Proposals for redevelopment of the old Knoxville High School submitted recently suggested a number of uses for the building. The winning proposal, submitted by Family Pride Corporation in conjunction with Southeastern Housing Foundation calls for redevelopment of the building into “one hundred units of independent senior living for persons 62 and over.” A cafeteria would be added, there would be limited on-site parking. The building would be restored, the Doughboy statue in front of the building preserved and the work would be done within LEED standards. You can read the entire proposal here.
Family Pride, under the leadership of Rick Dover is currently at work transforming the former Oakwood Elementary School into an assisted living center. This project has been reported several places as being an assisted living facility, but that isn’t what the proposal states. While a cafeteria will be contained in the building, and planned activities will be provided, the seniors onsite will need to be independent. The proposal includes a purchase offer of $500,000. The second-place proposal did not include a purchase amount.
Yesterday I walked to the building to get a feel for the location. The first thing that becomes clear is that the walk there from downtown is a long one. I walked out Gay Street past the 100 Block, over the viaduct, past Regas Square and turned right onto Magnolia. Past Tennessee Valley Bikes, Public House, Marie’s Tavern, the defunct battery business and an empty lot, just before the bus station I turned left onto Central. Under the Interstate and across Fifth Avenue sat my destination.
Several things become obvious on first site. First, the building is very large. It is striking and much of its impact comes from its size. While the columns on the front suggest an ornate building, it’s really limited in terms of interesting architectural details. The statue out front and the tile in the entryway add to its appearance. The hexagonal tiles just outside the front doors are like those seen from a similar era (1910) all over downtown. Metal ceiling tiles sit high above the front doors, but they may be deteriorated too much to be saved.
The metal tiles are not all that has deteriorated since the building was last used. The paint around the windows is peeling and the wood appears to have rot in places. Window-unit air-conditioners hang from many of the windows suggesting that central air was never added to the building. The expense of replacing all the windows and window-casings and adding central air will be enormous. And that’s just what I could see and it doesn’t include the cost of the actual conversion of a school to an apartment facility.
The building covers an entire block. I walked around the block with an eye toward the neighboring buildings. Some are interesting, old and somewhat attractive. Unfortunately, while they appear to be occupied, none of them seem to be in good repair. The more recent construction is functional, but not attractive. To the east a rehabilitation facility seems primed for success if this development is completed. Otherwise, none of the buildings in the immediate vicinity seem particularly relevant to the future purpose of the Knoxville High School building.
From the entrance of the Knoxville High School building, the immediate view across Fifth Avenue is an abandoned building backed by the Interstate. The noise level on the porch is consistently loud from the sound of semis racing by at seventy miles per hour. Also visible from the porch is a slice of the city skyline to the southwest, including the very top of the Sunsphere.
When Jeff Speck and Helen Foster visited Knoxville a discussion of the perfect fit of walkable cities and seniors ensued. The idea is that cities with easily accessible services and amenities can offer a perfect place for people to age in place – in other words without having to go to a facility of any sort. Our downtown would seem to fit that bill nicely. But does this particular location work in this way?
There are a couple of walking options from this building if one wants to reach retail businesses. One might walk north toward Broadway toward Emory Place. It isn’t far and some great development appears headed toward the area. St. John’s Lutheran Church is within fairly easy walking distance. Most of the development in that direction has hasn’t quite taken off, however.
That leaves the option of walking south, toward downtown. I described my route from downtown at the beginning of this article and it’s a pretty arduous journey for anyone with physical limitations. The alternative is to walk directly south on Central. This involves walking under the Interstate, crossing Magnolia and walking past the bus station which doesn’t always have the most stable citizens hanging about outside. Empty lots and buildings follow before crossing Depot and reaching the White Lily Building, which will hopefully become a vibrant apartment building in the near future.
Next comes the railroad tracks which might be difficult to cross for some people. I personally waited for fifteen minutes to cross them on my return to the city while a train went back and forth coupling with additional cars before finally clearing the road. Across the tracks lies the Old City with some restaurants, a bit of retail and a lot of bars. The Old City has retained its scruffiness very well, but doesn’t immediately spring to mind as the spot I’d suggest for seniors. From there it’s uphill in every direction to get to uptown and it’s still a quarter mile or so.
So, the concern becomes readily apparent. Jeff Speck talked about the phases of population return to an urban area. The first group in are the risk-oblivious. These are students and bohemians. They just want to hang out in a cool place and aren’t worried about investments and not so much about safety. Next is the risk-aware. These are the developers. They know the risks, but take them in hopes of success. Finally, the risk-averse (accountants from New Jersey was his example) come in when everything appears safe enough.
Our uptown is clearly taking in the risk-averse. He suggested our Old City is still taking in the risk oblivious, though I think he’s likely wrong on that front as some people who fit the risk-averse profile are moving into that area. Still, it has a bit of a rougher texture than the area immediately around Market Square.
So what does that make the area around the Knoxville High School building? I wonder if it isn’t better suited for a more bohemian crowd. With bikes they could easily reach the city and UT. It’s not so easy with canes and wheelchairs.
The building has been on Knox Heritage’s Fragile Fifteen for years and in peril of being lost forever. Clearly, saving the building is a priority and the track record of this group is that they will not only save the building, but will improve it. That’s clearly a good thing and the most important immediate goal. Still, I’m trying to picture the sixty-two-year-old who looks at this location as it sits now and declares that’s the place for them. Obviously, I could be wrong.
The next stop is the County Commission later this month with a likely request for tax incentives to follow around the first of the year. I’m glad something is happening to save the building and I hope the group is successful in marketing the units to seniors, though I certainly have my concerns.