One of The Oak Ridge Observer‘s weekly questions for Council candidates was “What do you feel is Oak Ridge’s biggest problem? And how do you plan to try to fix it?”
My answer (75 words or less) was:
Oak Ridge’s biggest challenge is repopulating our neighborhoods to replace our founding generations (the people who arrived in the city’s first decades, built the city, and are now passing on). There is no simple solution. We must continue recent progress against drug crime and neighborhood blight, maintain excellent schools and services, revitalize retail, promote our quality of life, use “land bank” authority to rejuvenate homes and stabilize neighborhoods, and much more (see www.ellensmith.org/blog for details).
Now for those promised details…
Background. Our city’s founders were bright and hard-working young people who came from all over to help win a war, remained after that war in the government-issue neighborhoods and housing that Skidmore Owings & Merrill had laid out, and invented many aspects of community as they went along. They were joined over the post-war years by other young people much like them. Early residents treasured their government-issue homes and the unusually egalitarian neighborhoods (mixed by income, profession, and “social class”) in which they were set. These founding generations have largely “aged in place”, giving our city an unusually large senior population. No one lives forever, though, and these founders are leaving us. Most of their bright and hard-working kids — products of our city’s fine schools — have found opportunities elsewhere in the U.S. and the world, and they aren’t particularly interested in their parents’ homes.
The goal. As I see it, Oak Ridge needs to repopulate itself in the coming years — add new people in both the original neighborhoods and the newer ones that were built over the decades since the war. Ideally we can find new residents of the same caliber of the ones who are leaving us. In particular, this means increasing Oak Ridge’s “market share” of the people who come here for new jobs, as well as attracting retirees and making this a “community of choice” for people throughout the Knoxville metro area.
Doing this means ensuring that our city is an attractive residential location, particularly for members of today’s younger generations who come to this area for jobs. New residents need to be attracted to inhabit existing neighborhoods, whether in well-kept older homes, homes renovated to meet the needs and wishes of new residents, or new houses built on “infill” vacant lots or to replace homes that aren’t good enough to renovate.
What we need to do. This is a big and complex challenge with no simple solution. (Goodness knows that I’ve attended numerous meetings about measures to help address various pieces of this challenge!) My answer to The Observer outlined some of my thoughts on what can and should be done. Here are some more thoughts:
* Confront the city’s negatives. This is the focus of city manager Mark Watson’s “Not in Our City” initiative — a collection of efforts aimed at eliminating conditions that are “turn-offs” for visitors and prospective residents. Talking to Oak Ridgers in this election season, I’ve been pleased to hear that people all over Oak Ridge are seeing real progress. More effective law enforcement has eliminated hot spots of illegal drug activity and is helping people feel safer. The enforcement of new ordinances on parking (no parking on sidewalks, no regular parking or storage of boats, RVs, and oversize vehicles on public streets, no parking in front yards except on legitimate parking surfaces, etc.) has removed long-existing eyesores from several neighborhoods, reduced parking-related conflicts between neighborhoods, and made it easier to use city sidewalks.
Those are by no means the only negatives to confront. There are other types of eyesores (like kudzu in greenbelts, other types of junk in yards, and weeds growing along the curb) that ought to be tackled. Lack of shopping opportunities is a longstanding concern that the new Kroger Marketplace will help to address, but will not fully resolve. Other types of negatives exist and should be recognized and addressed, such as people’s fears about living in a city that is a center for nuclear activities. I think that city leadership needs to identify and address the city’s negatives. It was to help address some negative perceptions that, during the 1990s, the Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) crafted a brochure and created a website to disseminate a positive message about the quality and safety of the city’s environment. As an EQAB member and contributor to that effort, I felt it was important for both residents and outsiders to know that the serious contamination that DOE is working to clean up is isolated to DOE-controlled areas and is (with few exceptions) not in our residential community. For example, almost all of the land we live on was never used for any kind of industry, the water we drink is clean (and obtained upstream from any federal facilities), and our environment is exceptionally well investigated and monitored, giving us a solid basis for being confident that it is safe (we know more about the safety of our environment than the residents of most U.S. communities do).
The rebuilt Cedar Hill Park playground is a positive feature of the city for new residents and old.
* Maintain and enhance the city’s positives. Positive attributes of Oak Ridge for residents include our excellent public schools, our full range of quality city services, our unique history, an exceptionally large amount of public open space for a community our size, an unusual array of human-powered outdoor recreation opportunities in our public open space and public lakefront (for example, the excellent rowing course, mountain biking at Haw Ridge, and many miles of greenway trails), the diversity of our population (people came here from everywhere and tend to be open to other newcomers), and exceptional arts/culture (think symphony, playhouse, art center, etc.) and adult education (think ORICL) resources for a city of our size. The local legacy in science and technology is another asset that forms a basis for future job growth — an important ingredient of residential growth.
That’s a partial list of Oak Ridge’s positives — other people would add to it. We need to recognize these positives so we don’t neglect them, so we enhance them when appropriate, and so we can celebrate and promote them. City government has a particularly important part in ensuring that schools, city services, and recreation facilities continue to be positives for Oak Ridge.
*Improve the housing stock and our older neighborhoods. There are many positive qualities in Oak Ridge housing, but there’s also much room for improvement. On the positive side, much of our existing housing qualifies as “affordable” by most definitions of that term. Many homes — in all price ranges — are in locations (quiet, secluded settings; mountain views; etc.) that are prized in most real estate markets. There are many available lots in recently created subdivisions. On the negative side, today’s homebuyers are looking for features that often are lacking in our existing homes, many homes lack off-street parking, too many houses are in a deteriorated state due to neglect, and most of the very temporary units remaining from wartime (I don’t mean cemestos, but the more temporary housing that is concentrated in the Highland View neighborhood) have outlasted their useful life. Much of our existing housing lends itself to renovation/modernization (for example, the interior walls of cemesto homes are not load-bearing walls, so it’s not hard to knock out a wall to reconfigure the rooms), but the high cost of new construction discourages this. Neighborhood blight issues — including properties owned by negligent landlords — can discourage potential buyers, as well as owners’ efforts to improve individual homes.
Legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2012 authorizes Oak Ridge to establish a land bank — essentially, a nonprofit corporation that could own, maintain, renovate, redevelop, or sell under-utilized property in the city. This is not a cure for every issue with local housing, but it offers a means for keeping newly vacated homes from becoming low-end rentals and for reconfiguring existing homes and neighborhoods for new owners. City Council needs to work with staff to formulate a charter for the land bank that will ensure that it can work for the maximum benefit of the city and its citizens.
* Foster change to make the city attractive to new residents, including “millennials” and future generations. Tastes change over time, and a community that seemed ideal to past generations might not have any appeal for future generations. The “millennial” generation, including my 25-year-old son, has an overwhelming preference for walkable urban neighborhoods. Oak Ridge was like that in its early years when few people had cars, housing was clustered around neighborhood shopping areas to which residents walked, and buses took people where they needed to go outside their neighborhoods. Since then, we have lost the buses and most of the neighborhood shopping, and we have spread (yes, sprawled) away from the original compact neighborhoods. I support efforts to reconfigure and revitalize the Jackson Square shopping center and surrounding areas as a means to reinvent that area as the kind of place that younger generations will want to be. I have been delighted to watch Jackson Square begin to become a center for dining — particularly for unique local establishments like the Soup Kitchen, Razzleberry’s, the Homeland Food Cafe, the Market House, and Dean’s Restaurant. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing — which is one reason why I am supporting amendments to city ordinances to ensure that restaurants that lack liquor licenses (under Tennessee’s difficult liquor laws) can allow patrons to bring wine to enjoy with their meals. The pedestrian improvements that the state and city have made recently around town, waterfront improvements, and expanded greenways also should help make Oak Ridge more attractive to rising generations. One of the reasons I’ve been engaged with the Plan ET regional planning initiative for the 5-county Knoxville region is my conviction that regional cooperation is necessary to position our city for the future.
* Tell our story effectively. If Oak Ridge is a great place to live, we need to tell the world (or at least the Knoxville metro area, particularly including new hires in Oak Ridge) about it. The Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau both are involved in crafting and communicating the city’s message (to businesses, prospective visitors, and potential future residents), but I’m not sure that we and they are doing the best job we could. I think the city needs to hear and consider new proposals (from these organizations and from others) for doing that job more effectively.