With extensive planning efforts to redevelop West Walnut Street finished, now the real work begins

Zach Vance • Mar 2, 2019 at 11:35 PM

Based on sight alone, one might argue little progress was made on the redevelopment of the West Walnut Street corridor during 2018, with the exception of the extensive Model Mill remodel. 

However, looks can be deceiving.

Behind the scenes, during the last year, Johnson City planners put considerable effort into solidifying a master plan that will guide future development of West Walnut Street, the vital corridor connecting downtown Johnson City to the campus of East Tennessee State University. 

This past January, Johnson City commissioners voted unanimously to approve that master plan, which can be described as a 10-to-20 year roadmap based on considerable community input that reimagines West Walnut as more pedestrian-and-bicycle-friendly. 

While the plan is not legally binding, it will serve as a blueprint to the current City Commission and future commissioners to follow for stormwater, streetscape, utility and zoning enhancements along the corridor. 

“You will make financial decisions based on this plan, land use decisions based on this plan, zoning decisions based on this plan. So that’s exactly what this is, it’s a long-range vision,” Development Services Director Preston Mitchell told commissioners prior to the Jan. 17 meeting. 

For West Walnut Street, the year 2018 marked the culmination of three years of planning efforts, which included the creation of the master plan and a specialized West Walnut Street District code. 

Efforts to revitalize West Walnut Street stretch all the way back to December 2015, when the Johnson City Commission created a 10-member task force of business owners, residents and city officials. Their goal was to create a zoning code, based on public input, that would enhance and add appeal to the West Walnut Street corridor. At the time, West Walnut Street consisted of at least three different zoning districts. 

The task force, led by Vice Mayor Joe Wise, spent nearly two years compiling community and stakeholder input through online surveys and community interactions. 

Commissioners then voted in November 2016 to actually create that specialized West Walnut Street District, and roughly a year later, the entire street, from the university to downtown, was rezoned with the newly-created designation. 

Among other things, the specialized zoning district requires new buildings have between 50 and 70 percent of their street-level facades made of transparent glass and windows on 25 to 50 percent of upper-level frontage. 

In November 2017, city commissioners took another step by contracting a planning and design firm, Kimley-Horn consultants, for $221,500 to gather even more feedback and build a longterm plan for the corridor. 

That master plan was finally unveiled in May 2018 during a community meeting, and it proposed the creation of two green spaces, a new streetscape with dedicated bike lanes, a cohesive stormwater treatment plan. 

That plan was tweaked a little bit by city staff, and in the meantime, a new Development Services director was hired, who also spent time reviewing the consultant’s work.

Finally, in August 2018, the Johnson City Regional Planning Commission unanimously voted to recommend approval of the master plan, and that recommendation was followed in January when the City Commission officially adopted the “roadmap.”

In anticipation of the master plan’s approval, commissioners already allocated $700,000 in this year’s budget to spend on designing construction documents and blueprints. 

The master plan prioritized five objectives, and among those, City Manager Pete Peterson has suggested the city start with designing stormwater improvements, which could entail more green spaces, and relocating overhead utilities underground.

Peterson said he’s already talked with Public Works Director Phil Pindzola about getting an engineering firm contracted to begin the construction design within the next few months.

Because the fiscal year is already underway, Peterson does not expect to spend he whole $700,000 on design work. Therefore, he said the remainder could be allocated for property acquisitions if an opportunity presents itself.

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