City Council meetings sometimes provide a bit of drama and such was the case last night when it considered placing the Cal Johnson Building under historic zoning or H1 protection. Essentially, this means it cannot be easily demolished by current or future owners. It also typically means that redevelopment must follow sometimes difficult and involved regulations dictated by the Department of Interior for any renovations, restoration or alterations. The city says they have agreed to allow the current owners, the Dance family, to follow only local Downtown Design Review Board guidelines, but the family says the city may not have that authority.
What’s at stake is a building that has been written about extensively by Jack Neely both when Mayor Rogero proposed the H1 protection and more recently when the Metropolitan Planning Commission declined to accept that proposal. That threw the question to the City Council and set the stage for the drama that unfolded as they discussed a relatively nondescript, but historically significant building which is currently located near Commerce Street just across from Marble Alley.
Bill Lyons, Deputy to the Mayor, developer David Dewhirst and local historian and writer Robert Booker spoke on behalf of adding the H1 protection. Dr. Lyons detailed a decade of discussions with the Dance family which have not resulted in improvement to the property. He noted that H1 desgination would not prevent the family from developing the building as they now say they wish to do and David Dewhirst suggested that H1 designation can help a developer by making historic tax credits more likely. Bob Booker detailed the life of Cal Johnson who moved from slave to multi-business owner and noted that virtually every other building associated with African American history in the city has been demolished.
Jed Dance, current patriarch of the family that owns the building, spoke against the overlay. His grandfather bought the buildings in front of the Cal Johnson building in 1948 which, together, are the Bacon and Company offices and warehouses. They bought the Cal Johnson Building in 1976 and he said they have paid taxes and are, “all about saving buildings.” He noted that the family had fought the city twice during those years when the city wanted to demolish the building. He also said they had complied when the city asked them to board up missing windows and when a tour by Kim Trent of Knox Heritage revealed a hole in the roof, they repaired it.
He went on to say the family is ready to redevelop the building or at least improve it and to look for someone to lease it, but that with the complications imposed by an H1 designation it would be more difficult. He said they “have plans and are ready to spend the money,” saying that the last decade they have been thwarted by the recession and then his father’s death in 2013 which resulted in a complicated estate situation only resolved last year.
Arthur Seymour, Jr., a local attorney I last wrote about when he argued passionately for the right of St. John’s Episcopal to demolish two ninety-year-old buildings, echoed the sentiment that this family, not the city has preserved this building. He pointed out that both his boyhood neighborhood and that of Bob Booker had been demolished by the city saying, “the only talk of tearing the building down over the years has been from the city.” Noting there is no evidence they will tear it down and that now that it is more accessible, they will “do something.”
Finally, John King, local attorney, spoke for the family saying “Plans have been submitted to the Downtown Design Review Board and unless this complication is added we will move forward.” He said the guideline question puts the family in the position of not knowing what might be required, concluding, “You have someone who has a historic record of preserving the building.” Bill Lyons responded that only local guidelines would apply and that all of Market Square had been developed under H1 overlay.
Discussion followed in which councilman Nick Della Volpe questioned why the overlay is necessary if the family says they intend to redevelop, suggesting there didn’t need to be more extensive government intrusion. Mayor Rogero responded that it would prevent a wrecking ball from being used now or in the future. A disagreement ensued as to whether the federal regulations may be waived. Finbarr Saunders noted the building has been on Knox Heritage’s “Fragile 15” for years and this would help preserve it, observing he’d been in the building talking to the family as far back as 2004.
Councilman George Wallace said the family should be given additional time to complete their plans. Councilman Duane Grieve countered that the overlay is not an additional burden and that as one of the only downtown structures reflective of the African American experience, it should be protected. He went further to say additional buildings should be similarly protected. Councilwoman Palmer said flexibility hadn’t been offered other building owners and that sometimes plans go awry, so the building should be protected.
In the end the council voted in favor of the overlay by a vote of six to two, with Wallace and Della Volpe voting against the measure and Marshall Stair recusing himself because he works with Mr. King. It will have to be reviewed in two weeks and passed on a second reading. Outside the meeting Mr. Dance told me they still plan to fight it and will have to evaluate the next step. Mr. King said he is, “always concerned when people want to create something that is there is perpetuity. There may come a time when a historic marker would better serve to remember him than to save the building.” He thought for a moment searching for the right word, then said such people are, “presumptuous.”
Essentially, the city is asking the Dance family to trust them that the more stringent requirements of federal regulation will not be imposed and the Dance family is asking that the city trust them that the building will be restored without the potentially cumbersome regulation. The problem seems to be that, though everyone was civil in their disagreements, there is little trust.
While it wasn’t mentioned in the discussion, H1 protection not only prevents active demolition, but demolition by neglect can be stopped by the government. Demolition by neglect is what has been happening to the building for many years. The fact that the owners have to be told – according to Mr. Dance – when they have a hole in the roof or windows need to be boarded illustrates the fact. More than a decade has passed with the city requesting the building be improved and it hasn’t happened. No doubt the family does not want the city to have this power.
Also interesting was the statement by Arthur Seymour, Jr. that they only entity to ever discuss demolition has been the city. This, like a number of statements made by Mr. Seymour during the St. John’s controversy, doesn’t withstand scrutiny. The family themselves told MPC in April that they had intended to demolish the rear third of the building in order to improve truck access, but that turned out to be too expensive. So, very recently, demolition of at least a portion of the building has been discussed by the family.
Finally, there is the physical evidence of the family’s lack of stewardship of their property and the lack of civic responsibility displayed by not only their treatment of the Cal Johnson Building, but of the three buildings comprising Bacon and Company itself. As you can see from the photographs, many windows in all their buildings are boarded and often black trash bags hang out of the space.
Large swaths of the front facade of Bacon and Company are covered with corrugated fiberglass. Black glass panels added in some recent decade cover a portion of the facade, while another portion had these panels removed exposing the glue underneath and nothing was done to improve the facade. A tree grows from a gutter toward the top. Graffiti is allowed to cover the building without any apparent effort to improve it. And these are not even the buildings under discussion.
With properties that have remained blighted for decades, there is little evidence for the city to build upon to have faith in the family’s future plans. Without the H1 overlay, the family – or the next owner – could request demolition permits and there would be nothing the city could do but watch the buildings be destroyed. The family also, perhaps rightly, fears that if they don’t improve the buildings, the city could take them like it should have taken the McClung Warehouses.
What happens next will be interesting. Will the city back down on the intended overlay? Will the family fight them if they don’t? If the overlay is applied will the family refuse to follow through on any improvements? If so, one might question whether they ever intended to do the improvements from the outset. If they allow the buildings to continue to crumble will the city take further action?
It is very unfortunate that in 2016, with property values escalating rapidly and so many people working in different ways to make our downtown and our city a great place, that we have this issue in our midst. If the family wishes to renovate and restore all their buildings with the level of attention we’ve seen given, for example, the JC Penney Building and the Holston Buildings, I’d be happy for them to stay in the city into the next century.
If they aren’t going to participate in the rebirth of our city, but rather are going to enjoy the benefits of increased property values for themselves while hurting the property values of those around them, I’d prefer they leave and allow the building to fall into the hands of someone who would love both the buildings and the city. They’ve made a lot of money for many years selling UT and other apparel. The least they could do is spend some of the largess on their own buildings rather than allowing them to be among the most blighted buildings in the center city.