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Urban Makeover

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

With details about the downtown development masterplan finally released, it's up to the public to respond—fast

Surveying the thicket of movers, shakers, and moneymen thronging the Bijou Theatre Monday afternoon, downtown preservationist and Metro Pulse contributor Matt Edens shook his head. "What a crowd of suits," he said. "I feel underdressed."

But if the front rows of the theater (not to mention the box seats) were filled with shades of navy blue, the crowd got more diverse toward the rear and in the balcony. Among the predictable lawyers, civic functionaries, and Chamber of Commerce chieftains were clusters of UT students, restaurant owners, retirees, neighborhood association activists, and architects. As one observer noted, it was probably the first time all of those in attendance had been under the same roof.

What drew them was the unveiling of the Public Building Authority's proposal to redevelop much of downtown Knoxville. And what became apparent in the presentation that followed is that keeping such a diverse group under one roof will take some work. The Power Point slide show emceed by Mike Edwards—the recently departed head of the PBA—again and again emphasized the need for broad support of the downtown development proposals. "The time is now," Edwards kept saying, and the draft proposal itself uses similarly imperative language: "Things are only going to get worse," "It's now or never."

But even as some elements of the plan—the multiplex cinema, the potential Scripps/HGTV/DIY/Food Channel center—drew applause from the audience, others met silence. And one, Edwards' almost buried statement that "consideration should be given to an unobtrusive glass enclosure" over Market Square, generated scattered boos and hisses.

PBA is moving on a quick timeline:

* From now until Feb. 29, it will take public input, albeit solely through indirect means. Mail can be sent to the PBA at City County Building, Suite M-22, 400 Main St., Knoxville, 37902. emails can go to [email protected] (PBA's web page is And a telephone answering machine has been set up to take messages at 215-4040.

* On March 9, the PBA Board of Directors (still headed in lame-duck mode by Jim Haslam) will vote on the proposal.

* After PBA's expected approval, developers Ron Watkins and Earl Worsham—who have served as PBA's consultants on the project—will have 90 days to put together a specific plan. The period would run March 10-June 6.

* On June 7, the Worsham Watkins plan would go to the PBA Board of Directors. Another round of public input would follow, ending July 10.

* On July 18, the PBA board would make a final recommendation to the City of Knoxville, putting the whole project in City Council's court.

While an ebullient Mayor Victor Ashe proclaimed at the meeting that the plan needs to be wide open to public comment, PBA has scheduled no public hearings or forums to date. Edwards himself was vague when pressed for answers about who could answer specific questions about the project from the general public. Exactly how interested PBA is in public dialogue will probably become apparent in coming weeks. (In the meantime, Metro Pulse is planning a public forum on the plan for February, date and place to be announced.)

In his comments at the presentation, Ashe said the plan "can be a shining example of how an urban planning process truly ought to work." The Bijou crowd made clear that there won't be any shortage of people looking for the chance to contribute.