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Justice Center or Parking Lot?

by David Madison

A new twist in plans to build new courts may instead reduce Gay Street's 500 block into surface parking

As soon as six months from now, Knox County could reduce one side of the 500 block of Gay Street to rubble. The block's bookends—the Fidelity Bankers Trust building and old Farragut Hotel—will remain. In between, where the construction of a new State Supreme Court facility had been heralded, there's now talk of something else: surface parking.

During the mid-1990s, the county spent years hammering out a long-range plan for developing a Justice Center that would start with a new jail and sheriff's department headquarters and eventually include new court facilities. The first phase of the plan is currently underway, with the county knocking down a row of vacant buildings near the northeast corner of State Street and Union Avenue to make way for the sheriff..

Just up the street, along the 500 block of Gay and State, the Justice Center plan conceives a new courts complex. However, those plans were always murky and are getting more so in light of the county's recently announced interest in purchasing the old U.S. Post Office and Courthouse on Main Street. "That could in fact take care of the demand for more court room space for another number of years. Will that take care of us for 20 years? It could," says County Commissioner Frank Leuthold, who emphasizes "we are just beginning to look at the old courthouse."

If the county does not develop a new courts complex on the 500 block of Gay, then the State Supreme Court will look elsewhere in its efforts to find a new home.

"That would pretty well knock us out," says Gary Wade, the presiding judge of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. Initially, the county thought of using money appropriated by the state legislature to build a new Supreme Court facility on Gay Street. The new court building would have replaced the long-vacant S&W Cafeteria, the old studios for WROL radio, and Fogarty's, the "Greatest Shoe Value On Earth."

"If it helped develop Gay Street and freed up the property we have for private development," says Wade, whose office is located on Locust Street, "then that might have worked. But so far, we haven't come up with a plan."

Wade says the Supreme Court has narrowed its options. Building on Gay Street has emerged as the most unlikely scenario. A new facility facing Gay on the 500 block could cost as much as $23 million, he says. Given the state's current budget concerns and uproar over tax reform, banking on that kind of money coming from Nashville may be, as Wade says, "an exercise in fantasy."

For roughly $17 million, the Supreme Court could build a new structure on the parking lot adjacent to its current facility at 719 Locust. The existing building could then be demolished to make way for new development associated with the convention center project.

Moving into the old Post Office and Courthouse is another option. Like Knox County, the Supreme Court has its eye on the boxy but regal space that's still home to the downtown post office. Wade says it would cost $11 million to rid the building of asbestos and complete the necessary renovations.

If the state and county decide not to locate new courts on the 500 block of State and Gay streets, then Commissioner Phil Guthe says, "The only thing you're going to have left is the jail."

A new jail and more parking, adds County Executive Tommy Schumpert. Like Leuthold, Schumpert notes that building a new jail never depended on the construction of new court buildings. The county gave itself the option of creating a Justice Center when it purchased several parcels of property along State and Gay Streets but committed to nothing.

New court rooms, jail cells, and administrative offices for the police and sheriff's departments could still fall together in pieces to form a true, justice center campus. But as Schumpert puts it, the possibility of the Supreme Court relocating to Gay Street "may be the most unlikely alternative." And if Knox County decides to buy the old Post Office and Courthouse, that could provide the current facilities with "some relief," further postponing the need for a new court complex near the new jail.

Before the county tears down the buildings it owns on the 500 block of Gay and State, says Commissioner David Collins, it should consider alternatives to demolition. He says he doesn't know what the county could do to attract private development or a publicly-funded building project. What Collins does know is this: "I don't think that it's in our downtown's best interest to take that block and turn it into surface parking."