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  The Year in Review


Downtown Development Revelations Coming Soon

Worsham Watkins isn't a household name just yet, but it probably will be shortly. Under the auspices of the Public Building Authority, the firm has been toiling for more than a year on a downtown development plan whose scope is touted to be grander than anything the city has ever seen before.

What started as a convention center-driven effort to make Knoxville a more attractive destination city has evolved into a multi-faceted development plan including residential, office, and retail components along with entertainment venues and perhaps a new hotel. An oft-delayed unveiling of the plan is now scheduled for January 10; and it's likely to spark controversy both because of big public outlays involved for supporting infrastructure and because it may impinge upon the sanctity of some of Knoxville's most historic places such as Market Square.

Following a public comment period and an initial review by City Council, Worsham Watkins has a 90-day exclusive period to line up tenants and financing to develop whatever passes muster. This exclusive may also spur opposition from other developers who either want to get in on the action or else deter competition with their existing properties and projects.

Few are privy to the grand design, but one who claims to be—Chamber of Commerce president Tom Ingram—proclaims it to be, "The most comprehensive vision for any city that I have ever seen."

We soon shall see.

K2K Compliant?

For a long time, there's been a gulf between the people who live and work in Knoxville's central city and the people who make decisions about it. A small but growing cadre of downtowners has for years been trying to redevelop old buildings and rejuvenate old districts, while the powers that be have committed themselves mostly to road construction and development on the fringes of the city. But with attention undeniably focused on downtown thanks to the convention center, the disenfranchised have started to speak up.

The most notable instance is the formation of an email listserv called K2K, spearheaded by architect Buzz Goss. With a subscription base of more than 100 people (including Mayor Victor Ashe), the forum has mushroomed in just a few months into what could be a significant community lobby. Whether the various developers, business owners, residents, grad students, planners, and civic boosters involved can turn their enthusiasm into real political clout is one of the more interesting questions for the next year. (To subscribe to K2K, send a blank e-mail to [email protected])

Knoxville: City of Parking Garages

"They pave paradise," the old song goes, "and put up a parking lot." Well, when you don't have much paradise left, what you do is tear down the old parking lots and put up new ones.

All year, the city's been playing the old shell game with downtown's parking demand, tearing down buildings here and putting up parking garages, tearing down parking garages there and putting up buildings. It's hard to follow without notes. PBA wants to tear down the UT Conference Center's parking garage for the new Convention Center, and is offering UT a new parking garage closer to campus, plus part of another new parking garage for which they'll tear down an old parking garage. In the meantime, they had to tear down the old Court of Flags to supply surface parking while they're tearing down old parking garages and building new ones.

Outgoing PBA director Mike Edwards has convinced us there's a method to his madness; he says the new array of garages will be more useful and add thousands of new spaces to meet the anticipated demands connected to the Convention Center and related private development. And in one case, at least, the added parking garage promises to be an improvement on the commercial buildings being torn down for it. A large garage at Clinch and Locust will feature street retail in an actual building that, from the drawings, is the handsomest parking garage we've seen planned since before World War II. In fact, if it comes off like the drawing—never a sure thing—it may be the single most promising development of the entire multi-block Convention Center project.

But then there are a lot more other garages coming...

Take Me to the River (But Nowhere Else)

New efforts along Knoxville's river front this year highlighted both the pluses and the pitfalls of Mayor Ashe's development strategy. The private sector portion gave us Regas' new Riverside Tavern, a large, nicely appointed restaurant with predictably pleasant views of the water. Judging by the wait for a table even on weeknights and the perpetually crowded parking lot, the Riverside is doing good business. But, as has been the case for years with the nearby Calhoun's, none of that business seems to spill over to any other part of the city, making Ashe's claims for the river front as part of "downtown revitalization" seem overblown at best. (Part of the problem is that it's easier to get to the restaurant from the interstate than from any part of downtown. And don't even try walking there...) Meanwhile, the publicly funded Gateway Regional Visitors Center—a joint project between the city, the National Park Service, and other partners—points tourists toward just about everything in the area except Knoxville itself. Oak Ridge merits an entire display on the city's history and technological breakthroughs, but Knoxville (which last time we checked was a lot bigger and a lot more historical than Oak Ridge) gets only a few passing mentions. While self-effacement in limited doses can be a good thing, it's hard to imagine there are many cities that would build a visitors' center with the express purpose of telling people to go somewhere else.

The Fall of Fort Sanders

At the beginning of the year, it looked as though Knoxville's oldest neighborhood might see a revival of sorts—with residents and historic preservationists taking a stand against developers who favor bland, cookie cutter student high-rises and parking lots. No such luck. In the course of the year, more than 50 homes were razed. More than half were demolished to make way for several apartment buildings that JPI, a Texas development company, is constructing on 11th and 12th streets, and Grand Avenue. Others were razed for parking lots, and some remain dirt lots. As bleak as 1999 was for the Fort, people still have hope. The city sponsored Fort Sanders Forum—a group of developers, property owners, city, UT, and hospital officials—is looking at the best way the city can preserve the neighborhood's historic structures and character, without stifling development. The group is considering recommending a conservation district (not as strict as an historic overlay) and rewriting the R-3 zone. But any recommendations would eventually have to be approved by the City Council, and a recommendation for any kind of building standard is likely to get a serious fight from larger property owners (some are already threatening lawsuits). The Forum's final recommendations are due early next year.

HGTV and the Big It

For several months this year, the city's power circles were abuzz with rumors of a big "It," a major piece of private development that would complement the convention center on World's Fair Park. So what is "It"? Well, nobody's saying anything official yet, but "It" is widely known to be a proposed HGTV complex. The fast-growing cable channel is already based in Knoxville, and this new project would apparently include not only studio and production space but also attractions for visitors—probably involving training courses and workshops in the various home improvement areas covered by HGTV and its sister stations, The Food Network and DIY. All three are owned by E.W. Scripps Co., which is based—for now—in Cincinnati. Although Scripps hasn't yet committed to the project, various sources say the company is favorably inclined toward it. One sign was HGTV's hiring of Pete Crowley, the former head of the Central Business Improvement District and booster of downtown development for the Knox Area Chamber Partnership. Interestingly, the News-Sentinel (also owned by Scripps) has shown almost zero curiosity about its corporate parent's big plans for Knoxville.

Finding Promise in Vacant Lots

At the corner of Dora Street and University Avenue, the HOPE VI, Mechanicsville make-over has taken shape. Three new homes sit surrounded by freshly landscaped yards. Around each house, there's straw spread over embryonic lawns. And by the time grass grows in, other new homes will be springing up throughout the neighborhood.

HOPE VI, a federal re-development program being administered by Knoxville's Community Development Corporation, aspires to rebuild some of the most rundown parts of Mechanicsville. The neighborhood in northwest Knoxville was once known for its public housing project, College Homes. But now the College Homes apartments are gone. In their place, KCDC has bulldozed a giant open space just down the hill from Knoxville College.

Former College Homes residents now occupy the new HOPE VI homes at the corner of University and Dora. And more former residents will eventually move into new dwellings soon to be built on the old College Homes site.

But there are some who once lived in College Homes who will never return. They've been displaced by a neighborhood that's in the midst of a housing shift from low-income renters to low- and medium-income home owners.

I'm Empowered, You're Empowered

One of the year's biggest stories came just a few weeks into January. Word came down from Washington that Knoxville had made the cut as one of 15 cities with federally designated "Empowerment Zones." Theoretically, that makes the city eligible for $100 million in grants over the next 10 years, although so far Congress has appropriated only $7 million. The zone itself takes up a good chunk of central Knoxville, 16 square miles that stretch from Pleasant Ridge Road in the west to Burlington in the east and even south across the river to Vestal. Assuming all or most of the money does show up, someone has to figure out how to spend it—on job training, redevelopment, parks, or many other forms of community rejuvenation. That "someone" is a complex hierarchy of committees, which include residents, business owners, and government representatives from the affected areas. Watching that process work itself out could be a lesson in grassroots decision-making.

Highway Construction Everywhere

The complaint used to be that Knoxville didn't get its fair share of state road money. Of late, it's turned into grimacing over the gridlock caused by a proliferation of highway construction projects. Lane closings on I-40 brought about by work on its massive new interchange with Alcoa Highway backed up both east and west bound traffic. And anyone headed north on I-275 was confronted with delays due to the resurfacing of that pot-holed artery. But the resurfacing is now complete, as is the widening to six lanes of I-75 from its interchange with I-640 north to Emory Road. Also nearing completion is the South Knoxville connector to the James White Parkway that has wreaked havoc with accessing the parkway and Neyland Drive in the downtown area for the past two years.

But wait. There's more to come. A long-in-the-works widening of I-640 coupled with reconstruction of its horrific interchange with Broadway is due to get underway next spring. So is a widening (to eight lanes) of I-40/75 from their conjunction to West Hills with a redesigned interchange at Papermill Drive and a new one at Weisgarber Road thrown in for good measure. Emory Road and Western Avenue are also about to become construction zones, but welcome ones for those who've been waiting for years for widening of these arteries.

Still in the waiting column, among many other projects, are a widening (to six lanes) of I-40 through downtown with new connectors, extension of South Knoxville Boulevard to Chapman Highway, and a limited access plan that's supposed to bring more safety to hazardous Alcoa Highway.

Growth Plan Turns Into a Turf War

The way its architects envisioned it, Tennessee's 1998 growth plan law was supposed to produce fulfillment of urban planning dreams. Cities and their surrounding counties would collaborate on identifying land needed for development to accommodate projected growth over the next 20 years while preserving the balance of the countryside as designated rural areas in the name of minimizing sprawl.

But in Knox County at least that dream has turned into a nightmare. Instead of fostering collaboration, the law has fomented turf wars. County Commission has drawn a line in the sand against urban growth boundaries proposed by the city of Knoxville that would allow for future annexation. At the same time, developers and home builders have mounted a campaign against constraints on land available for new subdivisions and commercial strips.

Caught in the middle of these disputes is a state-constituted Growth Policy Coordinating Committee that's mandated to come up with a plan that sets urban growth boundaries for the city, planned growth areas for the county and rural designations. Despite the fact that Knoxville's population hasn't grown to speak of in more than 30 years, the Committee managed to agree that the city need enough more land for 25,000 additional residents (half of Knox County's projected 50,000 population growth to 430,000 by 2020). But then the committee has spent wheel-spinny meeting after meeting attempting to map out an urban boundary that accommodates this supposed growth. Ditto for defining rural areas.

Even when the committee reaches some conclusions, they will be subject to approval by City Council and County Commission. The chances of these two fractious bodies having a meeting of the minds are minimal. However, the state law doesn't leave it to localities to decide their own destinies. In the event of an irreconcilable dispute, a three-judge panel is empowered to impose them. The likely new year's refrain is, "Here come the judges."

We're Sure It'll Come In Handy on Game Days

We're still searching for anyone outside of Andy Holt Tower who sees any need for the university's planned four-lane bridge across Third Creek to the Ag campus. The faculty senate has overwhelmingly opposed it, the student council has opposed it; in a rare moment of accord, Metro Pulse and the News-Sentinel have both editorialized against it. Everyone from left-wing environmentalists to right-wing low-tax Republicans have come out against it. Unfortunately for the logic-dependent, the bridge's few supporters seem disinclined to defend it in any coherent way—but, as with all the most unnecessary projects, we bet it's going to happen, anyway, just cuz they say so. Nyah, nyah.

Gay Street Building Restored; Populace Reels in Shock

In a year of missed opportunities and preservation disasters we have to admit one remarkable exception: the 95-year-old Miller's Building, masked by a stupid "modernist" facade for almost 25 years, has been undergoing re-constructive surgery all year and is due to open as headquarters of KUB and, we hope, of some other tenants as well, in February. It's all thanks to the mayor's office, KUB, and architect Duane Grieve, who has had this dream on his Emory Place drawing board for 15 years.

A New Vision

What do you think the Knoxville region needs most? The organizers behind this project are dying to know. Similar to Chattanooga's "visioning" process in 1984 which spurred that city's revival (and inspired by the same planning guru, Gianni Longo), this effort was born out of a variety of community and civic groups through the nine counties in the 865 area code. The idea is to identify common goals residents want to pursue, and then form sub groups to go about achieving them. The process kicks off in February with a series of 20 community meetings.

Out of Sight...

Are the homeless standing in the way of development? A few downtown boosters made that claim this year, as they argued that Volunteer Ministries—a day shelter offering a variety of services for the homeless and poor—located at Jackson and Gay needed to be moved. While they appreciate the job the center does, they say it attracts a large number of street people that discourages people from opening up businesses in the area. Some of its neighbors have offered money to help move the center, which its caretakers say they will consider. However, homeless advocates worry moving the center will further segregate the poor and shuffle them out of sight from the rest of society.

Digital Crossing Lives

On Nov. 21, 1997, Mayor Victor Ashe gathered with City Council members in Market Square to announce the birth of Digital Crossing.

"We will move forward on this as quickly as humanly possible," trumpeted Mayor Ashe. But since then, Digital Crossing—a plan aimed at bringing more high tech companies downtown—has lived the life of a screen saver, apparently alive but hopelessly idle.

Some had given up on Digital Crossing, says Tech 2020's Dennis Corley. That's why the spokesman for the non-profit cyber-centric development company in charge of pushing Digital Crossing especially enjoyed spreading a recent batch of good news.

"Digital Crossing now a reality," read the headline from the latest in a stream of Digital Crossing press releases. Exactly two years since Ashe's optimistic announcement, Digital Crossing the idea had officially evolved into Digital Crossing the downtown re-development project.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has donated its 40,000 square foot Summer Place Tower at the corner Locust Street and Summit Hill Drive, making this four story complex Digital Crossing's ground zero. On Dec. 15, prospective Digital Crossing tenants gathered at Tech 2020's headquarters in Oak Ridge. Corley walked the owners of more than 20 high tech companies through diagrams of the building, explaining how Digital Crossing will offer businesses a uniquely "smart" place to operate.

Like commercial space available in New York City's Silicon Alley, the Summer Place building is being re-wired to meet the high speed demands of high tech industries. Corley hopes this "co-location" facility can open as early as the beginning of February 2000. In addition to one anchor tenant—which may be some part of an E.W. Scripps media company such as HGTV—Corley says Digital Crossing will become home to other medium sized and small upstart Internet businesses.

These companies, says Corley, will employ creative young professionals who—unlike many in Knoxville—"appreciate an urban lifestyle."

Air Travelers Face Construction Too

Like motorists, air travelers have had to contend with a construction zone for going on two years. A $53 million renovation and expansion of McGhee Tyson Airport was due to be completed by year end but has slipped until February. Despite all the inconvenience caused by detours and debris, passenger traffic continued to soar. More than 1.7 million passengers are projected for the year. That's up 9 percent from 1998 (compared to a 3 percent increase nationwide). A major contributor to the growth: an increase from 11 to 16 in the number of non-stop destination cities served.

When the new Y-shaped concourse opens, it will offer enlarged gate areas and lots of efficiencies as well as a lot of glitz. Since it doesn't increase the number of gates, critics deride the pricey project as an edifice complex on the part of airport authority board members. But board members insist that the airport's 21st century look will do wonders for Knoxville's identity and go hand-in-glove with the new convention center in attracting visitors to the area.