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City needs return on West Walnut investment

Johnson City Press • May 18, 2018 at 8:15 AM

Back in 1928, groundbreaking city planner John Nolen developed a master plan for Johnson City’s development. In those days, the city didn’t stretch much beyond downtown, surrounding neighborhoods, the Tree Streets and the old Carnegie district to the east. Planners could not have envisioned the sprawl to the north and west that made Johnson City what it is today.

But Nolen, whose plans shaped both Kingsport and Asheville, N.C., definitely was a dreamer and somewhat of a soothsayer. Much of what he drew on that 1928 map has come to fruition in one shape or another.

The plan outlined, for example, a new high school site on North Roan Street near Shelbridge, the East Tennessee State University president’s home —  just south of where the current Science Hill High School was built 30 years later. It also planned for a series of parkways around much of the city. They didn’t match up with what State of Franklin Road is today, but the general concept was the same.

Undoubtedly the 1928 map’s most prescient feature is one that took 90 years to come to fruition, the “City Mountain Park” on the Tannery Knobs. Here in 2018, the Tannery Knobs Bike Park is nearing completion. Of course, Buffalo Mountain Park in south Johnson City has been around since 1994, but Nolen’s vision for the Tannery Knobs has finally arrived.

Earlier this week, a consultant presented the latest dream plan for Johnson City, the redevelopment of the West Walnut Street corridor. As Staff Writer Zach Vance reported in Wednesday’s edition, the proposal would transform that area into an unrecognizable streetscape. Many of the existing buildings on Walnut and some adjacent streets would either be replaced or repurposed for residential housing, retail units or green spaces. The consultant’s proposal would keep just 16 existing buildings out of dozens there now.

The McDonald’s would be gone. So would the iconic Italian Pizza Pub. A Cherokee Street extension to State of Franklin would plow right through what is now Harmon Ice & Cold Storage. New parks would sit near Sevier Street and that Cherokee Street extension, and a linear green space would stretch along State of Franklin.

Like the efforts that helped revitalize downtown Johnson City over the last five years, the concepts are in part built around mitigating the stormwater issues the city has faced in and around downtown while making the corridor between downtown and ETSU more attractive and vibrant. As City Commissioner Joe Wise said this week, the city is not running businesses off the block tomorrow. The transformation will not happen overnight, as the proposal is a 20-year, flexible process.

“This is one of those things where if you’re somebody who is impatient with projects that take time, this kind of project can seem ‘pie in the sky.’ But this is the kind of project where if you don’t begin it today, you won’t have it in 10, 20 or 30 years,” said Wise, who was chairman of the West Walnut task force.

Time will tell whether the West Walnut plan is as clairvoyant as Nolen’s, and Wise’s call for patience is important, but remember, the city spent $221,500 on the West Walnut proposal. So current taxpayers, along with Tree Street residents and business owners, have vested interests in making sure the project shows real results sooner than later.

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