As I said a couple of days ago, my walk to south Knoxville originally started as a trip to look at the progress of the Baptist Hospital demolition, but then I got distracted, first by CityView and then by Record Day at Disc Exchange. I did, however take a look at the progress on the demolition.
So far, only one end has been removed. The western-most end next to the Henley Street Bridge is gone. This includes one large portion of the building and the helicopter port. It already makes for a strange sight when you look across the river and see the hill behind where that portion of the hospital sat.
The project seems to be on schedule. According to Josh Flory and Carly Harrington, reporting onthe project last June, the hope was for the first phase of demolition to take place during the first quarter of this year. It came really close. The same article said that the 125-150 million dollar project will include, “up to 350 apartment units, an additional 225 units of student housing and a 150-room hotel,” when completed. The initial phase of construction was slated to be the student housing.
There are a number of questions and concerns which have been raised about the use and design of the new construction. As to use, one might question the usefulness of more hotel rooms when downtown Knoxville has a relatively low occupancy rate most of the time and plans have been proposed or announced to add additional rooms at four different downtown locations. Even those projects have been questioned. I also wonder whether a hotel across the river would be more desirable than staying in the heart of downtown.
The need for more student housing has me scratching my head. Student housing has been proposed for the old federal courthouse site, more is being built on campus and the recently completed sorority houses on the western fringe of campus look as if they would hold half the student population. This is not to mention the fact that many students already live all over downtown. The size of the student body has remained stable for some years, I believe, so where are these prospective students coming from?
Others have questioned whether students will want to live that far from campus. It seems a reasonable question. It’s a good hike to many buildings on campus and that’s not very conducive to sleeping in. A number of people have indicated they might not be interested in staying in a hotel or living in a nice apartment in such close proximity to so many students. The need for apartments close to or inside downtown, however, seems to be insatiable.
The design of the project has also taken quite a bit of fire in social media. I’m no architect, but if I understand the criticism correctly, there are two primary objections. First, the design is not striking and this is what will be facing our south waterfront for a long time. Related to that is the idea that the design is suburban, not urban, with little to no space for retail or other mixed use. I’ve included the artist renderings from Knoxnews and WATE. What do you think? Urban or suburban? Does it have to be an urban design? Would that be preferable?
Finally, when the demolition began, I was called out online for claiming to be opposed to demolitions generally and supportive of preservation efforts while saying “not a word” of objection to this demolition. It was apparently evidence that I’m not willing to speak out against the people who run this city. It was a little bizarre, but it made me think. Why hadn’t anyone raised a voice against the demolition?
I’m not sure if I’m rationalizing, here, so if you think I am, feel free to say so, but I think there are several legitimate reasons this didn’t become a preservationist campaign. The building, built in 1948, stood for just over sixty years, which is a long time, but it isn’t the pre-war age that tends to set off alarms. It was striking in that it was one of the tallest buildings in the county at ten stories and 126 feet. I saw it ranked seventh and eleventh on different lists.
First, I think the worst thing that could have happened was for the building to sit empty, a symbol of a dead dream from the last century. Many cities currently sport a back-log of abandoned hospitals and they become an eyesore, a magnet for vandals and homeless residents and they fall off the tax rolls. In our case, it wasn’t just an empty building, it was an empty building sitting on prime real estate in one of our most visible locations.
So much of the destruction of older buildings results in new parking lots or empty spaces, that the idea of having this property become vibrant and useful again made its destruction seem less a loss and more a gain. Finally, it seems to me to be such a difficult task to find enough alternative use for such a massive and specifically built building as a large hospital, that an alternative including demolition seemed much more likely outcome than a total re-purposing of the existing structure.
The entire demolition is anticipated to take nine to twelve months, so we may not see any construction until that is complete. So, what do you think? Was the demolition a good idea? Should the building have been preserved? Is the planned use the best use? What would you rather see there? Do you like the design? If not, what design changes would you propose?