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  The University Next Door

Knoxville community leaders hope UT plays a stronger role in downtown development and historic preservation.

by Joe Tarr

Last fall, shortly after they had joined a committee looking at ways to preserve historic Fort Sanders, University of Tennessee administrators sent bulldozers over to the corner of White Avenue and 14th Street to knock over a well-kept century-old home. Although the house was included in a recent tour of historic homes, the university needed the space for parking.

While the demolition angered and disgusted neighbors and historic preservationists, it didn't really surprise anyone. It's this kind of thing that the university has a reputation for—doing whatever it wants. It's why people call the university "the monster that ate Fort Sanders" and compare it to the "Vatican inside Rome."

Critics—including some UT employees—accuse the school of razing historic buildings for parking lots, creating a traffic-heavy environment, being bull-headed in its dealings with the city, and not doing anything to help its neighbors as student-centered development spreads around it.

Many critics single one man out—senior vice chancellor Philip Scheurer—as the guy keeping UT from playing an active role in the community. Others blame the institutional structure.

In their defense, UT administrators say they are deeply concerned about the community, but they are constrained by an always-tightening budget. Out-going chancellor William Snyder (who has publicly supported collaborative efforts with the city) says "if we were in a better funding situation, I think the attitudes [toward collaborative efforts] would be much different."

J. Wade Gilley, UT's new president, has written a book on how schools should be interactive with their communities. Taking office just a few months ago, he's spreading that message here.

Critics are waiting to see if he practices what he preaches.

An example of the way that the university deals with its hometown can be seen in how it bargained with the Public Building Authority over a parking garage in the World's Fair Park. In order for the PBA to build a convention center in the spot recommended by the Urban Land Institute, it had to make deals with two other public agencies—Knoxville Utilities Board and UT. KUB had a transfer station that needed to be moved; and the city had to replace the university's parking and storage space (for the campus bookstore, archeological artifacts, and art collections) at the Henley and Clinch garage.

Mike Edwards, out-going CEO of the PBA, says moving the transfer station was an extremely complicated operation, but the negotiations with KUB were resolved within 45 days.

When asked for details about the UT negotiations—which were headed up by Scheurer from UT—Edwards says it was a long, frustrating process.

"KUB became a team member. They actively helped us solve our problem, and they contributed $3 million. With UT, it was fully our burden to solve their problem. We didn't mind doing that, as long as we fully understood what their problem was, which was not always easily ascertained," Edwards says.

Edwards had hoped to raze UT's parking garage by September. The garage was appraised by the city at about $2.8 million; by UT at $3.7 million. The PBA offered to pay UT the $3.7 million figure, plus $2 million, and replace all 330 parking spaces in the new garage to built at Clinch and Locust. UT said no. They also wanted the city to find new warehouse space. PBA searched around town and offered a number of different options, but they were each rejected by UT, which did not offer its own proposal, Edwards says. All the while, the city was racing to get started building the convention center, which was being booked for events in the summer of 2002.

Finally, the PBA found an acceptable warehouse on Middlebrook Pike. PBA purchased that for $3.1 million. UT then requested renovations, which are costing another $3 million.

Adding up the cost it paid for the garage, warehouse, renovations, design, and moving costs, the city will end up spending $12.3 million relocating UT's garage and storage space.

But one more hurdle needed to be jumped. The new warehouse wouldn't be ready in time, so temporary storage space had to be found, Edwards says.

Here, UT made a concession to the city—it had vacant warehouse space on campus it could use in the meantime.

"All along they had an empty warehouse on their campus that they could have used. We lost somewhere between four and five months of construction time," Edwards says.

"We didn't have any negotiating leverage. It is clear that the convention center needs to go on that spot. There is an early date book that needs to be met. A cynical person would say they read that and decided to take advantage of the situation."

KUB wasn't being entirely altruistic—the utility will likely make its investment back in the form of increased business and power usage downtown, Edwards says. But, he says, UT administrators don't seem to see how a more vital downtown and a convention center could help the university.

For instance, the PBA wanted to connect the convention center with UT's conference center through an underground tunnel that already exists—in hopes that the two centers could feed off each other, and make joint events possible. "That's not something they would agree to or even consider much," Edwards says. "Frankly, we thought we had more to offer them [with the connection] than they had to offer us...It would have helped them market the conference center."

James Haslam II, a member of the UT Board of Trustees and the Public Building Authority, says the university was simply doing what it had to. "The university has to protect its assets, and they had an asset in that parking lot. And I think what came out was a fair deal."

Edwards says he didn't expect UT to sacrifice anything for the good of the city. However, the school didn't show a strong desire to want to help the city, either.

"KUB rolled up their sleeves and helped us solve the problem and worked with us and became a very active participant. And frankly, UT's been something difficult to deal with. I'm not saying they were wrong. I fully recognize their job was to look out after their best interests. I'm just confused as to what they see as their best interests.

"I know they have tremendous problems...But I am still left a little bit wondering what their commitment is to Knoxville. I'm certain what KUB's is."

For years, Cathy Irwin has watched her alma mater decimate the neighborhood she loves.

Irwin works for Knox Heritage, so she's concerned about preserving all historic structures. But the Fort has a special place in her heart because she lives there.

She can rattle off a number of old houses that UT took over and tore down to make way for new buildings and parking lots: There was the old International House on Cumberland leveled to make way for the new Law School; the Turner House on Stadium Drive (Phillip Fulmer Way) demolished for the geography building; the McGinnis house on Terrace razed for a parking garage.

"They've taken a lot of the stuff that makes the essence of a college campus and mutilated it. It's like a concrete jungle over there. There's no greenspace—unless you go up on the hill," she says.

One of the biggest criticisms of the university is that it puts a high priority on parking and cars, instead of trying to make the campus pedestrian-friendly and green. Plans to build a $10 million four-lane bridge connecting the agricultural and main campuses—paid for with state highway money—has reinforced this perception. (Though few students or faculty seem to want the bridge, the university is moving ahead with plans for it. Gilley and Scheurer say they both support the proposal, and deny that it will bring more traffic on campus. However, Snyder says the UT administration is mixed on the need for it. When pressed about it, he snaps: "Look, that bridge is a state of Tennessee decision and UT administration has no final authority on it.")

Rather than demolishing old buildings for parking lots, UT should be restricting the use of cars and encouraging students to move around in other ways. The dedication to provide parking has only made the campus and surrounding neighborhood more ugly and created a social blight—something administrators should remember when trying to recruit students, critics say.

There are plenty of people within the university who agree that it's had a devastating effect on its environment.

"The university has traditionally looked at surrounding neighborhoods as exploitable resources," says the outspoken John Nolt, UT philosophy professor.

"I don't have a sense that the university is particularly sensitive to its neighbors. I see it as an ameba that's going to go where it wants. It's just simply a need for space and a need to get the best contiguous space it can," says Carol Harden, head of the geography department.

Jon Coddington, an architecture professor and facilitator for the Fort Sanders Forum, says that Knoxville needs to accept responsibility for not creating a shared vision with the university concerning downtown and particularly Fort Sanders.

"While the city can be faulted for lack of imagination in this regard, the university must also share a lion's share of the blame," Coddington says. "Because of a lack of vision concerning the built environment, the university has to take direct responsibility for the destruction of a once-viable neighborhood centered around Montcastle Park and indirect responsibility for helping undermine Fort Sanders and its neighborhoods."

When it comes to Fort Sanders, the PBA's Edwards defends the university: "I can't imagine how a huge land grant university could be that close to a neighborhood and not have the effect on housing that it's had." Rental housing is market driven and landlords will do what they can to make as much money as possible, he says.

However, critics say the university hasn't done anything to blunt the impact.

Until recently, administrators never consulted with Fort Sanders residents when undertaking projects there, says Randall DeFord, president of the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association. DeFord says UT should be more creative in finding new building space. DeFord would like UT to go after grants to renovate old houses in the Fort, which could then be used for faculty or student housing. He'd like to see the university encourage more faculty, perhaps through some slight financial incentive, to live in the neighborhood, which would give the Fort much-needed stability. And he'd like it to expand in other areas besides Fort Sanders.

"One thing we've always heard from UT is we only have so much land. UT could help relieve that pressure [on Fort Sanders] and benefit downtown by putting students and offices downtown. There's absolutely no reason administrative functions and living quarters couldn't move downtown," DeFord says. DeFord points to Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga., which created an attractive campus out of vacant downtown buildings—helping to revitalize the town and attracting students who want the excitement a city can offer.

Earlier this year, an academic committee reviewing the architecture department (including professors from UT and other colleges) recommended the university do more downtown. Doug Kelbaugh, dean of the University of Michigan's architecture and urban planning school and committee member, said the committee recommended UT spearhead a major initiative to populate downtown Knoxville with student and faculty housing, classrooms, offices and outreach centers.

A larger presence downtown would help UT in its teaching, research, and service missions, Kelbaugh says. "It helps the town and it helps the university. It also helps the university attract students. There are students that would like to have the option of living in a more urban setting. It's a way for UT to expand without just buying out shoreline around campus and erasing existing neighborhoods."

(UT's masterplan calls for an increase in enrollment by several thousand to 30,000 as Tennessee graduates more and more high school students. However, both Snyder and Scheurer say there is no way the campus can handle such an influx, and enrollment is currently frozen, even though the construction projects are underway. Interestingly, the university's enrollment was 30,000 in the '70s, when the campus was smaller.)

A downtown presence is the sort of thing that UT's own professors have been pushing for years. The university took a first step toward this when the School of Architecture moved the Urban Design Studio into the old Watson's building in Market Square in January.

Students at the center apply their studies to real cities, drawing up proposals for public and private buildings, as well as overall city infrastructure. Next semester, students will be working on developing a master plan for downtown Knoxville and focus on specific areas, such as Maplehurst and the 500 block of Gay Street.

The space was donated by the owner, David Dewhirst, with the hope that eventually the school would pay rent. Since then, UT's art, theater, and music departments put together a proposal to use the remainder of the Watson's space for instruction, galleries, studios, and performances—hoping to give student artists a larger, more accessible audience.

Although administrators say they like the idea, they have not committed themselves, and the proposal seems to be lost in institutional limbo. Scheurer says UT will decide over the Christmas break whether to pursue the proposal and try to get funding for it.

Dewhirst is offering the space free for a third semester next year to the urban design studio. However, he has said that he can't offer the space free forever.

At the end of November, Mayor Victor Ashe wrote UT's president, Gilley, a letter urging him to secure the space. "The university's presence is very important and positive to this area. It shows a strong moral commitment to urbanism at time when such a commitment is most significant," Ashe wrote. "It would be beneficial for faculty and students alike to have a presence in the heart of downtown Knoxville where urban design is being taught."

Ashe has not yet heard back from Gilley.

Out-going chancellor Snyder says that while he whole-heartedly supports the idea, it's not as simple as signing a lease. "We can't just decide we're going to do it. We have to justify the need for the space and then go to the state to get approval."

Also, the "president of the university would have to endorse this personally," Snyder says.

Gilley says that he certainly likes the idea of the urban design center, but the expense to continue it will require approval by the state building commission. Asked if he'll support the proposal at the state level, Gilley says, "I would support any concept where the university can contribute to revitalization of downtown in a cost-effective way."

Gilley's no stranger to the idea that universities should play a strong role in shaping their communities. While at Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., he wrote a book titled The Interactive University. The idea is that universities should not just be studying problems and publishing research papers from their secluded ivory towers, but professors and students should put their theories to work in the world. As Gilley said in an earlier interview with Metro Pulse, "You partner in helping find the solutions and then in carrying them out. What we need to do is apply resources of the university to solving the problems of poverty, the environment, homelessness, children without parents, the economy."

Certainly, UT already does some of that. Lorayne Lester, dean of UT's arts and sciences college, says the university is heavily involved in enrichment and scholar programs with local schools.

There is also a limit to how much the university can realistically do, especially in the rough financial climate. Gilley has been struggling to trim administrative fat from UT's budget, and this week announced a major restructuring of the administration that is expected to save $8 to $10 million in the next six years.

Working under such a tight belt, Gilley says the university may only be able to be interactive in a planning sense—helping the community identify needs and resources, and plotting a course of action.

"The university has to be a full partner in initial planning. It needs to be a partner in solutions where it can. But I don't think the university ought to react to a great variety of the proposals it's presented with," Gilley says.

"The university has been severely underfunded and many of the buildings on campus are in serious disrepair," he adds. "If your budget's going south and you're having to reduce employment and can't repair your buildings, it's kind of hard for the university to be involved doing a whole lot for other people. But we're hopeful our tax situation will be improved...and that we can partner with the city on some projects."

Snyder himself has a great reputation for caring about Knoxville and wanting UT to play a strong part in its future. He moonlights as an organ player at the historic Tennessee Theatre during movie intermissions, and strongly supports a UT presence downtown.

With all these good intentions among UT's top brass, why are people so often put off by the university's actions?

The man that many fingers point to—albeit, most of them anonymously—as the bad guy at UT is Scheurer, who is in charge of managing UTK's building and infrastructure needs. Though his title will change under the administrative restructuring, his duties will stay the same, Scheurer says.

"Instead of a can-do attitude, he has a no-do attitude. He prevents other people from doing what they want to do," says one professor, who did not want to be named. "He's the only person I know of who can do something or not do something despite the bureaucracy of the university. He's the only person that I know of that does things when he wants to."

And Scheurer has proven himself useful to the administration, the professor says: "I feel like people kept him around because he's a bad guy and people didn't want to have to be a bad guy."

Another anonymous source says, "There's a guy like him on every campus who basically doesn't want to try new things. For someone like him, it's just a big headache."

Scott Moir, a recent UT graduate who was on student government, says Scheurer doesn't keep the best interests of students in mind. "He always said he did things because it was what the students wanted. Yet never once did he ask or anybody ask, 'What do you want?' The last thing we wanted was for them to tear down houses and put up parking garages."

Snyder admits that there are those in the administration who don't see the need to extend beyond the campus or cooperate with city initiatives. But, he says, this is largely because of financial concerns.

"There are administrators who do not share the passion of the university in downtown Knoxville that I do. It could be a lack of commitment to the outreach part of our mission," Snyder says. "Part of it might have to do with the reward structure—can faculty get promoted and tenured by doing outreach? The system does not reward outreach."

But Snyder would not single Scheurer or anyone else out. "Phil Scheurer has never told me he thinks [having a presence downtown] is a bad idea and we should never do it," he says.

Ask Scheurer why relations between the university and its surrounding neighborhoods have been so bad, and he responds: "I really don't know that there's difficulties there. As far as I know, everything's been positive. I'm just kind of scratching my head here."

Scheurer would only give Metro Pulse a brief phone interview for this story. Though he says he's unaware of most of the criticism against UT, Scheurer says he knows some would like campus to be less automobile oriented. But administrators are not about to discourage students from driving, he says. "We've never tried to regulate the behavior of people as far as ownership of automobiles is concerned. We've accepted the automobile society, and we're trying to deal with that.

"What the university's plan calls for is to park cars on its periphery. If you look at the garages built in recent times, they've been on the periphery of the campus," he says.

Whatever Scheurer's attitudes toward historic structures and collaborating with the city are, most agree the problem is much larger than any one person. And it isn't solely the university's problem.

As a state school, decisions about property acquisition and construction are made in Nashville. "It's a very large university and it has several tiers of bureaucracy. They get their approval for spending for building and any properties through Nashville," Irwin says. "So unless people know what their plans are, nobody can go to Nashville to protest."

Coddington, of UT's school of architecture, says the university's lack of planning and the way the campus buildings are designed cause problems. There is a disjunction, he says, between the campus plan and the campus mission. For example, student housing is located next to playing fields and entertainment, and separated from a large portion of academic buildings.

"Here at UTK, the campus seems constructed to segregate living and learning, thereby undermining the university's primary educational mission," Coddington says.

The problem is that those who manage the campus's buildings and linkages to the community have little to do with UT's teaching, research or service missions. "Those making decisions with campus design are at the same level as the university's chief academic officer. Thus, the two seem to work independently of each other, with little or no campus wide discussion as to how the physical framework of campus supports the educational mission," he says.

"The proposed bridge to the ag campus as well as the geography building in the heart of campus are in direct violation of a master plan completed just a few years ago at a cost of over $100,000," Coddington adds.

Construction of the new geography building on Phillip Fulmer Way is a good example of the way UT's academics are kept out of the planning process. While there has been some give and take regarding design, the department's Harden says faculty have largely been left out.

"[Administrators] have explained to me that they really take the long view. A particular building occupied by one group now may be occupied by another group 20 or 30 years from now," she says.

Whether the administrative changes announced this week will make UT more responsive to community and faculty concerns remains to be seen.

On Monday, Gilley announced an administrative reorganization that eliminates seven positions and makes him more involved with the Knoxville campus.

In addition to his presidential duties, Gilley becomes chief executive officer of the Knoxville campus. He'll have more contact and say with what goes on at UTK. "I'll have a direct relationship with the Faculty Senate. At this point I have no relationship," Gilley offers as an example of his new role on the Knoxville campus. But, he says, he has no specific goals or changes in mind for the way UTK is run.

Snyder's old position of chancellor is gone. Those duties will be handled by the executive vice president for academic affairs, who will oversee the entire academic system, including all the colleges and schools, graduate studies, research institutes, and the men's athletic program, Gilley says. Scheurer's responsibilities will not change, the president says.

"The advantages [of the restructuring] are to flatten the organization, reduce red tape, improve communications, and save money," says Gilley, adding that the savings will go toward scholarships and academic programs.

There are other signs that UT's modus operandi may be changing.

The university has been on the Fort Sanders Forum (including Scheurer as a representative). And when the university went ahead with plans to build a parking garage at the corner of Cumberland and 11th Street, Scheurer asked the neighborhood association what UT could give in return, DeFord says. UT has offered to turn either its lot at Laurel Avenue and 15th or Laurel and 16th into a park. Maybe even both of them.

"That all sounds good, but we haven't actually had anything happen yet," DeFord says cautiously.

However, Edwards looks ahead to the next round of negotiations over the World's Fair Park and worries. The plan is to reconnect the park south of Cumberland Avenue to the waterfront. To do so, Edwards' successor will have to negotiate with UT—and probably Scheurer—over a parking lot the university owns there.

The PBA is offering to provide UT the same number of spaces in a garage to be built at Poplar Street, and build a pedestrian bridge connecting it to the Hill.

"I really feel it's going to be another round of troublesome negotiations, and it will be difficult for reasons that will escape me," Edwards says.

"I think it's very important that UT become an interactive part of this community, and do so in real terms, instead of just making statements but not being there when it comes time to deliver."