The American Planning Association (APA) announced Wednesday the designation of Gay Street as one of 10 Great Streets for 2012 under the organization’s Great Places in America program. APA Great Places exemplify exceptional character and highlight the role planning and planners play in adding value to communities, including fostering economic growth and jobs.
APA singled out 10 blocks of Gay Street for their well-preserved commercial architecture and contributions to Knoxville’s economic livelihood and lively cultural scene. Their orientation and amenities lure pedestrians to what was once a desolate stretch of road running from the southern end of the Gay Street Bridge to West Jackson Avenue.
“Gay Street is once again the heartbeat of downtown Knoxville. It has enjoyed a rebirth with theatres, restaurants and other business and cultural offerings,” Mayor Madeline Rogero said. “Our community has been engaged during this revival and sound design guidelines have returned Gay Street to its prominence.”
Through Great Places in America, APA recognizes streets, neighborhoods, and public spaces featuring unique and authentic characteristics that have evolved from years of thoughtful and deliberate planning by residents, community leaders and planners. The 2012 Great Places illustrate how the foresight of planning fosters tomorrow’s communities and they have many of the features Americans say are important to their “ideal community” including locally owned businesses, transit, neighborhood parks, and sidewalks.
"There is no doubt in the minds of Knoxvillians that Gay Street and all of downtown Knoxville is a treasure," Chamber President and CEO Mike Edwards said. "When you look at what the private sector has been able to do working with great leadership from elected officials, Gay Street has reemerged as the heartbeat of our community."
Since APA began Great Places in America in 2007, 60 neighborhoods, 60 streets and 50 public spaces have been designated in 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“Gay Street’s re-emergence as Knoxville’s most influential and heralded street is the result of several decades of concerted and consistent revitalization efforts,”
said APA Chief Executive Officer Paul Farmer, FAICP. “While history endowed this street with architectural treasures, it’s the continued planning and work by the city, private organizations and individuals that ensure Gay Street remains vibrant and prosperous.”
Included in the original, 1791 plat for Knoxville, Gay Street rapidly became a hub of political and commercial activity. The intersection of Gay and Main featured the city’s first store and hotel, a courthouse and a jail. By 1850, three quarters of the city’s commercial activity emanated from Gay Street. To accommodate this growth, the street was paved with cobblestones and the sidewalks were widened. The city’s first trolley line, which opened in 1876, ran along Gay Street. Fourteen years later, the first electric streetcar connected Gay Street to Lake Ottossee. Knoxville’s first permanent bridge over the Tennessee River was constructed at Gay Street’s south end in 1867.
The first Tennessee state constitutional convention was convened in a building at the intersection of Gay and Church streets in1796. As the Civil War neared, Gay Street was a hotbed of Unionist and secessionist activism. Union occupation forces set up headquarters on the street in1863 and the Lamar House Hotel, Gay Street’s premier upper-crust gathering place, temporarily served as a military hospital.
After the war, several major banks erected headquarters buildings on Gay Street. The 1871 offices of Cowan, McClung and Company, a wholesaling giant, anchored what is now the Gay Street Commercial Historic District. Founded in 1988, Sterchi Brothers grew to become the world's largest furniture store chain. Its 1928 headquarters building on Gay Street is now home to residential lofts.
Gay Street was not without its cultural jewels. It was home to numerous restaurants, clubs and three performance venues – Staub’s Theatre and the Bijou and Tennessee Theatres. It was the threatened demolition of the Bijou in 1974 that set Gay Street on the road to recovery. Suburban mall development robbed the street of its economic vitality. Businesses relocated, leaving a surfeit of vacant buildings.
After the nonprofit Knox Heritage incorporated and saved the Bijou, it set its sights on garnering community support for preservation efforts. As a result, two historic districts – the Southern Terminal and Warehouse and the Gay Street Commercial historic districts – were listed on the National Register in 1985 and 1986. In response, the city developed the Downtown Knoxville Plan in 1987 and the Downtown Streetscape Plan a year later. Wider sidewalks, new bicycle racks and historic lamp posts, and enhanced landscaping were among the improvements. Design guidelines were developed in 2008.
The 1993 creation of the Central Business Improvement District helped finance construction and renovation grants. Eight years later, the city fueled revitalization by offering incentives such as tax abatements, low-interest loans and reduced permit fees. An influx of entertainment and residential venues has revived Gay Street, solidifying its position as Knoxville’s most fashionable and historically significant street.
The nine other APA 2012 Great Streets are: Duval Street, Key West, FL; Ward Parkway, Kansas City, MO; Main Street, Bozeman, MT; Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY; Fifth Avenue, New York City, NY; Wall Street, Kingston, NY; Shaker Boulevard, Cleveland, Shaker Heights and Beachwood, OH; Grant Street, Pittsburgh, PA; and Broad Street, Charleston, SC.
For more information about these public spaces, as well as APA’s top 10 Great Neighborhoods and top 10 Great Public Spaces for 2012 and previous years, visit www.planning.org/greatplaces. This year's Great Places in America are being celebrated as part of APA's National Community Planning Month during October; for more about the special month, visit www.planning.org/ncpm.