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Johnson City commissioners adopt long-term West Walnut Street redevelopment plan

Zach Vance • Jan 17, 2019 at 11:28 PM

More than four years of preparation has already gone into the redevelopment of West Walnut Street.

Now the work begins in earnest.

Johnson City commissioners unanimously voted Thursday to adopt the West Walnut Street master plan, a 10-to-20-year roadmap compiled by design firm Kimley-Horn that reimagines the corridor as more pedestrian-and-bicycle-friendly based on expansive community input.

“One of the primary drivers behind starting this process was to expand the footprint of what we recognized as the redeveloped downtown, but even more importantly, ensuring that we have a solid visual and actual connection between (East Tennessee State University) and the downtown area,” City Manager Pete Peterson told commissioners before the vote.

“One of the things that we really hope to accomplish here is to facilitate movement from campus to downtown easier and in a wider variety of methods and to get the shops along Walnut Street redeveloped.”

Development Services Director Preston Mitchell said the plan is not legally binding, but is instead a blueprint for this commission and future commissions to follow for stormwater, streetscape, utility and zoning enhancements along the corridor.

“This is not a request to adopt an ordinance. This is not law. This is a plan. This is policy,” Mitchell, who spent 2.5 hours before the meeting reviewing the plan during a commission workshop.

“So if you adopt this, it is a roadmap for you. It’s a roadmap for the City Commission and for the community that says, ‘This is how we want the West Walnut corridor to grow and change and develop over time.’

“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.”

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

The action plan proposed by the Kimley-Horn consultants prioritized five objectives, and among those, Peterson suggested the commission start with designing stormwater improvements, which could entail more green spaces, and relocating overhead utilities underground.

“What we’re proposing is that we get someone hired to begin the construction design of the streetscape, the utilities (and) all the elements of the master plan, but prioritize stormwater and utility relocation to be done first,” Peterson said.

“That way, as new buildings are built and existing buildings are renovated, when they go to make utility connections, they’re connecting to the new utilities rather than the utilities getting ready to be replaced, which could result in additional cost for us in terms of the construction.”

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.

The Johnson City Regional Planning Commission unanimously voted Aug. 31 to recommend the master plan’s approval, but the full commission postponed its vote until Mitchell, who was hired in November, could familiarize himself with the plan.

“We didn’t want to be adopting it as a plan and then have our Development Services person coming on and finding shortcomings in the plan. So that was kind of why it was pushed off,” Vice Mayor Joe Wise said.

In other business, commissioners and city staff received a pat on the back for having its 18th consecutive “clean” audit, and the city’s credit rating upgraded from AA- to AA by Standard & Poor.

Johnson City’s overall net position grew by $29 million during the 2018 fiscal year, while $16 million, or 7.6 percent, of the city’s outstanding long-term debt was paid off.

The audit also noted that general fund revenues were $900,000 more than projections, and expenditures fell $2 million below budget, resulting in a $1.6 million surplus, which was set aside for economic development and the rainy day fund.

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