Friday, December 30, 2011

Morristown, Tennessee

Ahh, the last post before the New Year.  One last chance to look back at my 2011 new urbanism travels.  Although the subject today would perhaps be more appropriate for April Fool’s Day.  Or perhaps Halloween.

Each summer, I join friends for a week of minor league baseball and male bonding.  It’s an easy-going group.  We’re willing to indulge the particular interests of everyone in the group, including my interest in how downtowns work and don’t work.

As a result, we found ourselves in Morristown, Tennessee early one Tuesday last July, looking at probably the worst downtown redevelopment project I’ve ever seen.

Downtown Morristown
The photos tell the story better than I can, but I’ll try anyway.  It appears that someone had the tortured inspiration to propose a walkway above the sidewalk, along the second story of the mostly charming historic buildings.  Presumably, it was to allow the development of additional retail space.  Expressed that way, the idea almost makes sense except that the downtown tourism probably wouldn’t support the additional retail space.  Beside, upstairs residential with the resulting improved street life would have likely been the better strategy.

Dowtown Morristown
But those quibbles aside, the bigger problem came from the fact that few of the second stories had the same elevation, so the walkway could provide effective access to few of the upper stories.  And then the project really went sideways when it was decided to use reinforced concrete.  The result looked like a tornado had picked up a freeway overpass and plunked it down in the middle of a town that didn’t deserve its fate.

The devastation was so shocking that we made time for walking tour.  The longer we looked, the worst the disaster seemed. It was impossible not to visualize the streetscape without the walkway.  A charming little downtown that may have been struggling, but could have improved its lot with some residential development to provide sustenance to the downtown merchants supplemented by an effective tourism campaign.  Instead, it was horribly disfigured.

Downtown Building
With the walkway matching up with few if any of the second stories, there wasn’t a single structure that had a functional connection to the walkway.  (Assuming one ignores the few places where it appears that squatters were using windows to gain access into unused space.)  The only signs of use were empty bottles of cheap wine and lots of pigeon droppings.  Nor did anyone else use the walkway during the thirty minutes that we wandered.

It’s hard to imagine how badly wrong the planning went.  How could no one object to a structure being built over a street without a plan for connecting to anything?   How could no one notice that character-filled historical buildings were being obscured by mind-numbing and uninspired concrete work?

Bridge to Nowhere
Even with construction underway, it was clear that the vision remained muddy.  Looking at the structural section under a portion of the walkway, there appear to have been two or perhaps three attempts, all of them by undoubtedly expensive change orders, to remedy the concept after the original construction.  And yet the walkway remained unusable.

Multiple Failed Redesigns
Even the easier details were missed.  The streetlights on the walkway required cuts in the newly cast concrete to mount the poles.  In another poor solution, a ramp providing access to the walkway was deflected horizontally to avoid a conflict with an existing streetlight when mounting the street light to the structure would have seemingly been the preferred alternative.  And the ADA requirements were met by advising the disabled to go the ends of the structure several blocks away to gain access, an approach that would be laughed out of any city hall in California. 

Deflected Ramp
It is hard to describe how complete the disaster was.  I can’t imagine a single phase, from concept through schematic design, public input, funding, construction documents, construction, and construction management in which the failures weren’t profound and tragic.  And yet, an internet search doesn’t yield a single site talking about the damage wrought on historic Morristown, no citizens crying “What have we done to ourselves?”

Instead, I came across a site extolling northeastern Tennessee as an American Tuscany, where a number of picturesque downtowns, including historic Morristown, thrive in the absence of a big city.   If historic downtown Morristown is anyone’s idea of Tuscany, I beg that we keep them away from Florence and Siena.

Another website described the improvements as “SkyMart” and explains that the walkway was patterned after Chester Rows in England and yet includes no photos, an omission that speaks volumes.

I’m fair-minded.  If any reader has good insights, I’d be willing to accept an explanation for this profound mishap.  But I’ll exclude two justifications.  Neither “It was Federal money so didn’t cost us anything” nor “It provided jobs during a slow economy” will be accepted.  One doesn’t mutilate a charming downtown for either of those reasons.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. The skywalks were built in 1969. At the time downtown businesses were striving to compete with the new Rose's and Kmart on the west end of town. There had also been problems with Turkey Creek flooding, although it is not clear to me how the skywalks were supposed to solve this. The skywalks have become a unique architectural feature of the town. In 45 years I don't think any one has suggested that the money be spent to dismantle them.

  2. I've lived here my entire life and this is one area of my town I take pride in. This article "hurt my feelings". I feel you did no research at all. This wasn't an attempt to beautify a town in 200? it was done in 1962. It was in an effort to compete against malls by adding more shopping. I cannot even begin to tell you the memories I have of walking those sidewalks as a child, a teenager, a mom, and now a grandmother. It was the highlight of every parade...standing above the firetruck carrying Santa. There is so much history there. What you see as being a mess...I see as being a MESSage telling of our history. Why would we EVER want a downtown that looks like EVERY downtown in America. We have the awesome recognition of being the only place in the world where these BEAUTIFUL sidewalks in the sky still exist. WHAT AN HONOR!