A Conversation with Buzz Goss and Jeffrey Nash About Marble Alley and Downtown Knoxville

Rendering of the Proposed Marble Alley Lofts, Knoxville, March 2013

Rendering of the Proposed Marble Alley Lofts, Knoxville, March 2013

I sent an e-mail to Buzz Goss asking for an interview to which he readily agreed and we sat down together at Sapphire. I found him to be open, direct and passionate. Later in our conversation we were joined by Jeffrey Nash, owner of Crown and Goose, who was invited by Mr. Goss, who noted of Mr. Nash, how much he had learned from “listening to this man talk.” And talk, we did. It was an interesting hour and a half.

The Marble Alley Project was originally proposed by Mr. Goss in 2009 and included ten buildings starting at the opening just north of Mast General Store and moving east and a bit north, bending toward the Old City and connecting the two. The project involved, “at least 150,000 square feet of retail space; 100,000 square feet or more of commercial and office space; and 200,000 or more square feet of residential space.”

Immediately, a  number of people said it would never happen. The economy hit its low point that very same spring and such an ambitious project seemed to many to be fanciful at the least. In the four years that have passed, Marble Alley has been mentioned rarely, though there was a bit of a false start in 2011. The massive parking lot behind Mast General Store and bordering Commerce, Central, Union and State street has been noted for accepting some overflow from the State Street Garage and not much more.

I wondered how it felt to be hit with disbelief in an ambitious undertaking such as Marble Alley. Mr. Goss indicated it was of no concern to him that people thought the project would not happen. If they questioned his character, he said that would bother him, but if they thought him a bit deluded, he didn’t care. Instead of worrying about his critics, he’s quietly spent the last four years working with investors to raise, not just capital, but faith in Knoxville. Investors in cities in the north and Atlanta know the Nashville story, but not so much the quieter Knoxville story.

“Nashville,” he said, “Differs from Knoxville,” in some respects simply because of luck. Whereas our remaining older buildings have been conducive to building out condos, theirs were not. This forced them to turn to new construction. When the downturn hit, one of the major projects underway in Nashville, with 250 units, went bankrupt with only about forty units sold. The other 210 just happened to be the right size for rentals, they were bought, immediately rented and a population boom began in that city. We didn’t have the capacity to immediately fill the demand for rentals in Knoxville, so we fell a bit behind.

Jeffrey Nash and Buzz Goss, Knoxville, March 2013

Jeffrey Nash and Buzz Goss, Knoxville, March 2013

One question that he addressed was the extent of the likely demand for downtown housing. Apparently, a generally accepted current rule-of-thumb is that three percent of an area’s population is interested in an urban environment. In Knox County, with a population of about 350,000, that would yield over 10,000 potential residents for downtown, roughly five times the current number. He noted, “Even taking a conservative number such as one percent, the demand would nearly double the size of downtown.”

So, after all these years, what brings this up, now? An announcement last Friday brought the news that a major development is planned for the massive paved lot behind Mast General Store and across from the State Street Garage. It will be called Marble Alley Lofts and is slated to include 238 apartments, a 350 car garage and a pool. The layout of the project indicates that the substation located there will remain as will the empty corner of Union and State.

The time-table calls for construction to begin later in 2013 and completion of the project in 2015. HUD financing is involved and this appears to be a critical component. It’s important to note that this has nothing to do with low-income or subsidized housing that some people think of when they hear “HUD.” In this case, the federal agency simply removes some of the risk from the banks involved, which makes them more likely to loan money to the project.

When I asked how certain he is that this will actually happen, he said, “ninety-five percent.” He mentioned the HUD portion of the financing as an example of what could produce the five percent outcome. Still, he seems convinced that this is going to become reality and is already at work to secure the next stage of the project.

And what is that next stage? Remember the empty corner of State and Union mentioned above? It is set to become a retail structure of some sort. Mr. Goss did not want to be specific on this point as he is still working with potential backers, but he seems to believe that this corner of the block could be configured to yield as much as 200,000 square feet of retail space, or “roughly the equivalent of all the first floor spaces on Market Square.”

State Street Parking Lot, Knoxville, May 2011

State Street Parking Lot, Knoxville, May 2011

I pressed the question of the isolation of this retail patch from all the others and he indicated that with the massive amount of space, it becomes its own retail district. Additionally, he pointed to the foot traffic from all of the new residents as they walk toward the rest of the downtown area, as well as the foot traffic from the State Street Garage. Just to be able to say to an investor that this new retail space will be on the same street as and a couple of blocks from Urban Outfitters, he feels will make investment much more likely.

So, what’s next? That’s where Mr. Nash, who is unabashedly positive about Knoxville weighed in. Given the increased density of population this project along with others such as the Medical Arts and White Lily Buildings will engender, he feels there will be two trends. First, a surge in necessary businesses for daily life, such as a pharmacy, hardware store, cellular phone store and others. He points out that if a person needs a light bulb downtown, they need a little luck at Jay’s Megamart. If an out of town guest forgot to pack some essentials, they are unable to make small purchases as one might make at a pharmacy.

Second, he feels transportation will scurry to catch up with the new population and their needs to move about the larger city, making public transportation more likely to become a viable option in Knoxville. Neither man regarded the boundaries of downtown as set by the Interstate, James White Parkway, Henley Street and the river as being problematic. In fact, they see it as a modest asset in the sense that it defines the downtown neighborhood. London and Paris have major divisions, as well, but each functions as a distinct, though interconnected, unit. They feel downtown Knoxville will evolve in the same way.

Finally, an anecdote from London that may well someday apply to the United States and, eventually, Knoxville. We talked about the fact that Americans expect to be able to park their cars in front of the door to whatever destination they have in mind. The damage this has done to our city is obvious in the valuable wasted space due to the proximity of the Interstate to the center city and the massive parking lots downtown which once featured thriving buildings.

Mr. Nash noted that in London fifty years ago the standard was that any parcel of land set for development had to be apportioned one third for retail or residential and two thirds of the parcel had to be set aside for parking. The current standard for development in London, just enacted in the last fifteen years or so is that the entire parcel must be developed with nothing allotted for automobiles, the idea being that the space is too precious and public transportation should be used to arrive at the destination.

After an hour and a half, my head was spinning from the wealth of urban planning and development knowledge the two men are able to marshal. There may be a question of whether some plan or another hatched by them may reach fruition. There can be no question that they believe Knoxville has a very bright future and they are excited to be a part of it.