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A Good Year for Downtown

by Joe Sullivan

County Commission's approval of Universe Knoxville caps a year in which local government has done more to spur downtown revitalization than in the decade prior.

From residential restoration on the 100 block of Gay Street to the commercial redevelopment of Market Square to the visitor attraction that Universe Knoxville will hopefully become, projects and processes have been set in motion that augur well for the city's future.

If all of them come to fruition—and there's still some iffiness—they will go a long way toward satisfying the basic tenet of the Urban Land Institute's landmark 1998 study. To wit: "The strategy is simple. More residents, office workers and visitors walking around downtown."

Given the state of the economy, it's all the more remarkable that 2001 became the year when the city and the county were forthcoming with support for these endeavors, and when developers stood ready to swing the private financing needed to make good on them. Nor were the $36.5 million approved by County Commission and the $5 million recommended by Mayor Victor Ashe for Universe Knoxville, along with as yet unquantified incentives for residential development and infrastructure for Market Square, the year's only noteworthy commitments. The city also pledged $4 million toward the Tennessee Theatre's $20 million renovation campaign that's now halfway to its goal, and the county contributed $12 million toward the marble-clad addition to the East Tennessee Historical Center that's now underway.

It's true that the grand design—to the proposed tune of $130 million in city backing—known as Renaissance Knoxville came a cropper. But Renaissance Knoxville plans, as conceived by developers Worsham Watkins International, almost defied the ULI mandate by calling for a glass enclosed, if not hermetically sealed, city-within-a-city. Moreover, instead of drawing upon downtown's historic building stock for residential development, the plan would have displaced Fort Kid and the Victorian Houses for new townhouses and dwarfed Market Square with a new apartment complex just to its west. Market Square itself would have been placed under the total control of WW, via condemnation or otherwise, for conversion into a "shoppertainment" district.

What's equally remarkable about the plans that have emerged in RK's stead is that, to a considerable extent, they reflect a broad-based participative process rather than the sort of superimposition from the top down that has characterized development efforts in the past. From its inception, RK was really a concoction of the Public Building Authority, whose board of directors looked like an extension of Knoxville's business oligarchy, presided over by its patriarch James Haslam II. In no small part, it was a groundswell of protest from small fry urban activists, banded together in the k2k network, that scotched the ministrations from on high.

In the case of Market Square, the paradigm shifted with a shift in responsibility for overseeing its redevelopment to Knoxville's Community Development Corp. Fortuitously, KCDC's chairman is a UT political science professor, Bill Lyons, with a penchant for collegiate-style inclusiveness. Under his auspices, the redevelopment plan for the Square that's now a work-in-progress tries to balance the interests of property owners and preservationists with a continuing resolve to restore commercial vitality to that distinctive—but mostly moribund—place that represents the heart of Knoxville.

Instead of handing over the Square to a monolithic developer, the plan calls for existing property owners to work in concert with a "coordinating developer" pursuant to "development agreements" governing each of the Square's parcels. In an effort to foster consensus, KCDC sponsored a workshop at which the maestro of the Nine Counties/One Vision process, Gianni Longo, presided. And everyone involved also benefited from an insightful and instructive study conducted by retail planning consultant Robert Gibbs with city funding procured by City Council's champion of neighborhood and preservationist interests, Carlene Malone.

The unwieldy process that's now under way could end up producing something that looks like the definition of a horse designed by a committee: namely, a camel. But the principals of the joint venture that's in the forefront for assuming the coordinating developer's role, Jon Kinsey and Brian Conley, profess confidence that harmony will prevail.

The clearest-cut (and therefore most to be celebrated) accomplishment of the year is the residential restoration of two of Gay Street's largest, long vacant structures: the Sterchi Building and the Emporium. The impetus for both these projects came from developers new to the Knoxville scene, Atlanta-based Leigh Burch and Birmingham-based Adam Cohen. Where the city had been averse to backing such endeavors in the past, it was quick on the uptake to support Burch and Cohen with development incentives including tax abatements, low interest bridge loans and provisions for parking. Upon the scheduled completion (and hopefully full occupancy) of these restoration projects next year, nearly 150 new apartment units on the 100 block should make it a model of new urbanism.

As for Universe Knoxville, it's true that the city's traditional powers-that-be spearheaded the campaign to get County Commission and mayoral backing. But while they mostly emanate from the affluent western suburbs, perhaps new urbanists should be appreciative that some set of suburbanites really cares about the vitality of the city's core. It remains to be determined whether the $36.5 public funding commitment obtained this week will be sufficient for developers Worsham Watkins to line up the $65 million in private financing on which a go-ahead is contingent. And City Council has also got to be good for the $5 million contribution recommended by the mayor—a recommendation that is likely to turn sour if it turns out that Worsham Watkins is angling to collect developer fees that would consume most if not all of the $5 million.

Purists will not be satisfied until all downtown developments are incorporated into a comprehensive, participative master planning process—a process that Ashe perversely continues to resist. But it's hard for the undersigned to see how those disaffected on this account can quarrel with the way the Market Square redevelopment process has morphed, let alone the transformation of the 100 block. Moreover, Universe Knoxville's State Street site seems well situated to pump energy into the parts of downtown Knoxville that most need it: namely, Gay Street's 400 block, Market Square and the Old City. It's noteworthy in this regard that, in contrast with WW's almost self-contained design for Renaissance Knoxville, Universe Knoxville plans call for a pedestrian-friendly main entrance on Gay Street.

What's most missing in the overall redevelopment picture is a new (or renovated) headquarters hotel to support the city's new convention center. In proclaiming 2001 as a year of unparalleled progress, one has to recognize that the $162 million that's been sunk into the convention center still represents by far the largest investment the city has made in the name of urban economic stimulus. But whether it will turn out to be a productive one is a lot less clear. Economic conditions are anything but conducive to attracting a major hotel investment at this time, but until one is forthcoming the convention center is likely to languish for lack of lodging that matches up to myriad other convention venues with which Knoxville is competing.

An overriding wish for the new year has to be for a speedy economic recovery to provide the rising tide that will lift all boats.

December 20, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 51
© 2001 Metro Pulse