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KCDC's Foothold on Market Square

At the direction of the city, Knoxville's Community Development Corporation has started to acquire vacant buildings on Market Square—but in a limited way for now.

The pending acquisitions are pursuant to a redevelopment plan that City Council adopted in 1998 but which many thought would be held in abeyance until the Public Building Authority's grand design for downtown redevelopment gets approved. The reason for proceeding now, according to KCDC's Dan Tiller, is that the $400,000 in federal grant funds earmarked for the acquisitions needs to be committed by April 15 to satisfy guidelines established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

KCDC has targeted three parcels of property for acquisition by that date. One is at 26 Market Square, once the site of Mavis Shoes. Another is at the corner of Wall Avenue. The third is not actually on the square but rather at the corner of Wall and Gay Street. If KCDC and the property owners can't agree on a price, the properties will be condemned.

The three buildings are among 11 on the east side of the square that KCDC has deemed blighted and on which it served notice to the owners in early 1998. None of the owners responded to KCDC's stipulation that they submit "conceptual plans" for redevelopment within 45 days or become subject to acquisition. However, a majority of these parcels have subsequently been acquired by or optioned to Mahasti Vafaie, owner of The Tomato Head and Lula restaurants on the square. Notably, none of the three parcels that have been singled out are under Vafaie's control.

Just what KCDC intends to do with the properties to be acquired—and when—remains to be determined. Customarily, the city's redevelopment agency issues requests for proposals (RFP's) to which anyone seeking to acquire and develop the property may respond. But the deputy director of the city's Department of Development, Leslie Henderson, suggests it may be premature to issue RFP's until a fleshed-out PBA development plan has been submitted to the city.

"For now, we're just trying to stabilize the properties and prevent any more walls from collapsing," Henderson says.

Tiller says that KCDC has no plans to impose restrictive covenants on acquired properties of the sort that PBA has been recommending to control the types of businesses permitted on Market Square and the hours they must stay open. "City Council should do those sorts of things by ordinance not deed restrictions," Tiller says.

Tiller says acquisition of any more of the 11 blighted parcels will depend on additional funding from the city. Henderson wouldn't venture an opinion as to when more funds might be committed. But she noted that the city recently got approval from HUD that permits use of its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for the purpose. CDBG grants to the city for the current fiscal year total $3.5 million.

—Joe Sullivan

Old City to Hip-Hop Nightclub Owners: Get Lost

The Harpers never knew what hit them. The family—Baffin Harper Sr., his son, Baffin Jr., and junior's wife, Tamelyn—are planning to open a nightclub, the Platinum Lounge at 210 Jackson Ave., in a former furniture store in the Old City. With several nightclubs already there, it seemed like a good spot.

The Harpers were set to go before the city's Beer Board Tuesday night, in what they thought would be a routine hearing. But a few hours before the hearing, they started hearing stories that something was amiss.

A group of merchants in the Old City weren't putting out the welcome mat for their new neighbors. Several merchants—led by Doug Beatty, owner of Barley's Tap Room and Pizzeria—had been lobbying City Council to reject the Harpers' permit. Their problem?

In a letter sent to all council members, the merchants wrote: "We believe the 'lounge' is not an appropriate addition to this area. The Platinum Lounge purports to be a 'Rap Club.' Rap and Hip Hop music are closely associated with violence and gang activity. Rap clubs have repeatedly been the scenes of violence across the country. We feel this type of activity will be counter-productive to our goals of continued economic vitality and negate our current gains in the Old City."

What the Harpers—who are African American—are actually planning is more of an assortment of urban music, including jazz, soul, rap, and maybe even some gospel.

"It kind of makes you feel like you're not getting a fair shake," the soft-spoken Baffin Harper Sr., who owns B&B Landscaping, said watching over the proceedings. "Sometimes when you go into something you don't know all the rules."

Beatty says he based his opinion on the fact that the Harpers had covered the windows of their future business with, among other things, rap posters. (The posters actually belonged to Tamelyn's teen-age daughter, and were hung to hide the family's tools and equipment inside, so as not to encourage thieves. Tamelyn thought they'd look better than plain old newspaper.)

After meeting with the Harpers earlier Tuesday, Beatty agreed to withdraw his complaints. Beatty defended his position, saying he feared that the club would play mainly gangsta rap. Why is rap so bad?

"It doesn't have anything to do with rap," Beatty says. "It really has to do with the management of the club." Several clubs—namely, the Amsterdam Cafe and the Underground—brought a lot of bad press to the Old City for serving minors. With a club playing gangsta rap, and presumably drawing lots of young people, he feared more of the same. "We're proactive now in the Old City, not reactive. We want to see responsible clubs, clubs that add vitality," he says.

While pleased to see Old City businesses working together, Councilwoman Carlene Malone questions why musical taste enters into the equation. "We're not music critics, nor should we be," she says. "We can't and we shouldn't deny permits that have no basis for denial, whether it's hip hop and rap or jazz or hard rock or anything else. That's not the kind of thing government should or can do."

But many Beer Board members were still leery. As part of the permitting process, applicants' criminal records are checked. A crime involving the trafficking of beer or something of moral turpitude is supposed to disqualify them. (However, DUIs are not supposed to disqualify applicants.)

Tamelyn had a minor violation from 1989 on her record listed simply as "stolen property." At most it was a misdemeanor, and just barely within the 10-year time frame. Tamelyn Harper believed the infraction involved a $10 gas charge, and had thought it had been dismissed. The charge was enough to cause serious concern on the Beer Board, which voted to postpone the application until next month. (Never mind that shortly before the Harpers' application, the board narrowly rejected a beer application from a man who had a drug charge on his record. That applicant drew much sympathy from the board, including Larry Cox, who said, "I've known his uncle for years—he's a pretty good boy.")

Tamelyn Harper was baffled that their plans would cause such an uproar. She says the family wants the same as any other Old City proprietor—to provide a safe, fun atmosphere and have a successful business. "I want to feel secure wherever I go. I want to enjoy myself and feel safe. We're not catering to gangsta rap, but music is music. I hope this just dies down and goes away."

Dave Meador, a local hip hop DJ, doesn't know the Harpers or what they're planning with their club. But having seen many hip hop and urban clubs come under close scrutiny from the authorities, he wasn't surprised by the reaction. That's Knoxville. "They just don't want a black club," he says. "It's like the old days when a black person moved into the neighborhood, and everyone's like, 'Oh, no.'"

Joe Tarr

February 24, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 8
© 2000 Metro Pulse