Downtown Johnson City makeover steadily coming into view

Gary B. Gray • Mar 4, 2013 at 9:48 AM

Zoom in a bit more on that overhead view of downtown Johnson City.

Now, connect the construction dots. Tie together the project sites, whether completed, now under way, or still in the pipeline for next year, or the year after.

Underground pipes are just underground pipes, right? Closed downtown streets and detours. Demolished buildings. For what? Call it what you like. It’s your city. But it does appear officials have been and will continue to aim for two things on the front end of the downtown makeover: functionality and appearance.

Investors, infrastructure and aesthetics

Grant Summers, whose father is Robert “Rab” Summers of Summers Taylor Inc., said this week that his father and his business partners, who own properties downtown and are building the $2 million Paxton Place, are “putting their money where their mouths are” thanks, in large part, to the city’s infrastructure initiatives.

“Development is beginning to get a little more traction, and it’s nice to see the city mirroring their efforts with those of investors,” he said. “In general, those investing in downtown are very interested and very appreciative of what the city is doing.”

The younger Summers, who is the project manager for Paxton Place, and his partners with NuGen Developers have purchased the former Tennessee National Bank building and plan a mix of residential and commercial offerings.

“I think it’s a mental thing,” he said about the aesthetic aspects of what the city is incorporating into its various projects. “Sidewalks and crosswalks are visual. They give people perspective. Whether it’s relative to distance from where they’re parked or where they’re going.”

He also said he supports the city’s efforts to fix downtown flooding.

“I think the perception is sometimes greater than the reality of the situation,” he said. “However, I applaud the city for investing in that. There’s been some unfortunate casualties (old buildings), but it’s necessary collateral damage. I’m not trying to point fingers at all but rather to say that it’s unfortunate when in the course of progress sometimes it is necessary to demolish old buildings, and that hopefully we can retain what is left now.”

Founder’s keepers

“A lot of things we’re doing is bringing Johnson City back to the master plan of the 1900s,” said Phil Pindzola, Public Works Department director. “The environment is changing downtown; we’re creating a new image.”

At present, the launching pad is Founder’s Park, the long-awaited, and now very visible, $2.8 million, 5-acre stormwater/park project taking shape between Wilson Avenue, Main and Commerce streets and the Norfolk Southern Railway tracks.

This phase of the city’s $30 million long-range flood mitigation plan also is being built to please the eye and invite private interests to think twice before deciding on another community in which to invest. And, the city will wrap up a contest in about one month to find a permanent name for the park, including suggestions from Johnson City Schools’ students. Whatever it may eventually be named, the park’s completion is set for September.

Construction began in late October, and excavation is under way to build one of the sea walls, which will be terraced, meaning there will be three “steps” or grades from the top of the walls downward. Residents and visitors will be getting a new 200-seat amphitheater at the northeastern end of the park, and construction of this feature should begin in a few weeks.

Brush Creek will meander through the park and include three waterfalls with the last one cascading into an area at the end of the park that then will be funneled under the railroad tracks. The park is being funded by stormwater fee revenues.

“There will be a path that loops around the entire park, and there will be two pieces of art at the two entrances,” Pindzola said.

Farmers welcome

Just across Wilson Avenue, a few steps north of the park, land for the city’s new Farmer’s Market has been cleared and architects have updated the design.

The new market will stretch from Wilson to Main Street, and a drive-thru is planned for the market’s south side as well as canopy-covered parking for 60. The city plans to add 25 spaces for overflow and an additional 50 spaces will be constructed on Commerce Street. City officials and architect Thomas Weems still are working with the design, and it remains unknown if Wilson will be closed and utilized for pedestrian use.

The new Farmer’s Market and all its amenities hopefully will get a lift from the Johnson City Development Authority through about $1 million in tax increment financing.

“We’re looking at where to put the rest rooms, and since there’s a lot of stone work at Founder’s, we’ll be using the same style on the column supports at the Farmer’s Market,” Pindzola said. “We want to make it flow through to integrate both the park and the market. We’ll probably put pavers down on Wilson, which will be closed to vehicle traffic.”

The new market is expected to be finished this fall.

Puddle-proof and pretty

You’ve likely noticed some commotion on Buffalo Street. That is the city’s plunge into what will be a new look for downtown streets, sidewalk, intersections and parking spaces. This first phase is expected to cost from $500,000 to $1 million, and the money is coming out of the city’s general fund.

“What you’re seeing is us redoing the sidewalks, and the new parking spaces will be set with gray and adobe paving stones,” he said. “The new parking and various intersections will be set with permeable pavers. That means you’ll not see puddles.”

Public Works Department workers have laid PVC pipe under the old spaces and filled them over with gravel. When the bricks are in place, water will make its way down to the pipes and flow out through the drainage system downtown. The city also will install grass medians.

He said this first phase on Buffalo runs from West State of Franklin Road to South Roan Street, and the crosswalks will be fitted with a special material called Flowcrete, a very durable product that looks good but also has some “grab” to it.

About the time summer rolls around, the city should be moved over to Commerce, where parking spaces, sidewalks and intersections will be redone.

Beginning July 1, sidewalks from Buffalo to Boone and Main to Market streets will be redone, though the latter sections may have to wait until there is sufficient funding.

“So, though some of the work on Main and Market is still under consideration, if all goes well, we’ll have Founder’s done, the Farmer’s Market, the upgrades on Buffalo between Roan and State of Franklin, Commerce from State of Franklin, all the way around Founder’s Park to the U-Haul site.”

Meanwhile, Johnson City Press employees may be considering a diving board on top of its building, because the demolished area bounded by King and Market street and Montgomery and Boone streets will literally be turned into a lake.

“We’ve thought about using it as a skating rink in the winter when it freezes over,” Pindzola told a group this week during an update of city projects.

He wasn’t kidding.

Officially, it will be a retention facility — a place where water will be brought in from King Creek, especially when the creek overflows.

In 2014-15, four more major projects are slated to begin.

First, the restoration of South Roan from Buffalo to State of Franklin, where the same permeable brick will be used at the intersections, planters will be installed and complemented with public art.

A certain flair

Enter the Johnson City Public Art Committee.

The committee was formed in 2010 to develop and oversee a public art program for the community, and its goals are many. One of those goals is to raise the bar on the standard of art displayed and use it to bring “a new visibility” to downtown Johnson City.

“This is going to help put Johnson City on the map,” said Sarah Davis, committee chairwoman. “We’re calling the corridor on State of Franklin into downtown the ‘pollination pathway.’ We know that Brush Creek will be accessible to pollinators, such as honeybees and hummingbirds. We love the metaphor. ETSU is pollinating downtown, and the infrastructure projects also are pollinators.

“I feel Johnson City is known for two things: its natural beauty and its friendly and talented people. So we see the corridor as becoming a series of outdoor classrooms for children and adults. Connection, integration and expansion — that’s what I see happening.”

Art will be chosen from local, regional and national artists and placed in public spaces to enhance bicycle and pedestrian pathways; to enhance neighborhoods; to capitalize on the city’s historical identity and the many facets of the community, including health sciences, retail, higher education, performing and visual arts, historical landmarks and destinations, technology and business.

“We plan to place eight to 10 pieces of public art from where the ETSU baseball stadium is, all the way down State of Franklin,” said Edwin Gerace, Public Art Committee member. “We now have the money, and it all came from private donations. We’re in the process of doing it right now. We’re ready to go.”

The city also plans to extend the State of Franklin pedestrian/bikeway so that it fronts the new Tupelo Honey Cafe at Buffalo Street. Today, the 4,000-foot-long, 10-foot-wide concrete sidewalk built on a former railroad bed runs from the intersection of West State of Franklin Road and University Parkway to the intersection of Ernest and Ashe streets.

The stretch of bicycle and pedestrian-friendly sidewalk is part of a much larger plan that would tie together East Tennessee State University, downtown Johnson City, the coming multi-generational civic campus and the proposed Tweetsie Trail.

Coming soon

The city’s next goal, which could still be a few years out, is to build a water detention facility at the U-Haul site.

“We’re taking bids to demolish the former WW Cab and U-Haul sites in about two months,” Pindzola said. “Next week, we’ll be taking bids to demolish the old furniture store on Wilson Avenue. That will be used for a little bit of parking for use by the church (First Presbyterian) and local businesses.”

The city-owned property just east of Johnson City Transit will be transformed to provide 30 to 40 spaces to support businesses along Market and Main streets. The original creek connected with King Creek under the U-Haul site. In the ’70s the creek was diverted under the railroad tracks and now runs under Buffalo Street to where it discharges at the old Power Board site. The historic Lady of the Fountain sits directly on top of the existing culvert, Pindzola said.

While these projects get moving, Lamar Dunn & Associates is working on a plan to capture runoff in the tree streets area. Flood water has created a need to reroute the water through pipes that would end up in Founder’s Park.

For those who would prefer further development along State of Franklin over the graffiti-riddled former General Mills plant, negotiations also are under way for that property, which is owned by the Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

“That would be huge,” Pindzola remarked.

It would, in fact, be a big gain for the Chamber and the city. Both are on the same page about relocating the Chamber and utilizing some of the rest of that property for development and beautification projects that would tie into the already constructed State of Franklin bicycle/pedestrian pathway.

Meanwhile, look for the Lady of the Fountain Plaza to get a makeover at some point. Preliminary plans are to bring the curb line, or outer edges, out into the intersection a bit more, which would reduce travel times for pedestrians crossing either Buffalo or Main. Ideas for the plaza’s revamping are welcome.

“We’re wide open to ideas,” Pindzola said.

Down the home stretch

Finally, another deal is in the works that could improve both the flow of flood water from Brush Creek into Founder’s Park while also improving the look of a long stretch of State of Franklin.

The city is considering buying the vacant Kelly’s Foods property at the corner of Sevier Street and West State of Franklin. They then would try to work out a deal that allows Church Brothers Family Fun Store, now located at 917 W. Watauga Ave., to relocate on the former Kelly’s Foods site.

The swap would help eliminate a major restriction where Brush Creek runs under Kelly’s Foods, and the Church Brothers property would be used for additional flood detention and a new pedestrian path — a path that would begin near East Tennessee State University and bring people into an area the city is hoping to create — a better functioning, more aesthetically pleasing downtown.

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