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Fort Sanders Battles On

Knoxville's most conspicuous residential section, right between downtown, UT, and the eponymous hospital, once-elegant Fort Sanders has been called Knoxville's keystone neighborhood—but a more appropriate metaphor might compare it to a Honda sandwiched between three tractor-trailer rigs who don't seem to have noticed it yet.

Late in the spring, clues about Dallas-based developer JPI's plans to demolish 25 houses for a huge apartment complex began to surface; preservationists have appealed to City Council, which has tabled action on the issue. Though the smoke of that major offensive hasn't cleared yet, 1998 may have seen the biggest threat to Fort Sanders since 1863.

There are greedy villains, to be sure, but in the end, the fault may be ours for overlooking this once-beautiful and still-potent neighborhood for so many years. After all this time, the city has still made no coherent plan for Knoxville's most historic neighborhood.

That may be changing, though thanks to the Fort Sanders Forum, a committee of developers, landowners, university representatives, and other interested parties instituted by the mayor in August. After broken promises and threats of a walkout, the Forum's year ended with at least a different set of hopes and regrets, with JPI agreeing not to build on the beloved 1500 block and concentrating its high-density housing on the northern, eastern and western fringes of the neighborhood.

The End of College Homes

Skeptics said from the beginning that they didn't stand a chance, and they were right. The small group of residents who tried to stop the demolition of Knoxville's oldest public housing development finally moved, and the wrecking ball drove in on College Homes in Mechanicsville.

Knoxville's Community Development Corporation, which manages the city's housing developments, says what comes next—dubbed Hope VI—will be a traditional looking neighborhood that weans the poor off the public dole. The project will cost more than $40 million, of which $22 million will be paid for with a federal grant. Surrounding homeowners, churches, and businesses are also affected—with some of them getting bought out through eminent domain. Critics say the project has been jammed down the throats of Mechanicsville residents and amounts to fancy gentrification. Is the project merely shuffling poor around the city, and how many of the old College Homes residents will benefit when it is done? These questions likely won't be answered for years to come. Good or bad, Hope VI is sure to shape the city for decades just as the original housing developments, urban renewal, and interstate projects have.

UT's Demolitions

Proud of its often-advertised 1792 founding date, UT is allegedly one of the oldest state universities in the nation—but you'd never guess it by looking around campus, which features only two buildings that are more than 100 years old. Oops! Make that one. Turner House, built in 1892 and the second-oldest building on the original part of the campus, was unceremoniously scrapped in the spring to help the university capitalize on the bequest of a wealthy alumnus who wanted to memorialize his family with a new building on the hallowed but very crowded Hill.

In 1998, UTK lost a little more of its character by demolishing more historic houses on and near its campus. There followed the sudden, unannounced demolition of another 19th-century house—one of the oldest houses on White Avenue (for parking, of course), a blitz that astonished UT's own representatives in the Fort Sanders Forum, which the city formed to govern such matters. Some circa 1920 houses in the Mountcastle Park area have also bitten the dust; a few weeks ago, UT acquired one against the wishes of the longtime owner-residents, to demolish it for parking.

Demolitions were more sweeping 35 or 40 years ago, during UT's massive expansions, but at least we understood them; the university was growing rapidly. Today's expansions aren't quite as easy to explain. UT has not grown in the size of its student body in over 20 years; the university is, in fact, several thousand students smaller than its high point in the '70s. So why is the university continuing to expand, acquiring more and more land around the campus, sometimes through hostile acquisitions? We'll keep asking.

The City's Convention Center Might Actually Convene

Mayor Victor Ashe's designated "top priority" project made some headway this year. The proposed new convention center got approval to set up camp on the World's Fair Park, albeit with some confusion about where exactly it would go. Initial plans put it in the southwest corner, which is currently the park's south lawn. But when nationally renowned planning honchos from the Urban Land Institute came to town, they recommended upgrading the lawn to a real park area and moving the convention center to the southeast side, along Henley Street. (Apparently several ULI consultants attended John Fogerty's rocking July show on the south lawn while they were in town and loved the venue.) Now, the Public Building Authority is working out the tricky details of removing a KUB substation and UT parking garage from the designated site. If all goes well, demolition and construction will start by next summer. Meanwhile, Ashe has yet to propose how the city will actually pay for the monolith, although details are said to be forthcoming. We can only hope conventioneers are as well...

Downtown Developments

There was a lot of talk about downtown Knoxville this year, and even some action. Mayor Victor Ashe in recent months has taken to reeling off a dizzying list of downtown projects: the Miller's Building; the convention center; the new justice center; the waterfront; and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, taking shape with remarkable speed near the Hyatt Hotel. Impressive as all that is, there are, as always, lingering questions about what exactly downtown is supposed to be—questions that, as a well-attended Metro Pulse forum in September made clear, won't be resolved by the simple addition of some giant tourist-and-prisoner-oriented buildings. Watch for the sometimes conflicting interests of downtown independent merchants, landlords, and full-time residents to continue to spark discussion in 1999.

Meanwhile, the grand Whittle Communications Building, nearly empty now for most of its seven-year history, has finally completed its metamorphosis into the Howard Baker Federal Building—and, with a big, sunny, copper-domed rotunda in the old courtyard, it's not nearly as ugly as we'd feared.

Good-bye S&W

The year was likely the last for one of Knoxville's most architecturally distinctive buildings, the 1936 art-deco S&W Cafeteria building. It and several other buildings, including the older WROL headquarters (where Roy Acuff got his start on live radio in the '30s), and the 1940 drugstore-style restaurant Gus's (maybe the last surviving lunch counter where civil-rights sit-ins were staged in 1960) are in the way of the county's plans to build a justice center on Gay Street.

Gus's, which is still in business after several decades as a downtown landmark, is understandably unhappy about the project, but protest has centered around the huge, multi-level S&W, vacant since it closed in 1982 after almost half a century as Knoxville's most universal gathering place. In September, about 20 protesters bearing Save the S&W signs appeared on the sidewalk, and we hear that a couple of architects are working on 11th-hour alternate plans to pitch, but the fate of the S&W and the other buildings on the 500 block of Gay seems sealed.

All we can say is, it had better be a damn gorgeous justice center.

Miller's Building Revealed

Be honest. Did you ever really believe you'd see the old Miller's Building again? Covered in faux-modernist mirrored siding a quarter-century ago, most folks had forgotten it was even there. It was known to be damaged, several rehabilitation efforts over the last 15 years had failed, and the ancient deeds to the building and property were in such a tangle it seemed unlikely anything would ever happen to it until demolition put it out of its misery. A brief glimmer of hope evaporated last year when Clayton Homes pulled out of a project to make a renovated Miller's Building its new headquarters.

Then the city stepped in, and with a huge vote of confidence for downtown, invested in renovating the building, in part to be headquarters for KUB. For weeks beginning in October, downtowners on Gay and Union strained their necks staring at this great brick building with its gothic arches that had been concealed since Nixon's presidency.

Market Square Go-Round

In 1997, a dramatic City Council meeting held in a vacant restaurant on Market Square promised to rehabilitate the 145-year-old cultural and commercial center of Knoxville for a new century. Emphasizing the urgency of saving some deteriorating buildings, the Council drew up emergency legislation to force out the do-nothing landlords, acquire their buildings, and promote their renovation and dynamic use. And inspired by the nationally successful computer-game company CyberFlix, the city planned to remake Market Square as an electronic oasis that would draw small high-tech businesses.

That was in '97. What happened there in 1998? Well, after 90 years on Market Square, Watson's department store closed. Then First Tennessee shut down its Market Square ATM. Then Key Antiques left. And at the end of the year even CyberFlix, envisioned as the anchor for the projected Digital Crossing, seems to be dissolving.

And those buildings everyone was worried about in '97 have deteriorated another 12 months' worth. More than a year after that portentous City Council resolution, the city has acquired no blighted buildings on Market Square (except for the Miller's Building, which is, to be sure, near Market Square). The official word is that the city has been delaying action on Market Square to study how it might serve the needs of the projected convention center, about five blocks away.

Only Mahasti Vafaie, owner of the still-successful restaurant Tomato Head, was bullish on Market Square in '98, opening Lula, a second restaurant on the Square, in November. Some are predicting that in the 21st century we'll see a statue of Mahasti in the center of the Square.

Chickamauga Dam's Deterioration

We reported in early '97 that if work to replace the locks at Chickamauga Dam hadn't started by the end of 1998—a massive project estimated at $300 million, as yet unbudgeted—concrete deterioration would force the closure of the locks by 2005. Almost all of Knoxville's industrial river traffic would then cease, at least temporarily and perhaps forever. For the first time since the Atlas crossed the shoals in 1828, Knoxville would be high and dry on a suddenly unnavigable river. That would mean so long to the towboats R.H. Baker and Casey Keasler, in fact all barge traffic and the millions Knoxvillians save by using river transportation—not to mention that portion of the Vol Navy that sails here from Chattanooga and points beyond.

Those deadline calculations were based on conservative estimates by TVA engineers; since then, TVA has turned the project over to the Corps of Engineers, which acknowledges the urgency of the dam's deterioration but estimates the dam's locks will work until at least 2008 or '09; they're now working on a feasibility study to assess the lock-replacement plan. We've got a couple more years than we thought, but the whole project still hinges on acquiring federal funding, which, despite Congressman Jimmy Duncan's advocacy, is not guaranteed.

Third Creek Trail, Open For Business

Knoxville was ahead of the game in the early '70s when we built our first bike trail, a path beside Third Creek that was peaceful as a hike in the Smokies. The problem was that it didn't really go anywhere, dumping out on quiet, dead-end Painter Road. Around 1990, asphalt paths appeared in old Tyson Park, presumably a continuation of the trail; then, in '96 and '97, it got much longer, stretching through the Ag campus and up and down Neyland Drive. But it still wasn't linked up to the original trail, which required trespassing on an unhappy landlord's parking lot or a hundred feet of 45 mph traffic on Concord Road—plus that half-mile of residential Painter Road. Well, in '98, the link was finished.

As of this year, you can ride a bike from Golf Range Apartments—on Sutherland, at the eastern end of Bearden—past UT and downtown, all the way to the east side of First Creek, by the under-construction Women's Basketball Hall of Fame—and cross only three roads.

The city is currently in negotiations to extend it still farther west into a Bearden segment. This year, the city also broke ground on a First Creek bike trail in the Glenwood Avenue area, and expect to finish it in '99.

That's about 13 and a half miles of greenway. Never mind that Chattanooga's still way ahead of us in this regard, and even Maryville-Alcoa has a bike trail that's longer—let's just enjoy it, use it, show it off, and maybe one of these days we'll lace the whole city up in green.