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by Joe Sullivan

The Historic Market Square Association deserves a lot of credit for enlisting Bob Gibbs as its retail planning consultant. Gibbs' presentation to association members and others last week offered, in my opinion, the most enlightening and encouraging perspective on downtown redevelopment since the Urban Land Institute's landmark report three years ago.

The ULI report, you may recall, shifted the city's developmental focus away from the environs of the new convention center in the World's Fair Park and toward downtown. "The strategy is simple: Knoxville needs more residents, office workers and visitors walking around the downtown...," it states. "Consistent with this line of reasoning, the Market Square redevelopment becomes of the utmost priority—it must produce a mixed-use, 24-hour activity center in the heart of downtown."

What the Michigan-based Gibbs adds to this imperative are: 1) a conceptual sense of the demographic and societal trends that are working in its favor; and 2) a concrete sense of how to take advantage of them.

"Boomers are now retiring, becoming empty-nesters, selling their four-bedroom houses in the suburbs and moving into downtowns or into villages," he says. "Your Barnes & Nobles are telling developers this is where they want to be, they won't go into any more malls..." Indeed, he predicts, "We're now beginning a new cycle of [retailers] returning to downtown, or if we don't have a downtown, create a fake one.

"You're fortunate in Knoxville," he goes on to say, "to have a nice downtown and fortunate to have a historic square, historic buildings. Many retailers are looking for places to go like this." But he admonishes his audience that, "Downtowns need to think like shopping centers if you're going to compete with them." And he ticks off a long list of what's entailed:

"You've got to be open when people want to shop—70 percent of retail sales occur after 5:30 p.m. and on Sundays."

"It's almost impossible to build a shop ping center or survive without an anchor tenant; bankers won't lend, and other tenants won't come in... There's nothing like a good old-fashioned department store, but discounters like a Target or Kohl's are just as popular."

"Shoppers have a short attention span, and you have to keep stimulating them with storefronts...The details [of how you do this] will make or break you."

"If you're going to create a shopping district downtown, it has to be maintained as well as [suburban] centers. Sidewalks get power washed twice a day. Everything has to have a fresh look."

The list goes on, but by now it should be obvious that for all these things to happen, they have to be orchestrated in a concerted manner. Yet, ironically, at a KCDC public hearing on its comprehensive Market Square redevelopment plan the day before Gibbs' presentation, the HMSA's president, Bill Ambrose, objected that, "Market Square is a place for creative entrepreneurship rather than an orchestrated development."

The rub is that several individualistic association members perceive that KCDC is the enemy trying to dictate the terms of redevelopment on behalf of an authoritarian city government. While KCDC has tried to allay those concerns, its plan still calls for selection of a "coordinating developer" with whom all individual property owners would have to enter into vaguely defined "development agreements" or else become subject to condemnation. KCDC would be the arbiter of these agreements.

Overcoming this "we versus they" syndrome requires a change of mindset on the part of all concerned. With Gibbs as their guide, members of the association need to be reaching for the baton in order to orchestrate the process rather than be orchestrated by it. Conversely, KCDC should be encouraging them to come to the fore with a comprehensive plan of their own rather than presuming superimposition of a coordinating developer upon them.

What clearly needs to happen is for the smaller property owners to start collaborating with (by far) the largest, David Dewhirst, who owns the former Watson's department store building. (Watson's closing in 1998 spelled the demise of the last vestiges of commercial activity on the square except for the Tomato Head restaurant and a few surviving lunch spots. Two galleries have also opened in the past year.) Dewhirst, for his part, recognizes the need to partner with a developer who has a track record of success in downtown commercial redevelopment in one or more other cities in order to draw upon that experience. The others should as well.

Since yours truly has no experience in such matters, I can't begin to postulate the terms of a development agreement that will benefit all concerned. But it only stands to reason that revitalization of Market Square will enhance its property values and ground-floor lease rates while leaving room for loft residences, offices and other mixed uses above.

KCDC took a meaningful step toward accommodation when it revised its redevelopment plan last week to allow for the use of zoning to control property uses as an alternative to the restrictive covenants it had previously proposed. Zoning, after all, is the established means by which the body politic restricts the rights of individual property owners in the public interest.

Market Square is the city's most cherished public space. While the rights of the owners of the property that surround it should be respected, they should also feel a sense of stewardship. This sense was manifest when they sought and obtained historic overlay zoning to preserve the character of the buildings on the square, and it should be again when it comes to restoring the square's commercial vitality.

Retaining Gibbs reflects that, and we can all look forward to his report assessing the square's potential, the mix of commercial tenants that is needed to fulfill it and how to go about attracting them. This report is due within a month and should contribute greatly to shaping a redevelopment proposal within the time frames set forth by KCDC.

One thing with which yours truly is most familiar is deadlines. It takes one to get this column written every week. Or, to invoke Peter Drucker's maxim, "Work without a deadline is no work at all." If any postponements are needed, they should come at the end of the five months allotted by KCDC—not prior to the beginning as the HMSA has requested.

August 30, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 35
© 2001 Metro Pulse