What is the Vision for the Jackson Corridor?

Jackson Avenue Corridor Planning Session, Southern Railway Depot, Knoxville, April 2014

Jackson Avenue Corridor Planning Session, Southern Railway Depot, Knoxville, April 2014

That was the question on the table(s) last night as about seventy-five people gathered at the city’s invitation to discuss the topic. Rick Emmett and Bill Lyons provided an introduction to the night’s activity-based program and gave instructions to those seated the various tables. The task, we were told, was to “inform the process” of requests for proposals for the former McClung Warehouses site, as well as a parcel across the street and the parking lot between the ruins and the Gay Street viaduct. We were told there would be a draft request put together, another meeting for more feedback and then the request would be issued.

In plain English, they wanted us to talk about what we’d like to see on that very important site. Why is it important? Because it is highly visible from the Interstate and because it is the connecting point between downtown, the World’s Fair Park and Old North. That means a lot is riding on getting this right.

Jackson Avenue Corridor Planning Session, Southern Railway Depot, Knoxville, April 2014

Jackson Avenue Corridor Planning Session, Southern Railway Depot, Knoxville, April 2014

The vision shared by each table varied from one another, as you might expect, but there were significant commonalities. Just about every table wanted some manner of connection from Walnut Street (beside Immaculate Conception Catholic Church) to Jackson Avenue. Some wanted a ramp, some steps, some a sky bridge and others suggested a building on that site might offer a walk-on roof from that direction from which a person might take an elevator down to Jackson. A similar connection from Jackson down to the train yard was also recommended.

A number of the groups pointed out that the greenway – currently proposed to go up Jackson, could easily be routed behind the buildings on the McClung site, making for a more level route for cyclists and walkers. Some mentioned the possibility of building over the train tracks. There seemed to be general agreement that parking would be needed but, I felt, there was a consensus that it should be on the lowest level of the buildings which, for most of the site, is below the grade of the road. No one wants to see a classic parking garage, AKA a big cement box for automobiles.

Jackson Avenue Corridor Planning Session, Southern Railway Depot, Knoxville, April 2014

Jackson Avenue Corridor Planning Session, Southern Railway Depot, Knoxville, April 2014

Public space seem to be desired by most people. One idea in that regard, was to have a space between the buildings and Jackson Street making a corridor or courtyard between it and the viaduct which would make it a continuation of the space between the current warehouse which runs adjacent to Jackson and the viaduct. That space is set to be redeveloped for a brewery and other businesses. This could extend that. One table suggested that might be a good site for a crafts village.

So, what kind of building did the participants envision? That varied quite a bit from those wanting to echo the now demolished warehouses to others wanting a striking, modern architectural skyline statement. Several talked about the possibility of bringing a corporate headquarters to the site. Scripps was mentioned. Some suggested a tall building on the western end of the property with smaller structures on the eastern end to more closely match the scale of the 100 block of Gay Street.

Environmental concerns were expressed regarding run-off into second creek. Requiring the buildings to be LEED certified was mentioned. Making the garages below the buildings central points for carpool parking or the entire area a node for responsible transportation into the city was mentioned.

All seemed to agree that some sort of Iconic architecture would need to be required.

Jackson Avenue Corridor Planning Session, Southern Railway Depot, Knoxville, April 2014

Jackson Avenue Corridor Planning Session, Southern Railway Depot, Knoxville, April 2014

So, is all that practical or just a bunch of interesting, flighty ideas that you can’t realistically expect a developer to endorse? It will be interesting to see what threads of the night’s discussion are picked up by the city and which are not. And is there interest? It’s unclear, to me, that local developers can accomplish what was outlined at the meeting on the scale needed. Maybe they could each develop a parcel.

What we will likely need will be outside investment. If we get it, we need to guard against dropping our high goals for the property just to get somebody on site. To me, this seems the time to flex a bit of our rising-star muscle and not settle. We need to think big and throw the ball all the way down the field, to jumble my metaphors. We need to believe that Knoxville deserves and can realistically have an amazing building on this spot. And then we need to make it happen.

The city would like to hear your opinions and they’ve provided a forum just for that purpose. Take a few minutes and complete this survey.

I’ll close today by imploring you to get out and about downtown this weekend. Rhythm and Blooms will fill the Old City with music all weekend, the beautiful chalk walk will fill Market Square all day Saturday, Llamas will race on the World’s Fair Park, Art on the Block headlines First Friday. If you can’t find something fun out of all that, I think your funmaker is broken. Get out and make some fun. I’ll be the guy behind the camera.

McClung Warehouse Fire A Setback to Downtown Redevelopment

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Karen Kluge)

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Karen Kluge)

I drove home from Relix Theater about 1:00 AM Saturday morning. My path took me over the Broadway viaduct directly past the McClung Warehouses. I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, but when I walked into our home Urban Woman said she smelled smoke. I told her Relix is non-smoking, but she said it didn’t smell like cigarettes. I didn’t think any more about it and fell asleep.

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Karen Kluge)

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Karen Kluge)

Unknown to me, about 4:00 AM a neighbor, Karen Kluge smelled smoke, walked outside and took the two photographs you see here of the actual fire. The photographs are taken from Locust Street looking north between the (former) Kimberly Clark Building and Summit Towers. The visible flames rose above the large hill to the north of Summit Hill Drive.

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

I heard the news when I awakened around 7:30 and took the majority of the photographs you see here. Fire engines were stationed atop that hill over looking the building, all along Jackson Avenue in front of the building and behind the building across the railroad tracks.

Burned Out Care in front of McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

Burned Out Care in front of McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

A passerby pointed out the car you can just make out in front of the building. Questions were later asked about the car. Was it involved, somehow? Did someone simply pick the worst parking space in the city the previous night? It was an odd place to park a car.

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

MCClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Melinda Grimac)

MCClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Melinda Grimac)

MCClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Melinda Grimac)

MCClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Melinda Grimac)

A hub of activity filled the parking lot of the former BP, and it included a KPD fire bus, which I’d never seen or considered before. Inside, the evacuated residents of the Southeastern Glass building enjoyed the heat, food and drink provided by the fire department. It made sense to have something like that, as I thought about it. You can see the edge of the Southeastern Glass building in a couple of the photographs here. It is uncomfortably close.

Corner BP Parking Lot, McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

Corner BP Parking Lot, McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

Given the nature of the fire and the heights at which some firemen worked, the dangers were clear. Fortunately, no one was injured in this fire, unlike the large fire which in 2007 reduced the three warehouses to, essentially, two. Firemen did not attempt to enter the building because of its known instability even prior to the fire. It’s unknown if anyone was inside the building when the fire began.

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

And that’s a line of questioning pursued at the 11:00 AM news conference convened at the fire station. An obvious assumption in situations like this is that homeless people must have started the fire inside the building in an effort to keep warm. City officials were asked about the securing of the buildings which they purchased in November. Bill Lyons pointed out that razor wire was placed around the perimeter of the building and solid metal doors were installed in doorways.

Press Conference, McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

Press Conference, McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

Press Conference, McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

Press Conference, McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

So how could this happen? There’s no reason the building would ignite itself. There was no electricity connected to the building. Conspiracy theories immediately populated Facebook and a reporter pointed this out to the city officials who acknowledged that owners are the first suspect in a fire determined to be arson, which brought a laugh to those assembled. It was pointed out that Mayor Rogero, visiting Turkey at that time, had a perfect alibi.

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

Still, there are questions that linger. If the building was secured that well, how could anyone gain entrance? Was it intentionally set from the outside and, if so, who would do such a thing? There are also depressing questions like what if the warehouses had been sold ten years ago? Would we have three intact warehouses to redevelop?

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Melinda Grimac)

McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Melinda Grimac)

What if control could have been wrested away from the previous owner soon after the first fire, could the building have been redeveloped by now? We’ll never know the answers to the latter questions, but I hope we find the answers to the question of responsibility. Maybe it will be found that people were inside trying to keep warm.

The questioning in the press conference turned to the future and Bill Lyons indicated the previous plans will go forward. Those plans included feasibility studies to see if the buildings could be saved and a public comment process for the community to express their opinions and desires for redevelopment and then, hopefully, the city would transfer the property to a developer who would make good use of it.

The Day after the McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

The Day after the McClung Warehouse Fire, Knoxville, February 1, 2014

From my perspective, the likelihood that the building could be saved was pretty low before the fire and clearly whatever chance it had has been reduced. Prior to the first fire there were three very large buildings. Then we had two and, it appears to be me we now have one, at most.

I waked back to the site on Sunday and took some final pictures. Urban Girl went with me and said the smell hurt her nose, so we didn’t linger. Firemen were still keeping watch, but the intensity on the scene had been diminished. I missed the Philco Sign and the barely visible painting beneath it.

Western Side of the McClung Warehouses before the Second Fire

Western Side of the McClung Warehouses before the Second Fire

So, what will become of the site? No one knows, of course. I expect the building to be demolished and I fear the property will remain vacant. We haven’t been very aggressive about building new structures. If we do have something eventually built there, I wish the city would demand something special. It is too visible a spot to everyone driving through to have a bland, architecturally uninspiring structure built there.

What did We Learn at the Downtown Summit?

Downtown Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2013

Downtown Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2013

News of a downtown summit spread quickly through downtown residents and business owners. For the last couple of weeks it has consumed many a sidewalk conversation. Who would be included? Whose perspective would be heard? Would it be of benefit or simply be another meeting in a seemingly endless series of downtown meetings of various sorts? By the time the curtain lifted (figuratively) at the East Tennessee History Center, several hundred people had converged to find out just what was up.

The meeting started with an introduction by Bill Lyons, followed by opening remarks from Mayor Rogero and then a presentation by Bill Lyons. The presentation covered the city’s Strategy for Downtown, which is viewable on the city’s website. It included such things as moving the center city from “disinvestment to investment,” which would “reinvigorate the tax base in the city core.” On this front, I’d have to say they’ve made great strides. The plan also calls fro strong residential, retail and office segments with an emphasis on mixed use. It mentions “development outward from a strong core.” Essentially, these and the points that followed are things those of us who follow the city have heard before.

Bill Lyons, Downtown Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2013

Bill Lyons, Downtown Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2013

A couple of consecutive maps were included, showing “Downtown Redevelopment Areas.” I was a bit confused by the fact that while virtually all of downtown was neatly color coded and named, Locust Street from one end to the other was not. This stretch includes the downtown fire station, Chesapeake’s, Kendrick Place, the Masonic Temple, the UT Conference Center and the Hilton. It also includes current major redevelopment projects under discussion or under construction at the Old Supreme Court Site and the Medical Arts Building. It also includes all of Maplehurst. I’m not sure it matters, it just seemed odd.

A listing followed of the various downtown properties which have benefited from tax incentives, giving their value prior to redevelopment compared to their current value. That was probably the most impressive portion of the presentation, though none of these buildings are providing full revenue to the city because of the tax incentives. It would have been interesting to know the point at which some of the incentives end.

Slides about public infrastructure and investment outside the downtown core followed. Sales tax collections have increased 43% inside the downtown core, which appears to be about the same amount they have increased city-wide during the same ten-year period. And on it went. It’s an interesting presentation and I’d encourage you to follow the link and check it out. Dr. Lyons concluded by noting four challenges going forward: Maintaining Momentum, Design Concerns, Parking Strategy and Keeping the “Mix” in “Mixed-use.”

Mayor Rogero, Downtown Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2013

Mayor Rogero, Downtown Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2013

Joe Petre, Kim Henry, Tim Hill, Mark Heinz on a Panel at the Downtown Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2013

Joe Petre, Kim Henry, Tim Hill, Mark Heinz on a Panel at the Downtown Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2013

A panel discussion followed, with questions from a moderator. The panel included Joe Petre, Kim Henry, Tim Hill and Mark Heinz. Joe, Tim and Mark are developers and Kim is a downtown resident who has been on the Downtown Design Review Board. I do wonder if it might have been interesting to have a business owner and, perhaps someone else on the panel to make it not as heavy toward developers. Still, it was interesting and several notable statements were made in the course of answering the questions.

Tim Hill, noting that residential demand is currently outpacing supply, seemed to question whether that will be true after the “500” or so units currently planned are added to the mix. He also said retail is still in its infancy in the city and that he expects retail to start taking back some of the restaurant space at some point. I found that to be a fascinating thought. Mark pitched in that the loss of office space over the last several years (to residential conversions) may cause us a problem down the line as demand for office space increases. Joe Petre said that 90,000 square feet of business space had been leased in the last year, which surprised me. It was mentioned later that the current vacancy rate for office space is 14%, which seems pretty good, to me.

Kim Henry and Joe Petre each noted that linkages from the center city to the areas just out of downtown will be important and Mr. Petre highlighted the importance of the Urban Wilderness in getting people to come here and to stay. Tim Hill mentioned the good things happening on the 500 block of North Gay. Kim also noted that we need new guidelines on downtown demolitions.

The audience was given a few minutes to ask questions of the panel and Kim Trent (of Knox Heritage) asked that they discuss the role of historic buildings and historic tax credits in redevelopment. Mark Heinz noted that it is the downtown stock of great old buildings that have brought us this far. He made the point that tourists like the old buildings and that of the redevelopments downtown, there have been ninety in old buildings and there has been one new construction: a parking garage.

Downtown Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2013

Downtown Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2013

Rick Emmit then spoke before the floor was opened to questions for a few minutes again at the end. He mentioned a couple of interesting coming attractions to downtown: Water fountains (a high tech, new kind allowing for water bottles to be filled and dogs to be watered!?!) and public restrooms. I only blogged about that a year and a half ago. He also talked quite a bit about the Jackson Avenue ramp and the Broadway viaduct each of which he said could be undertaken in “2016/2017.” Regarding the Jackson Terminal project he mentioned a brewery and, perhaps, a winery. He also said that a winery was interested in the depots on Depot with plans to have food trucks and wine pairings. Depot as a development area was highly touted.

Various people expressed concerns ranging from the need for more two bedroom homes downtown for families to a concern that the mission district will thwart any development in that area. There is a new Roundtable on Homelessness that was mentioned and the fact that KARM has a new courtyard intended to give the homeless population a place to hang out that is not in the middle of Broadway.

Downtown Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2013

Downtown Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2013

Finally, one other notable comment came from Finbarr Saunders, God love him, who brought up the potential for Broadway/Henley to be a beautiful boulevard, rather than a speedway. Of course, that was discussed thoroughly in this space over two and a half years ago. I wish him the best, but I can’t imagine that’s going to happen. We could get nothing going for it then even though the bridge closure presented the perfect opportunity. Still, I’d join a movement to discuss it again, should one emerge.

My biggest take-away from the evening wasn’t a particular piece of development information or a fact about a coming attraction. It was that two or three hundred people wanted to talk about the city on a Tuesday night. And I have to say they had more questions and comments than the time allotted. I think both the heavy attendance and the number of questions begs for another summit in the not too distant future and I think that one should have the time proportions reversed: 10% presentations from the city and 90% listening to and answering the people gathered.

Broadband in Downtown Knoxville: Reality for Some, Dream for Others

Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, April 2013

Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, April 2013

I hope you all enjoyed what has to get the “Most Incredible Weather” award for downtown Knoxville in many months. And what a perfect weekend for it to start! With a downtown marathon as well as many shorter races, a chalk walk, Rhythm and Blooms and many other events which depended on being outside much of the time, it could not have been better.

I’ll have more to say on the weekend as the week advances, but I want to start the week with some unfinished business from last week. Last Thursday night at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center on Market Square, a about seventy-five people met

Bill Lyons, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, April 2013

Bill Lyons, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, April 2013

to discuss Broadband Internet Availability in the downtown area. Bill Lyons hosted the meeting on behalf of the city and began with a statement that Chattanooga’s broadband situation does not apply to Knoxville. The incredible speeds they’ve achieved throughout the city are not necessary for our situation and they are extremely expensive, carrying a cost of three to five million dollars.

He suggested that the question actually on the table for this meeting is, “What are the obstacles to delivering high-speed Internet to all addresses downtown and how can these obstacles be overcome?” To answer these questions and contribute to the conversation, representatives were assembled for many of the stakeholders in such a question. Present were Bill Lyons, Rick Emmett, Jesse Mayshark and Madeline Rogero (who did not enter the conversation) from the city, as well as representatives from Connected TN, Comcast, KUB, ATandT and others. Art Carmichael, who had loudly raised the issue on Facebook, continued to raise his voice to ask difficult questions and various businesses downtown were represented by people like Ian Blackburn from AC Entertainment.

Broadband Meeting at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, April 2013

Broadband Meeting at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, April 2013

The obstacles appear to be conduit that is maxed out beneath the city streets, poor data connections into various buildings in the city and questionable wiring going into the buildings. Michael Haynes raised the question of what is being done to make sure that new construction or renovation includes adequate infrastructure to provide for data needs so that we don’t add to the mess. The answer appears to be that we are doing nothing to make sure the problems aren’t perpetuated.

Rick Emmett, speaking for the City of Knoxville, said that efforts are made whenever city streets have to be excavated to add whatever data infrastructure is needed to that spot. The result of this effort and many years of development downtown has left a patchwork of good and bad areas for data access. A couple of maps were displayed which illustrated some of the best and worst served areas. The projected map was from Connected TN and shows only residential issues.

This raised another point, with some participants seeming to suggest that businesses are taken care of adequately and the only problem is residential, caused mostly by buildings and internal construction that could not have anticipated modern data needs. Others disagreed. Even Jesse Mayshark, who currently works with the city, acknowledged that the broadband service to his former employer, the Metropulse, with offices in the Burwell Building, above the Tennessee Theatre, does not have the speed delivered that would be desired to run a modern media company. Ian Blackburn of AC Entertainment echoed the sentiment for their business, which is located in the Conley Building.

The Comcast representative insisted that they work with any building owner who requests higher speed or better service, indicating that they have “letters of intent with five buildings,” currently on file. He pointed out, however, that “return on investment” ultimately determines what they are willing to do. Countering some of what was being implied, he said that businesses downtown do not typically pay more for service and has adequate availability in the downtown area.

Art Carmichael and Courtney Bergmeier, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, Arpil 2013

Art Carmichael and Cortney Piper, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, Arpil 2013

Art and Cortney Piper of Piper Communications suggested that the business picture isn’t so clear. Ms. Piper stated that she was told by Comcast that they can’t get permission to access the KUB easement to do what is necessary to fix the Conley Building – a contention that the Comcast representative hotly denied. Art pointed out an instance of an estimated eleven month build-out for high speed access and noted that would be a deal-breaker for many small businesses. There seemed to follow some agreement that smaller businesses might have a harder time.

Agreement was also reached that inadequate information is available as to who has the issues downtown and what the problems might be. A survey seemed to be in the offing with the involvement of CBID and mapping of the results by Connected TN. I wondered (to myself only) if CBID or anyone else really has the capacity to contact most of the downtown residents.

Finally, Ian Blackburn may have come up with the winning idea: Wireless access throughout downtown. He even suggested a company which does excellent work in Asheville. He insists that Skyrunner, a small company based in that city, does amazing things with data availability and could likely do the same for downtown Knoxville. Rick Emmett agreed to talk with them on behalf of the city to see how much cost would be involved and whether such an idea is logistically possible.

It certainly seems as if it should be. The idea would be to mount transmitters on some of the highest buildings around downtown. It would not be a free service, but would circumvent the need for conduit and cable in the ground. It would not necessarily change internal building issues, but it would be a start. I also spoke to Rick about the possibility of a free wireless signal to Market Square which seems like a no-brainer, to me. He said that has been discussed, but simply not implemented.

So, while some of us are doing fine, some are struggling with data availability. It is no longer a luxury, however, that some can comfortably enjoy while others go wanting. It’s a necessity as business and personal data needs increase and, in fact, become increasingly intertwined.