WCDP leadership concerned with West Walnut Street concept; Commissioner says 'plan' isn't finished

Zach Vance • May 23, 2018 at 10:53 PM

Since Johnson City leaders are seeking feedback on conceptual plans for West Walnut Street, the Washington County Democratic Party decided to provide its two cents: They’re concerned.

On Monday, party Vice Chairman Joe Buckles posted on the political party’s Facebook page, saying the plan has “major flaws.”

“While we support infrastructure spending and capital improvements, this plan has major flaws,” Buckles said. “It commits huge capital outlays that the city will incur. There is no mention of private/public partnerships nor studies showing what private entities would invest in this project.”

Buckles is also troubled that the plan, which isn’t yet finished, has not been arranged in scaleable phases.

“We don’t want something that, if the economy turns down, if there’s not any private investment that they’re looking for, the city ends up holding vast amounts of land that they can’t sell (and) they’re not getting property taxes on. Then they have to start cutting services just to be able to handle that,” Buckles said.

Responding to those concerns, City Commissioner Joe Wise pointed out that the conceptual proposal is not a fully fledged plan, yet.

“I’m not sure everyone fully understands the scope and purpose of the boards we are referring to. These are conceptual plans meant to illustrate themes that will be released in the full report next month. This is not ‘The Plan.’ This is an incremental step toward a plan,” Wise said.

“These drawings show us what could become of the corridor 20 years down the road. It is a guide for future, natural development. Let’s not put more on this project than what this project seeks to accomplish.”

Wise also said the plan focuses on infrastructure, and the only properties that could become public spaces would be for infrastructure components, such as public streets, public parking, stormwater remediation, park space and utility relocation.

“Those components would be paid for with special purpose funds, like water/sewer and stormwater, that could not be used for projects outside their scope. For example, we could not buy a school bus with stormwater funds,” Wise said.

Buckles also expressed concerned about existing businesses being pushed out, but Wise reiterated that businesses will not be displaced during the plan’s implementation.

“Getting the infrastructure in place is what sets the stage for public-private partnerships. We have to create an environment where private investors want to spend their dollars. And it’s already begun — just look at the Mill project. There is already private interest in the corridor,” Wise said.

“We have to remember that this has been a community-led effort. This process started in response to citizens calling for improvements to West Walnut Street. Multiple business owners have been a part of a task force that for more than two years has engaged the public to ensure that we are reflecting their needs and hopes for what the corridor can be.”

In response to Buckles’ post, downtown Johnson City resident Amber Lee described the plan as very “forward-thinking” and progressive.

“Discuss (it) with neighbors in the adjacent Tree Streets or business owners along Walnut and the response is overwhelming positive. I commend the city for planning prior to development. The area was overdue and it would be reckless to plow forward without planning,” Lee wrote.

Buckles said his organization will be meeting with city planners to understand more about the plan and provide their input.

“We hope to come to be able to come to something that will address a lot of our concerns,” Buckles said.

To view the conceptual plans for West Walnut Street, which were completed by consulting firm Kimley-Horn, visit http://www.johnsoncitytn.org/westwalnut.pdf.

Any feedback should be submitted by May 30 to mmanley@johnsoncitytn.org or ben.miskelly@kimley-horn.com.

Eds. Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Amber’s last name was Floyd. It’s Lee.

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