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  Who's Driving This Thing?
The Year in Review


Downtown Redevelopment Brouhaha

When Y2K commenced, the names Earl Worsham and Ron Watkins were little more than blips on the local radar screen. But as the monumental Worsham Watkins plan for downtown redevelopment was gradually unveiled over the course of the year, they were caught in the vortex of a stormy debate over the shape of the city's future.

Like an old-time vaudeville team, Worsham and Watkins spent the year dazzling us with presentations at the Bijou and Tennessee Theaters. Their proposed development, a response to calls for development to support the city's new convention center, would be one of the largest-scale urban developments in history, stretching from Gay Street some nine blocks west to the eastern fringe of Fort Sanders. Mayor Ashe declared in January that it was the biggest thing to hit Knoxville since TVA.

The WW project is almost too big to describe in this space, but the plan would include a giant office tower, a new cineplex, a new luxury hotel, retail in an enclosed mall-like "street" over Henley Street, a few hundred more residences, and—a special dream of Mr. Worsham's—a giant greenhouse called a "Wintergarden."

For the first half of the year, though, it was "that thing with the dome." Many were skeptical of the startling proposal in the original description to cover the entirety of Market Square with a glass dome.

When specifics of the plan came out at the Tennessee presentation in June, many were relieved that the dome was out of the picture. However, some thought they spotted Lucifer himself in these details. Many critics were troubled by well-founded rumors that the planners intended to discourage Market Square's small but growing base of residents in a whole new version of the square oriented overwhelmingly toward retail and night life; and by the proposal to move seven renovated Victorian houses on 11th Street out of the way for the construction of new upscale "carriage houses."

WW seems to have backed off of on some of those issues, but several citizens, as well as urban-design experts, have been critical of the plan's overlarge scale and scarcity of street presence. Some also don't like the continued insistence that Market Square, a public square for almost 150 years, should be brought into a single ownership and private control. At year's end, the Public Building Authority was considering the plan, with a partially critical report from an independent panel of out-of-town experts.

Under discussion by the PBA at year's end, the arguments promise to carry well into 2001; if PBA approves a version of WW, it will arrive in City Council's court.

Holiday Inn or Out?

Walking through the lobby of the Holiday Inn Select on the edge of the World's Fair Park, it looks like business as usual. But the hotel's circumstances have been anything but usual since City Council voted to condemn and demolish it last July. Clearing the space for a new visitors' center and for increased traffic in the vicinity of the city's new convention center were the overt reasons for the condemnation, but getting rid of the Holiday Inn's 293 relic rooms in order to grease the skids for a glitzy new convention headquarters hotel has appeared to many to be the covert impetus.

Even if there's an early go-ahead on the new 415-room Marriott that's a centerpiece of Worsham Watkins' plan, it's not due to be completed until 2004. That means there needs to be room at the Holiday Inn in the meantime for droves of Junior Olympians and bowlers for whom the convention center's welcome mat is due to be rolled out in 2002 and 2003. So it's up to the city to acquire the property to do with as it will. Yet after several months of negotiations, it's reportedly only offering about half of Haney's $26 million asking price.

11th Street Freeze-Out

Long-neglected 11th Street, on the downtown fringe of Fort Sanders, was suddenly a focus of attention in 2000, as new student housing was completed, the fruition of a compromise with Texas-based developer JPI. Then of course there was the WW proposal to move seven 110-year-old houses, renovated during the World's Fair and mostly still occupied by small businesses and foundations, as well as Fort Kid, a popular playground built with community donations and effort over 10 years ago. Late in the year, WW softened on sparing the Victorian houses, but seemed determined to continue with the carriage-house project, leaving the fate of Fort Kid anybody's guess.

It's Miller's Time!

Over the decades, Knoxville preservationists have learned to lower their standards; nothing prepared them for the grand opening of a renovated Miller's Building. Renovation is an understatement; directed by architect Duane Grieve, Miller's was very nearly reconstructed, from the inside out, with a lofty atrium never envisioned in the original design. Even the most misty-eyed nostalgist would have to admit it looks much better on the outside than it ever did in any remembered past—and much grander on its interior than it did when it was built. It opened as the new headquarters for KUB, with some new tenants to follow.

Digital Crossing Opens

Here's an interesting strategy for Market Square redevelopment: instead of bringing high-tech, cutting-edge business to the Square, put it in a TVA office building a block away instead. That's what happened to Digital Crossing. The $1.75-million project—intended, at least at the start, to revitalize Market Square—was delayed for several months and, when it finally opened in late October, was in a building on Summit Hill Drive, wired for high-speed Internet connections and other amenities to attract tech companies. At its opening, Digital Crossing was 80 percent full, so there will at least be plenty of employees to go to lunch on the Square.

Our Other Convention Center

It has changed names and ownerships so often we just call it "the brew pub," and for many of us, it's been something more than a restaurant or a bar, serving as a business and political meeting place, spawning, among other things, the evolving email network K2K. Mayor Victor Ashe held his first "Mayor's Night Out" of 2000 there.

Opened as Great Smoky Mountain Brewery in 1994, the Gay Street brew pub has become a social and political hub where you might meet nearly anybody, and maybe even have a chance to give them a piece of your mind. It closed for seven months in 1996, when it became Great Southern Brewing Company. This spring, its out-of-state owner decided it was time to sell the place. It closed in May—prematurely, says the management, who cited a misunderstanding of the finality of that sale—and was closed, again, for six months. Maybe the third time's the charm. Thanks to buyer Grady Regas, it reopened in late November, sporting a new interior including a wall of glass brick, but the same old mahogany bar.

Gay Again

For years, people have said they were embarrassed about the shabby appearance of Gay Street, once Knoxville's most lively commercial street and still headquarters for thousands of bankers, lawyers, and insurance agents. In 2000, property owners completed renovations of the east side of the 700 block, the oldest commercial cluster of buildings downtown; among them is attorney Don Bosch's wildly art-deco facade. Also, the CBID restored several facades on Gay Street's most troublesome block, the 400 block; though about half of it's still vacant, at least it looks good.

Amazing Graves

Old Gray Cemetery celebrated its sesquicentennial in June, with, at long last, a gravestone for the long-unmarked grave of its very first burial, an ironworker who died after an injury in a Fourth of July explosion in 1851.

December 21, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 51
© 2000 Metro Pulse