They all boil down to some version of this: Schools are great. The natural environment and arts community are a big plus. The places where we live... need some work.
What’s missing? Diverse and newer housing, neighborhood connections, and a downtown.
You’re probably out of luck if you’d like to live in an apartment or condo, or where you can walk to shops and restaurants. And with most houses dating to World War II, some neighborhoods are looking run-down.
Housing has become a drag on the city’s growth. That’s important, because Oak Ridge has a unique problem: It was all built at once, for the Manhattan Project.
That means not only the houses but a lot of other things are wearing out all at once, requiring a bunch of expensive fixes. For example, the city has to build a new $40 million dollar water treatment plant.
But its population -- and its tax base -- haven’t grown proportionately to help foot the bill, said Wayne Blasius, community development director for Oak Ridge.
“It’s not realistic for taxes to increase on the people that are here to try to make up for that 75-year-old issue,” Blasius said. “So we have to grow the tax base, and we want to do that not in a headlong-sprawl sort of way, but in a thoughtful and smart way.”
Oak Ridge is in the only county in the region where jobs multiply faster than the population. Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been adding 1,000 jobs over 18 months, said Jeff Smith, the lab’s deputy for operations. But its employees mostly live elsewhere.
“The places our staff expect to live in aren’t available in this city,” Smith said. “It just doesn’t have the inventory of housing, the right kind of housing, the environment if you will, where people that we bring to the laboratory say, ‘Hey, that’s a place I want to live.”
That’s why the lab and its big contractors ponied up for an “Oak Ridge 2030 Strategy” by the same planning team that originally designed Oak Ridge in 1941. The strategy highlighted big ideas for different parts of the city. These could include a downtown on Wilson Street, a massive interconnected trail system, and a redevelopment corridor along East Fork Poplar Creek.
“That opened our eyes to the possibilities of taking advantage of East Fork Poplar Creek for redevelopment,” Blasius said. “It’s a really cool idea we’re interested in. We’re just not there yet.”
Smith said one aspect of the 2030 report was revealing. He said the city has often complained that it can’t expand because the Department of Energy owns so much land. The 2030 report found that Oak Ridge is actually “land-rich” compared with other communities around the country that have transformed themselves, he said.
“When he laid out the property that’s already within the city of Oak Ridge, and how it’s being underutilized, that to me was the most surprising,” Smith said.
That’s true because the city is rather spread out, with lots of opportunities to fill in gaps in existing neighborhoods -- and upgrade them at the same time.
“We need to work with some of our landlords in center city to help upgrade homes already there,” said Jim Dodson, who serves on both Oak Ridge City Council and the planning commission. He added that gradual property rezoning has led people to see more development opportunities, including in older parts of the city.
The market has started to fill some of the need for newer housing. Hundreds of homes are being built in developments that were stalled a decade ago by the economic crash, said community development director Wayne Blasius. The Melton Hill Lake waterfront seems to be turning into a hot spot.
If all planned subdivisions are built out, the city’s size could increase by half in the next 15 years, Blasius said.
The 2030 strategy helped inform another vision, called the Oak Ridge Blueprint, approved by city council this year. The Blueprint was shaped by thousands of citizen comments after eleven public meetings across the city. It defines what residents value, and what Oak Ridge could do to enhance those things.
Blasius said the 2030 strategy influenced some of the concepts in the Blueprint, like the importance of housing diversity and density, and connectedness between natural areas and the urban area.
Dodson said he’s excited to see some of those concepts play out on the ground. For example, an emphasis on expanding and connecting the city’s trails could earn it a bigger role in regional tourism related to outdoor sports, piggybacking on the publicity Knoxville has received for its Urban Wilderness trail system.
Dodson said he foresees that a rails-to-trails project connecting Melton Hill Lake and Emory Valley trails will open opportunities for more “human-powered-sports” events.
As an art teacher who also serves on the foundation board of the American Museum of Science and Energy, Dodson is also enthused about the idea of connecting the museum with public performance spaces and public art along Wilson Street. The city is also investigating the possibility of a conference and event center attached to the museum, potentially bringing even more people to the new downtown.
Dodson says the amount of public participation in building these visions means the plans can’t just sit on a shelf.
“When they identify those things, then we need to take action on it,” Dodson said. “That’s what I would pull out of both of these studies is, one was driven by our employers, but more importantly one was driven by our citizens of Oak Ridge, and this is what they’d like to see.”
The Blueprint was created to shape yet another document: a new comprehensive plan to replace the last one, written in 1988. Oak Ridge is also using it to update zoning to accomplish new goals, like developing a downtown that mixes apartments with shops and restaurants. Focusing on Wilson Street for that requires looking away from an older vision of Oak Ridge’s defunct indoor mall (now an open-air development called “Main Street”) as the city’s actual main street.
Small but concrete steps have been taken for pursuing the Blueprint and 2030 plans, like a traffic study and design concept for the Wilson downtown corridor.
Smith said these are the kind of steps Oak Ridge National Lab hoped to see.
“The effort that the city just undertook is headed in exactly the right direction, and we’re fully supportive of what they’re trying to do,” he said.