Making a Downtown From Scratch

Dec 5, 2019

This is what Oak Ridge's Wilson Street could look like -- if city officials, property owners and developers all agree on a plan to invent a downtown district.
Credit City of Oak Ridge

Oak Ridge is hoping to build an entire downtown from scratch, on a little shopping center access road.

 

If the goal seems far-fetched, remember -- this is the same city was was thrown together practically overnight, to house 75-thousand people who helped build the atomic bomb.

 

There was no main street. Public gathering places could become wartime targets. The city’s postwar residents have bemoaned the lack of a downtown practically ever since, most recently during two years of public meetings.

 

Oak Ridge was seeking feedback on how the town should grow. Many want it to have more of its own identity. A big part of that is a distinctive, walkable downtown. This would also help attract new residents. Jeff Smith, the deputy for operations at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said most of the lab’s employees commute from Knox County. They want to live where they can walk to food, entertainment and nightlife. 

 

“When it comes down to housing, our staff is looking for something the city didn’t offer,” Smith said.

Oak Ridge attempted to address some of this during the ongoing overhaul of the old Oak Ridge Mall area. As approved, the indoor mall’s open-air successor was supposed to include retail with apartments and a public square.

 

When a new developer called RealtyLink took over the project, the company claimed it was going to stick with that design. But it has since asked to push residential elements to the edge, close a road to add more stores, and eliminate the gathering space. Although the shopping center is called Main Street, it’s basically turning into another outdoor mall.

 

City Council member Jim Dodson, who also serves on the planning commission, said RealtyLink doesn’t have experience building residential projects.

 

“You don’t really want somebody who comes and says we’re not good at something,” Dodson said. “We want the best that we can find.”

 

On the same day in May, Oak Ridge City Council approved both the changes RealtyLink had requested to the Main Street development plan, and a new vision for the city called the Oak Ridge Blueprint. The two directly contradicted each other on several points. But Wayne Blasius, the city’s community development director, said the Blueprint is meant to be an evolving guidance document.

 

“With regard to some of the details about roads and particular connections, they’ve changed,” he said. “But the importance of connectivity, and the importance of the gathering and the mixed use and all that didn’t go away at all.”

 

This is what Wilson Street looks like currently.
Credit Heather Duncan

Early this year, the city shifted its downtown focus to nearby Wilson Street. Wilson runs for three blocks behind the shopping center. Right now, it’s mostly lined with empty lots or thinly-occupied strip malls.

 

RealtyLink’s approved project plan still requires a block it owns on Wilson to be residential, with apartments or condos.

 

“What we’re hoping for is if they can’t develop it, they will give that opportunity to other developers at a reasonable price... to come in and invest in that area," Dodson said.

 

A state grant paid for a consultant to create a design concept for Wilson Street. The results were unveiled at a public meeting last month.

 

The vision includes shops with apartments above, hugging the street, and several small outdoor gathering places. Public art and infrastructure will reflect Oak Ridge’s values -- like a crosswalk in the shape of a DNA strand. RealtyLink has agreed that festivals and concerts could be held in the shopping center’s huge parking lot, Blasius said. RealtyLink also agreed to hold off on putting in a fast food restaurant on Wilson for a while while city tries to pursue its downtown vision there instead, Dodson said.

 

But in the end, realizing the vision is up to the 10 property owners on Wilson Street, Blasius said.

“Development like in this downtown area is dependent on the market primarily,” he said. “But we’re trying to do the things that we can do from the public sector standpoint to make it attractive, like have a vision, have a community consensus around that, have support from local government leaders.”

 

He said the city may offer more public presentations or a speaker series about mixed use development, place-making, and Wilson Street. It’s already held meetings with all the property owners on the street. “Some are already very interested in seriously looking into ‘what-ifs,’” Blasius said, although none are “ready to pull the trigger.”

 

No special district has been created to control what type of development happens in the Wilson Street corridor. For example, RealtyLink just asked to build a mini-storage facility on Wilson, which would not fit the downtown concept. That kind of business would require a change to the planned unit development for Main Street, which would have to be approved by City Council. Council hasn’t decided yet.

 

While it’s attractive to jump at any project that could bring in more tax dollars now, Dodson argues that sometimes leaders must focus on longer-term benefits.

 

“We want to have those things that will sustain our tax base for a long period of time, should one of the big box stores choose to leave us,” Dodson said.

 

A downtown on Wilson would bring in around $5 million in new tax revenue during the first five years, a recent study showed. 

 

“The kind of development we can get in a more dense, urban setting is much more supportive and sustainable for our tax base,” Blasius said.

 

He said he expects the action would spread from downtown, as it did in Knoxville. Blasius should know. In previous jobs with the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission and Knoxville's community development department, he worked on Knoxville downtown and Old City Plans. He went on to start his own development business, renovating the Pheonix Building and helping bring Mast General to Gay Street in the early days of Knoxville's downtown redevelopment.