What's the masterplan?
It's 2005, and a gastroenterologist from Omaha, Neb., is visiting Knoxville for a conference on intestinal maladies at the city's new convention center. The afternoon's seminar, "Parasites and the People They Love," sounds boring so he decides to explore Knoxville, a city he's visiting for the first time. What will he find?
All the details of the plan being proposed by the Public Building Authority and private contractor Worsham Watkins have yet to be revealed. But if their proposal is realized, Knoxville would have a vastly different downtown than it does today. The vision is one that thrills some and alarms others.
If it becomes a reality, here is what PBA and developers hope it will look like:
Our imaginary gastroenterologist leaves the convention center and goes down to the World's Fair Park. The old lake has been removed and he sees a park with trees and grassy fields. Students from UT are playing Frisbee and sunbathing.
Since he burns easily, the gastroenterologist walks parallel to the park under an enclosed walkway. Off to his right is the E.W. Scripps cable television studios and its tourist attraction. The visitor from Omaha has seen the center advertised on Scripps' HGTV, Do-it-Yourself, and Food Network channels, promoting home improvement and cooking classes and a chance to see Emeril live. (Pete Crowley, an HGTV spokesman, says, "We're involved in looking at all sorts of different options. There hasn't been anything determined yet...If there's a deal to be made, we don't know yet." But other sources say that although Scripps has not made any commitments, the idea is well beyond the exploratory phase. Scripps is in fact being considered as the booking agent for the city convention center, which means it would probably organize conventions that best tie into its own attractions.)
At the northern end of the park, our visitor comes into a large glass-enclosed wintergarden. The structure was visible from the convention center, and he had wondered what it was. Essentially, it is an indoor public garden. He pays an admission fee and walks through several rooms with various floral exhibits. (Mike Edwards, former CEO of the Public Building Authority and now a consultant for the project, says the center will be similar to the aquarium in Chattanooga and have changing exhibits.)
The upper level of the wintergarden connects to a passageway leading to a two-story indoor mall. With a few bucks to blow, the Omaha doctor continues his stroll. The mall is filled with high-end restaurants (some of them presumably related to the Food Network) and mid- to high-end retail. (Aside from out-of-town visitors, PBA envisions this 140,000-square-foot mall serving people in South and Central Knoxville. A Gap store would be consistent with the type of shops located here, Edwards says.)
While in the mall, the gastroenterologist is walking over the busy six lanes of Henley Street and the ramp to I-40, but he doesn't know it.
At the eastern end of the mall, the visitor will come upon a massive 16-screen movie theater complex. (Officials haven't named the company considering building this, but it is expected to include a several-story high IMAX theater. It would seem a natural for Regal Cinemas, which is based in Knoxville, to make this a showcase for its home base. But Edwards says, "You may be surprised.") A large parking garage is underneath the theaters.
If PBA projections are correct, this mall will be a busy place. Some 2.5 million peopletourists, office workers on lunch break, UT students, theater patrons, and shoppersare supposed to be moving through it every year. (Edwards says stores and restaurants will be open late, and the corridor space will be public, and open 24 hours a day.)
Coming out of the mall, the visitor will cross Locust Street (Edwards was vague about whether this would be an enclosed walkway or whether people would have to cross the street).
At the corner of Locust Street and Summer Place, the gastroenterologist will look up and see Knoxville's tallest buildinga 34-story office complex. Upper levels of the building will include condos. (Edwards says the city hopes to attract a large corporation to make Knoxville its headquarters and populate most of the office building. Although E.W. Scripps is considering making a major move to the city, its corporate office doesn't employ anywhere near the number of people needed to populate this building.)
The skyscraper connects to a large indoor public lobby. Also connecting to this lobby is Knoxville's most ritzy retail store, located at the corner of Locust Street and Union Avenue. (Officials are apparently negotiating with Saks Fifth Avenue, among others, about locating here). On the Walnut Street side of this indoor lobby is the 415-room luxury hotel where the gastroenterologist is staying. (Housing developer Kristopher Kendrick, who was shown detailed plans of the project in a private meeting two weeks ago, says Marriott is the hotel considering opening here. Other sources confirm this. But consultant Ron Watkins says, "We have at least two prospective tenants for every space.")
The public lobby in this block will include various attractions. (A country music theater named after Knoxville's pioneering radio program Midday Merry Go Round has been mentioned as a possibility, though plans for this seem tenuous.)
Coming out of the lobby across Walnut Street, the visitor will continue strolling through a covered public walkway. This will cut through a housing development with about 150 apartments and a terrace garden. (These housing units would be located in what is now parking lots behind Market Square near the bus station.) The apartments are wired for all the amenities that workers in the technology fields would want (and are presumably geared toward the HGTV, DIY, and Food Network employees who would be based in Knoxville and would want to live in an urban environment). Tenants park in a city-built garage underneath their apartments.
Wandering further, the walkway cuts through the back of Market Square, via the Watson's Building, which has been turned into a grocery store. (A posh grocery chain called Chelsea is a candidate; it would also be affiliated somehow with the Food Network.) After passing through the grocery store, the gastroenterologist comes out into Market Square. To his right, he'll see a small replica of the old Market House. Looking up, he may see the sky; or he may see a glass dome covering the entire square (see section on Market Square for more details).
Whether our gastroenterologist will find a development filled entirely with national chains and theme restaurants, or small, locally-run establishments with individual character is not specified in the plans. Edwards says the city values the small establishments, but that big investments from outside can help spur that along. "In order for Joe's Bar and Grill to survive, he's got to have a bunch of people running around downtown," he says.
Edwards envisions Market Square and the Market House becoming an actual modern-day market place, with the grocery store, drug store, cleaners, and restaurantsmany of them catering to downtown residents.
Aside from the garages already mentioned, the city plans to build two others for the project: one underneath the proposed department store, hotel, and office tower on the block of Summer, Locust, Union and Walnut; the other at 11th Street, Western Avenue and World's Fair Park Drive near the Knoxville Museum of Art. This is a total of 4,140 new parking spaces. That doesn't include the two parking garages already plannedthe one now being built at Union, Locust and Clinch, and another one at Poplar Street in Maplehurst. With parking and infrastructure developments, the city would spend an estimated $130 million on the project (in addition to $160 million to build the convention center and develop the World's Fair Park).
Altogether, the city hopes to attract or build 285 housing units, 500,000 square feet of office space, 415 hotel rooms, 200,000 square feet of entertainment, 215,000 square feet of retail, and 84,000 square feet of restaurants.
The bulk of the proposed residential development would be behind Market Square along Walnut Street. But there is also a proposal to construct 75 upscale "carriage" apartments near the Knoxville Museum of Art and the Candy Factory. The Victorian houses that are already there would be moved, perhaps to vacant lots in Fort Sanders in hopes of revitalizing that neighborhood which has lost so many homes in the past years. Fort Kid playground would also be relocated.
Though addressed in much less detail, the city also hopes to spur development along Jackson Avenue leading from the World's Fair Park to the Old City.
Though this is the vision PBA and Worsham Watkins have for downtown, what it will really be like is open for debate. There are simply too many unanswered questions about Worsham Watkins' plan to really know, including: What the architecture will look like? What stores and restaurants will be in it? Will they be chains or locally owned? Who will control it?
There is already some dissatisfaction with the lack of details in the plan. Although architectural renderings exist for much of itdrawn up by the local firm McCarty Holsapple McCartythey have been shown only to select private parties and haven't been released publicly.
"What's going to be there?" asks downtown developer and architect Buzz Goss. "They're just not telling us enough. And I happen to know they know these things, they're just choosing not to tell us."
Until these questions are answered, it's hard to predict what the gastroenterologist and other visitors will think of Knoxville.