What started out as a thesis by an University of Georgia Landscape Architecture graduate student, was transformed into a 19 year long $24 million dollar community transformation. Curtis Stewart, a graduate from the University of Georgia and now Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee completed his thesis on the revitalization and transformation of the streetscape alongside the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River that flows through downtown Gatlinburg, TN. What he didn't realize when he graduated was that he would soon be working for a design firm and that the city of Gatlinburg would be using his plan.
Gatlinburg, a city with roughly 4,000 permanent residents expands and contracts seasonally with approximately 9-10 million tourist annually. Settled in 1806, Gatlinburg has grown to be one of the most popular tourist destinations in the southeast United States. This fact has largely been made possible by the close proximity of the nations most visited National Park, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In 1992 the City of Gatlinburg submitted an ISTEA grant to receive funding for improvement to the streetscape mention previously. In 1993 they were awarded this grant and the total cost of this phase came to approximately $1.8 million. This was just the beginning of a trend. Over the ensuing years the city and private investors would contribute a total of approximately $24 million dollars towards improvements for this tourist hotspot.
Each phase brought with it new design features and challenges. From the start Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon, Inc. (BWSC) was the lead landscape architect and engineering firm. BWSC is an architectural/engineering firm with offices in Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio, and Georgia. Steve Fritts, of the Knoxville office, managed this project throughout its numerous phases and met with me to discuss the project in length.
This project, its designers, and workers, can claim many accolades. One of which was the seamless construction workflow which took place throughout the six phases. Unlike most projects, the workers were required to begin and finish construction in six month segments so that seasonal tourism would not be hindered. Often construction would begin in November and completed before May and June.
A variety of uncommon design techniques were implemented as well. The riverwalk, which was completed alongside the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River was designed to withstand the erosive effects of mountain flooding. Previous issues existed alongside the river in which floods would occur and wash away bank-sides, thus compromising the sidewalks and the safety of the pedestrians. Also during this project, a 3D laser was used during Phases 4, 5 & 6. The state of the art laser took a topographical survey of the site and created a useable 3D image. These images were then used for planning purposes throughout the project.
The riverwalk walkway was designed to stop the erosion by creating a cantilevered sidewalk which had a concrete face. It was designed in such a way that the concrete face would stop water from eroding the bank. The other decision which drastically changed the face of this street was the decision to place all of the overhead utilities underground. This utility undergrounding was carried forward in each of the following phases and led to a completely new look for the city which respected the views of the mountains and opened up the storefronts to the street.
This major facelift for the city brought on unanimous public and private support for more growth in other parts of town. Possibly the most drastic growth came with the commitment from Ripley’s to place their new $40 million aquarium adjacent these improvements. This commitment came with a stipulation that the city must improve the area near their attraction as well. This began the second phase of growth.
In 2000, BWSC was hired to complete a master plan for the entire city which would lay out future development. This master plan led to four more phases. The next 11 years saw a lot of change. Construction crews worked winters as usual, private and public came together to fund the work, hotels were built, three parking garages were added along with a built in visitor’s center. Sewer and gas lines were rebuilt and all utilities were place underground and therefore the parkway was repaved.
During this construction phase BWSC examined the spaces between the roads and store fronts, and for very good reason. This area is where the people are. The sidewalks in Gatlinburg are the arteries of not only income but experience. BWSC had to ensure that this space was aesthetically pleasing and logically sound. BWSC took to other cities to examine how they designed their spaces. From these findings they created a ‘design basis’ from which they designed each storefront area.
Each area was a different depth from storefront to curb. A minimum was set up at 15’ to ensure that people could pass by each other and allow room for someone at a storefront window or door. The maximum extended out to 19.5’ from the building facades, should there exist benches, fences, or awnings.
The streets were completely tied together with unifying aesthetics and material. Concrete, brick, site furnishings, plantings, rhythm, and color all helped pull the entire city of Gatlinburg into one well designed destination. Site furnishings, street signage, lighting, plantings, and more were all upgraded and given a regional style. Rhythm and reason now informed pedestrian movement throughout the city.
Not many communities see such a successful endeavor take place like this. Landscape architecture is certainly more than simply coming in and shrubbing up a site. Landscape architecture is changing the way we see our communities and helping us redefine the way everything relates to each other; design, economic revenue, people, and more. In 2012 Gatlinburg was named one of the top ten prettiest cities by Forbes and in 2013 BWSC received the Engineering Excellence Award from ACEC.
What started as a simple design concept changed an entire community.
In any successful project you will typically find a good team. The following are members who were involved:
Landscape Architect and Engineering: BWSC
General and Electrical Contractor: Efficient Electric Company
Cindy Cameron Ogle
City Manager: Larry Henderson
City Street Department
Gatlinburg City Commission
I currently maintain a blog which features monthly firm interviews about their firm and specific projects in the Knoxville or near Knoxville area. Readers can also find information on photography, current trends in representation, or even social equality issues.