What Monteagle Wants; How to Get There

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

“A community that has hope cannot be stopped,” said team member Lenise Peterman at the Community by Design presentation to the town of Monteagle. A standing room only crowd filled the city hall conference room April 27 to hear the recommendations of the Community by Design planners who spent three days in Monteagle learning the town. Nearly 200 residents attended the April 25 Imagine Monteagle event to meet one-on-one with the team members. The planners will spend the next couple months drafting a report to offer guidance to help Monteagle get to where it wants to go. Saturday evening the planners offered an overview of what they learned about what the residents want, what the town’s strengths are, and what is lacking.

In talking with the planners, residents expressed concerns about outdated regulations and permitting; lack of character, identity, and continuity reflecting Monteagle’s historic past; and insufficient affordable housing. Residents wanted a “walkable” downtown with more restaurants, activities, and safe crosswalks; improvements to the library and community center; and public access to bluff views.

Citing assets, the planners pointed to the library and community center, unusual in such a small community; the Mountain Goat Trail; the Plateau setting surrounded by state parks; the historic character of the Assembly; and the regional connectivity of the three communities, Monteagle, Sewanee, and Tracy City.

“Everyone is friendly,” said Virginia architect Terry Ammons. “This project will succeed because you do it.”

Ammons summed up “what needed some addressing” based on the planners’ impressions of the town. The downtown area lacked character, identity and a true “town center. There is ‘no there.’” Main Street services were “disconnected and spread out along the road.” There was a lack of shared public use space between the town and Assembly. On arriving, a visitor’s first impression was of “interstate highway stuff.” There was “no gateway” to the town and “as a visitor proceeded down Main Street, that didn’t change.” There was no readily available information and signage enhancing the visitor experience. And Main Street had traffic safety issues. Concurring with residents, the planners also cited lack of affordable housing and outdated codes and regulations.

Commenting on zoning, planner Wayne Feiden from the University of Massachusetts said, “Monteagle has had six zoning changes in past three or four years. You’re always tinkering. Sometimes we couldn’t’ tell where [zoning changes] came from. There are some weird messages in the zoning map … Development has spread all over. Roads are clogged. There is competition for downtown.” Feiden recommended residential and low traffic commercial in the outlying areas along Highway 41; concentrating local and tourist business in the downtown area; multifamily housing set back from the Main Street corridor on both sides; and limited highway service businesses at both exits with the goal of drawing people downtown. Hotels were good, truck plazas less so.

The planners conceived of the Main Street corridor as three parts: Downtown proper; the Greenway from CVS to Monteagle Elementary School; and the Civic Center area (city hall, the library, and community center).

Ammons said, for downtown, the planners’ report would focus on strategies for attracting new business: making downtown more “pedestrian friendly”; connecting both sides with crosswalks; improving parking; having “a shared public space”; and “adding housing to the mix” with infill behind businesses. For the Civic Center area, Ammons suggested improving the appearance of the amenities already there, perhaps a glass front at the library; a community garden and information gazebo along the Mountain Goat Trail in the green space between DuBose Conference Center and city hall; public restrooms for the trail; and a “gateway” entrance sign and possibly public art or sculpture when motorists transferred from the highway service area at the interstate. Along the Greenway, opportunities for businesses and shops existed where the restaurant burned down, in the “wide-open” area before the bank, and at the entrance to the Assembly; opportunities for new housing existed behind businesses.

Taking up the Greenway corridor details, California landscape architect and planner Pat Smith wanted to see improved “walkability,” crosswalks at every intersection, and more “drought tolerant” trees, grass, and plants. Smith recommended parking behind or at the side of businesses to allow for sidewalks and streetside parallel parking; a kiosk featuring “wayfinding” information about the town; and a public restroom in the area of the police station.

Feiden advised Monteagle’s regulations for developers needed to be clearer on “design and environmental standards.” Rules needed to be easy for both developers and residents abutting proposed development to understand. “Developers hate uncertainty,” Feiden insisted. Asked what “affordable housing” meant, Feiden explained there were two definitions: subsidized housing and market rate housing affordable to residents. “Market rate affordable housing is what I heard people asking for,” he said. Looking at demographics, Feiden noted “Monteagle has very few people between 19 and 36, and those are the ones you need for your service workers.” He cited lack of affordable housing as a possible cause. Feiden’s recommendations included increasing the sizes of Accessory Dwelling Units to accommodate two bedrooms and allowing tiny homes but not for short-term rentals. Acknowledging the community’s concerns about short-term rentals, Feiden stressed the need for a “balance.” On the one hand, short-term rentals decreased affordable housing, but on the positive side, short-term rentals boosted tourism.

Taking a question about getting new businesses to come, Ammons said businesses found towns actively engaged in planning attractive by conveying the town supported development and the business would be a welcome “part of a business community.”

Closing out the presentation, Peterman advised the residents, “You’ve got to get started. Don’t wait for our report. Step up and take on a project.” Mayor of Helper, Utah, Peterman brought the firsthand experience of a town revitalized by Community by Design planners who offer their services free of charge to small communities who qualify. She recommended appointing a citizen steering committee with subcommittees taking on small projects like a community cleanup, beautifying Main Street, benches, and plantings. Multiple resources, from grants to bake sales, offered funding opportunities. Starting a 501(c)(3) nonprofit would facilitate receiving donations. “Many people brought up wanting a community garden. Start one now,” Peterman said. “You want to show progress even if it’s small. The hard work is going to fall right here. If you have hope and belief, you can get it done.” The audience applauded.

To get involved in citizen led projects email Marci Dusseault at <mldusseault@gmail.com>.

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