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Downtown Dialogue

Can developers, city officials, and the public agree on a course for Knoxville's center city?

by Joe Tarr

So what's going on with all those development projects downtown? A forum with some of the city's major movers and shakers sponsored last week by Metro Pulse at the Knoxville Museum of Art shows that the future of the center city is anything but clear.

There are several major projects in the works—a new Justice Center on Gay Street, a convention center in the World's Fair Park, apartment complexes in Fort Sanders, and a yet-to-be-unveiled grand plan to bring retail, entertainment and residential development connecting the World's Fair Park to Market Square (which, as recently as a month ago, called for a glass roof over the square).

Metro Pulse collected some of the local experts who have a say (or want to) to talk about what should happen downtown: Mike Edwards, CEO of the Public Building Authority, Doug Berry, Knoxville's director of development, Kim Trent, director of Knox Heritage, David Dewhirst, a private developer who owns property downtown, and Metro Pulse's Jack Neely. UT architecture professor Mark Schimmenti moderated and nearly 200 people showed up to hear what the panel had to say and to throw their own two cents in.

As the panelists and several audience members made clear, there is a lot of confusion about what the proposed projects for downtown involve, and how exactly residents can have an input on what becomes of their city.

Although there were a fair number of disagreements among the panel and audience, there were a few things that everyone agreed on: Downtown is more vibrant and safer than it was 20 years ago, and downtown Knoxville is packed with gorgeous old buildings that survived the urban renewal initiatives of the '60s and '70s.

"Knoxville can be unique from a lot of cities that made mistakes and really can't reverse them," Dewhirst said.

Some of the topics hit on during the discussion:

* One of the more heated debates was over the future of Market Square. The development firm Worsham Watkins International is now working on a proposal to connect Market Square and the conventional center at the World's Fair Park with a variety of retail and entertainment development. If the plan (scheduled to be made public by the end of the year) is approved by City Council, Worsham Watkins will have an exclusive 90 days to develop it. Rumors of a dome over the square with mall like retail have irked and scared many (See Metro Pulse Vol. 9, No. 42 for more details).

Edwards warned the crowd not to get worked up about the proposal until it is presented. However, he said that it may be time to rethink the way Market Square functions.

"I understand the value of Market Square today is that it's a great open area. But back in the day, it was a market place. There's a way to rethink Market Square and not blow it into the Jetsons' age, and make it work in today's economic realities as a marketplace," he said. Edwards also said that major commercial development is needed downtown in order to generate the sales tax revenue that will pay for the convention center and the millions in infrastructure improvements.

"One of my sincere hopes is that we don't refer to Market Square 'Mall' ever again," Dewhirst replied. Rather than try to put together a major project that may fail, Dewhirst argued that the city ought to encourage varied, diverse development from many different entrepreneurs. "If the mayor and the city had just gone forward with the plan it had two years ago, Market Square would have just been the most interesting, incredible place. Instead, it's actually been a fairly stifling environment there. We just need to free it up and let it go."

Trent said that Market Square (along with affordable housing) is what drew her to Knoxville. She said she hopes Market Square remains open. "It's more organic, it's more us."

* One audience member, Metro Pulse contributor Matt Edens, pointed out that the Urban Land Institute report advised against trying to build a "destination attraction," reporting that it would be extremely difficult to attract the huge number of people needed to make it successful.

However, Edwards responded that while it's difficult to make it work, it is not impossible, and said Knoxville has a chance of getting a unique entertainment attraction.

Though he didn't name it, Edwards was referring to the HGTV park being considered by the cable channel's parent company, E.W. Scripps. Exact details remain sketchy, but the center would apparently be a kind of adult theme park, offering how-to courses on home improvement and gardening. The World's Fair Park is being considered for the location (see "Citybeat" in Metro Pulse Vol. 9, No. 28 for more details). Reaching 51 million households, HGTV is one of the fastest-growing media outlets. The company also owns the Do-it-Yourself network, as well as the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

"I think the ULI people were trying to give us a dose of reality. Every city wants a destination attraction. The ULI was not saying we're not going to get one. But understand how hard it is to get one," Edwards said. "We're not sure we can pull it off but we think we've got a good chance of pulling it off. It'll be something exciting that everyone driving down [Interstates] 40 and 75 will want to stop at."

* The privacy surrounding the Worsham Watkins planning process irked some at the meeting. Although the undertaking would have a major effect on downtown, people won't have a clear picture until the plan is made public. Some fear that if Worsham Watkins has investors for its plan lined up, it will be hard for City Council to say no, no matter what the firm wants to do.

"Why wait for a plan to get private input? Why wouldn't you want to get the public discussion and input and then develop the plan?" Dewhirst said.

Edwards contended that the city has measured public opinion, namely two years ago when it asked residents what it should do with the World's Fair Park. Public opinion is also reflected in the Urban Land Institute report of a year ago, and the public will have the chance to comment once Worsham Watkins unveils its proposal.

"What we've been doing is taking what you all said and developing a plan," he said. "This is not a pie-in-the-sky baloney plan dropped from the sky."

He added that allowing for public input at every step of the way would bore the public, and lead to some impossible, unrealistic ideas. "I don't know if you can come up with a development plan democratically... So much of what gets thrown up [in public brainstorming sessions] just flat can't work. It'll never work."

But others say the public should be involved at every step of the process—not every couple of years. Architect and developer Buzz Goss said, "There have been many issues that have come up since then, and not once have they come to us and said, 'We want your input.' They really don't want our input and I truly believe that."

* Building codes have often been blamed for impeding the redevelopment of historic buildings for modern uses, their stringency making it too expensive. However, Berry (who had one of the best quips of the night, responding to one question with a Mayberry-esque, "I'm with the government, and I'm here to help you") said the codes aren't the problem, it's the way they're enforced. Building inspectors are trained in the modern construction techniques and often impose them on older buildings, but there are more innovative ways of using the codes, he said. "It's not necessary for us to rewrite the code book. It is necessary for us to meet with the building owners early on and make it work, dammit."

However, at the same time, Berry said the building codes department has taken a laissez faire approach to enforcing codes in Fort Sanders. The fear is that if they're enforced to the letter, the absentee landlords of many old homes will simply let the building get condemned and use it as an excuse to demolish. "What we're doing to stay legal is to concentrate on life safety."

Kim Trent suggested that Fort Sanders needed to be designated an historic overlay district.

* Some on the panel hope that the University of Tennessee and the city work better together. "It's like they're the Vatican inside Rome," quipped Edwards. Trent called the university "The monster that ate Fort Sanders."

Trent said other universities—like Mercer University in Macon, Ga.—recognize that the surrounding neighborhoods have an affect on the college's atmosphere and reputation. The university helped revitalize one rundown neighborhood: Mercer offered to pay 5 percent of the cost of houses professors purchased there. "They realized that the neighborhood was going to affect them either way. It can be positive or it can be negative."

Others said the university needs to have a role in downtown. Both would benefit.

The University took a first step last year by opening the Urban Design Center in part of the old Watsons building in Market Square. Dewhirst, part owner of the Watsons building, said UT is considering renting space in the same building for the art, music, and theater departments, using it for studios, instructional space, galleries, and performances.

"While almost everybody at the university is enthusiastic about it, there may be one or two people who don't see it in terms of how it could enhance UT and downtown. They just see it as something that takes place off campus and is a hassle for them to work with," Dewhirst said after the forum. There also may be resistance from city officials, hoping to reserve Market Square for high-end retail. "[City officials] see UT as a non-income producing entity."

Edwards said the city can definitely benefit from "the potential market UT can provide for downtown. There is nothing more disposable than 25,000 students standing there with a whole lot of cash and no good on their minds."

* John Gill, assistant Knox County district attorney, urged people to attend County Commission meetings and urge their county commissioners to scale down the $90 million Justice Center project planned for Gay and State streets. "I can't see how a prison downtown is going to encourage residents to come downtown," he said. "County Commission is not hearing from anybody. I don't understand why the city has not brought it to the attention of city government what this will do to downtown."

Edwards agreed that the project can be scaled back. Gill urged people to speak out against the project, saying it's not too late to stop or alter it.

Though people may not be speaking out about the Justice Center or any other issues as loud as they could, there is also a perception that no one is listening to them.

"It does appear anyway that this [Worsham Watkins] plan is really being thought of in terms of convention center visitors first and Knoxville residents secondly. I don't know that's true, but that's the way it appears," Dewhirst said.

Afraid that public officials aren't concerned about their opinions, a number of residents are organizing to make their thoughts known.

Goss has started an on-line discussion group of the issues. Anyone can join by sending a blank email to [email protected]. So far about 50 people are signed onto the group, which eventually could be used to have on-line polls and solicit input on various ideas.

"The hope of [the email group] is to establish a method of communicating amongst ourselves so that then we can go speak with a well established voice," Goss said. "One of the hallmarks of this city administration is it really only pays lipservice to residents of the community, unless you live in Sequoyah Hills."

Another couple has started a website devoted to downtown planning issues, which is located at

Several people urged the audience to stay involved with the issues and make their voices heard at City Council and County Commission meetings. And Neely said the forum showed people aren't as apathetic as sometimes made out to be: "Tonight shows if you advertise your meeting, people will show up."