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The PBA's Challenge

by Joe Sullivan

December is the due month for the most crucial set of recommendations in memory for shaping downtown Knoxville's destiny. By mid-month, the administrator of the Public Building Authority, Dale Smith, expects to have completed his evaluation of Worsham Watkins' monumental downtown redevelopment proposal as well as his recommendations to the PBA's board of directors on how it should proceed.

These recommendations represent the culmination of a two-year formulation process that has been fraught with controversy. And yet, for all their import, it's anything but clear to what extent the public will have a chance to be heard on them prior to PBA board action. Nor is it clear whether the board itself will delve into them or simply forward them to Mayor Victor Ashe and City Council with some sort of rubber stamp.

At the least, Smith's report will be posted on the PBA's website for review and written comment prior to consideration at a board meeting now scheduled for Jan. 8. But the PBA's chairwoman, Arlene Garrison, sounds disinclined toward any further public hearing. After two long and heated hearings on WW's $370 million proposal last summer, she seems to think there's been enough of that. "I don't expect the board to go through another process," says Garrison, a UT administrator who assumed the helm last spring.

But the assembly room at the City County building is sure to be just as packed for the Jan. 8 meeting as it was for last summer's hearings. And if inevitable concerns and criticisms aren't allowed to be voiced once again, it will undermine a spirit of accommodation that appeared to be emerging between PBA proponents of the WW plan and its sundry critics. Worse yet, it will reinforce a more generalized sense of resentment on the part of a lot of younger, urban-oriented activists (as manifest by the K2K Internet group) that the city's hierarchy pays little heed to them.

Of course, the climate of opinion will also be much influenced by what Smith elects to recommend. During his nine months on the job, the PBA administrator has gained broad-based respect for his acumen and attentiveness, and hopefully his recommendations will further his reputation as a consensus builder. Smith rightfully isn't talking much about them right now. But he's known to share concerns about two facets of the WW proposal that have become lightning rods for criticism: namely, the removal of the Victorian Houses from 11th Street to make way for new carriage housing, and condemnation of most of the property on Market Square to give WW control over its use. Moreover, Smith's appointment of a prestigious design review consulting panel bespeaks concern about yet another sore point: the extent to which glass-enclosed overpasses that permeate the WW design would supplant the pedestrian traffic along the streets that is much preferred by new urbanists.

Even if Smith would talk about them, it would be beyond the realm of this column to portray the mind-boggling complexities of the economic terms of a public/private partnership deal the likes of which the city has never seen before. How realistic it is for the city to recover a proposed $130 million public investment in infrastructure (mostly garages and overpasses) to support WW's proposed $240 million investment depends upon the answers to a host of other questions and a host of esoteric calculations.

After many months of intensive and sometimes contentious negotiations with Earl Worsham and Ron Watkins, Smith is evidently prepared to recommend going forward on some set of terms. But he's also told his board that he's looking to cut back on the $130 million city outlay and that he expects to make at least one or two recommendations that Worsham and Watkins will say they can't live with.

As tenacious and perspicacious as Smith has no doubt been in these negotiations, the PBA board would be abdicating its responsibility to rely on him alone. Yet just as she's trying to avoid holding any more public hearings, Garrison also appears to be looking for rationales to minimize the board's involvement in the decision-making process.

"When the board is presented the administrator's recommendations, I wouldn't anticipate a substantial amount of micro-management. Once you give your staff the charge, the board isn't going to take it under advisement and debate it for months," Garrison opines. Giving it some further spin, she adds that, "It's been our practice to act more like a business body than a political body...and some of these issues are more properly addressed in a political forum."

The fact is that the city turned to the PBA to make recommendations covering the whole nine yards of downtown redevelopment. It was the PBA that fashioned the WW plan, with WW acting initially as consultants while gaining an exclusive right to implement it as developers. It was the PBA that conducted public hearings on every aspect of the plan, whose politics are inseparable from its economics and for that matter from the urban design and property rights issues that are also at stake.

To suggest it would be micro-management to evaluate some of the most "macro" decisions Knoxville will ever make is a contradiction in terms. And what could be a more vital responsibility of a "business body" than to pass judgment on the soundness of a major public investment in what is essentially a business venture?

In fairness to Garrison, she's fairly new in her post and faced with presiding over a board nearly half of whose 11 members are also new. The challenges they face are daunting, possibly even a bit intimidating. Yet the board's ability to rise to them will have a lot to do with shaping the climate of public acceptance and confidence—or lack of same—in PBA recommendations that will then go forward to the mayor and City Council for final action.

All of this is not to say that the PBA board should deliberate at great length. Time is of the essence in acting on the WW plan, which cannot be held in a state of suspended animation. According to Watkins, all signals need to be go by next spring in order to secure a prospective anchor tenant for the project's 33-story office tower. At the same time, expediting its 415-room Marriott Hotel is essential to the viability of the city's new $162 million convention center.

For all the handwringing that the prospect of major change tends to foment in Knoxville, there is much else that's commendable about WW's bold plan. The entire community is looking to the PBA to strike a proper balance between its many benefits and the legitimate concerns of those who are impacted by it.

November 30, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 48
© 2000 Metro Pulse