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A New Paradigm for Development in Knoxville

by Joe Sullivan

Knoxville may be on the verge of getting its first New Urbanist development combining residential, shopping and office space in a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use setting.

The site of the proposed development, on 142-acres of farm land adjoining the intersection of Pellissippi Parkway and Northshore Drive, may at first blush seem to connote more sprawl. But it is anything but an extension of placeless suburbia and could well represent a prototype for development based on an old-fashioned sense of community centered on a traditional town square.

That's exactly what the Metropolitan Planning Commission had in mind when it adopted what's known as Town Center (TC-1) zoning at its March meeting. When City Council approved the new TC-1 zoning ordinance on April 3, it was anything but clear whether any developer would proceed anytime soon with plans for meeting its rigorous requirements for connectivity between residential and commercial uses amid lots of dedicated greenspace.

Within the month, however, an applicant has come forward. He is Robert Sterchi, 64-year-old scion of an illustrious Knoxville family that has owned the property since the 1840s. Sterchi is also the owner of two hotels in the Cedar Bluff area. When he was first approached by lawyer Mike McClamroch about pioneering the new (to Knoxville) concept, Sterchi acknowledges that he was skeptical. "But after meeting with Norm Whitaker [executive director of the MPC] and his staff I was encouraged, and the further I've gotten into it the more excited I've become," Sterchi says.

Sterchi retained architect Mike Fowler, himself an ardent exponent of New Urbanism, to develop plans for the hilly tract to the northwest of the Pellissippi—Northshore interchange. Fowler's initial renderings call for about half of the 142 acres to be developed commercially and half residentially, with some interspersion of the two. The residential component would include multi-family dwellings, both apartments and condominiums, nearest to a commercial core, and single-family homes on the northern and western perimeters where the property adjoins existing subdivisions. At an average density of six units per acre, that could mean up to 400 households.

The core area itself would adhere to TC-1's stipulation that "[p]edestrian-oriented uses are required on the ground floor. Upper-story uses can include dwellings, offices, studios or other permitted uses..." Fowler's renderings depict numerous two-story commercial structures abutting a green, tree-shaded town square. At 60,000 square feet each, two of the structures stand out as approaching the size requirements of "big box" retailers such as Home Depot, Lowe's or Target. But McClamroch insists, " If a Target goes in there, it's going to be different than any Target you've ever seen before because of the design criteria."

Sterchi stresses the need for anchor tenants in order "to make the whole thing work," but he also envisions specialty retailers, including a food store and a pharmacy, restaurants and service establishments. "We want things that make a community work," he says.

Sterchi is averse to talking to about the costs of the development, in part because "a whole a lot of things are still in a mind process" and because, given its size, "the build-out period could be 10 years."

Front-end costs, however, would be substantially higher than for conventional subdivisions or commercial strips. In addition to site preparation, utility and road costs, TC-1 imposes a number of stringent standards on developers. These include landscaping on the 10 percent on the land area that must be set aside as public greenspace, streetscapes and sidewalks that must be at least 12 feet wide in the core area and five feet wide throughout the residential sector. Further, in the name of pedestrian friendliness, the outer perimeter of the development can be no more than 1,200 feet from the core area.

In order for the Sterchi proposal to go forward, it will take a zoning change from Residential to TC-1 and a companion change in MPC's Southwest Sector Plan. And that is where the forces of New Urbanism could run up against the opposition of adjoining neighborhood groups. In an effort to gain acceptance for the TC-1 concept, MPC officials have met with the Council of West Knox County Homeowners—apparently to good advantage.

"From what I've heard it sounds pretty good," says the council's president John Schoonmaker. "Multi-family residential densities could be of concern to some, but if you have enough greenspace set aside it compensates for that."

Increased traffic at the intersection of Northshore and Pellissippi's southbound exit ramp appears to be the one potential stumbling block. Back-ups on the exit ramp are already common as cars attempt to turn left onto Northshore to access the heavily commercial area just to the east of Pellissippi.

"Our concern is with the traffic impact on what's already a bad corner," says Irene Phillips, outgoing president of the Lakeridge Homeowners Association. Schoonmaker adds, "The dynamics of that intersection are going to have to change." Sterchi was due to meet with Mayor Victor Ashe this week to seek a solution that may also involve TDOT.

MPC is due to consider his application for what could be a New Urbanism showcase at its May 14 meeting. If it proceeds, Fowler predicts, "[t]hey will have to beat off the other developers with sticks." And a new paradigm for development could be underway in Knoxville.

April 26, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 17
© 2001 Metro Pulse