I heard a piece on National Public Radio within the last few days that set me to thinking about holes. Specifically, the report was designed to take up space or a “hole” in the broadcast hour. The host pointed out that in any given hour a planned segment might fall through or the spots planned might not take as much time as anticipated, so the resulting emptiness is referred to as a “hole.” What to do? Well, they have requested that a reporter do a segment on holes to fill the holes. Black holes seem to draw the most attention, but in the report, the philosopher they chose to interview noted that not everyone believes holes even exist. The void, they might say, is really simply a nothingness between two somethings. So, a hole in the ground is nothing more than a gap between the earth. Nothing is there. The adherents to this perspective are the material philosophers.
The idea of holes in the city has crossed my mind a couple of times in the last week or so. Recently we’ve talked about some potential new holes in the landscape so many of us love. Most notably, if the buildings at 710 and 712 are knocked down by St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral a new hole in the city will emerge. If the Pryor Brown Garage is demolished, the mother of all holes will be located in the spot closest to our tallest buildings: An entire city block will be covered with pavement. Of course, this is nothing new as our downtown is pock-marked all over with surface parking lots which once held buildings of some usefulness, whether beautiful or more pedestrian. Each of these contributed to the life of the city and, of course bolstered the tax rolls in a way that parking lots will never contribute. Ironically one spot that could be called a hole is Market Square which once held a Market House. I suspect that’s one hole everyone would agree has worked out pretty well.
The gap in recent memory that most stings downtown residents is the hole – and one end is a literal indention in the earth – just across Union from the Tree and Vine, Nothing Too Fancy and Casual Pint. That spot contained the Sprankle Building until Home Federal tore it down to build a tower because they absolutely needed more space. Do you see a tower on that spot? Nope. It’s a hole in the city. I’ve thought for a long time that, while renovating and re-purposing our remaining buildings is important and I’m delighted every time it happens, I would really feel the city was back and hitting its groove when we start reversing the process and filling in our holes. To have barren space become productive, again, to link the pieces of our fragile few blocks together as was once the case and to add new properties to our tax rolls would signal a strength not seen in downtown in decades.
Recently, there has been some indication this could happen. Probably a year ago plans were announced to build a long-term stay hotel at the site of the former News Sentinel site at the intersection of Church and State. It is currently an abandoned empty hole just across the street from the Elliot, which had been an abandoned and abused building for many years but which has now become three floors of condos selling for around $350 K to 570 K. The top two floors are sold or pending, leaving only the bottom floor to be sold.
Months ago Buzz Goss proposed his plan for numerous apartments in the vast parking lot behind Mast General Store and recently the project took another step forward with the approval of tax incentives from the city. His ultimate plan would include mixed use of various sorts. More recently, the end of the block bounded by Locust, Summerplace and Walnut seems steadily headed for a parking garage which should also have some element of mixed use. Interestingly, this plays both ways: a hole is being filled, but another building is being torn down.
Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the old Supreme Court Building bounded by Cumberland, Henley, Church and Locust. A couple of different developers are vying for the right to turn the large parking lot and building into a large mixed-use building. One contains more apartments and commercial space while the other is much larger, leans more toward student housing and includes a hotel. That would be another hole filled.
This week has brought news of several purchases and potential development plans coming just the other side of the Old City. On Monday Josh Flory reported that Jeffrey Nash had purchased the property at the corner of Central and Magnolia. He has an option on the Battery Distributing Company building also on the tract, but the bulk of it is an ill-kept parking lot across from the Greyhound station. This is a critical corner in downtown’s spread north. It is across the street from the block of Magnolia that contains Tennessee Valley Bikes, Public House and Marie’s Tavern. It is one block north of the White Lily building which should begin accepting residents in the not-so-distant future.
It is also within sight of the old Knoxville High School building. Interestingly, that building was made available for development by the county just this past June and bids were received from three developers yesterday. The details of their projects have not been revealed, but one of the three is David Dewhirst who certainly has a track record of apartment and mixed use development in older buildings.
Following the announcement by Jeffrey Nash this week came an announcement that David Dewhirst and Mark Heinz would develop the buildings on that same block, thus connecting the White Lily building with the site of the potential Nash project. The Dewhirst/Heinz project, comprised of two buildings, promises eighteen residential units and more than three commercial spaces.
Just around the corner, to the west down Depot sits the remaining portion of the Industrial Belts and Supply Building with the hole created by the fire last March and just beyond that is the Regas parking lot and building which begins to look more attractive when you consider that development is closing in around it. So, the sum of all these parts is that I’m more optimistic that we may be on the verge of filling holes around the city. However, it hasn’t happened, yet. All these potential projects are just that until earth is broken – or in most of these cases, pavement. What do you think? Are we on the verge of a big hole-filling era downtown or will these plans fade like so many before them? Which holes downtown would you like to see filled?