There aren’t that many city blocks in the immediate area of downtown Knoxville. Given that we are bounded by a natural barrier on one side, the Tennessee River, and we’ve erected boundaries in the other three directions, Henley Street, the Interstate and James White Parkway, we don’t have many options for growth outside our small grid. This makes every block and every project in this small area very important.
The block in question today is the one bounded by Henley, Church, Locust and Cumberland. That site once boasted a 150 room hotel built in 1923. Originally apartments, it converted to a hotel and operated as such until 1964 when the state decided to demolish it for a needed expansion. An expansion that never happened and became a great surface parking lot. Have you seen that movie before? For the full story, wonderfully told, go to my friend John’s great blog Knoxville Lost and Found. He has detailed pictures and the complete back story.
The building which shares the parking lot on that block is the former Supreme Court Building. Erected in 1954 in a style different that that of most of downtown, it is no longer in use and has been a source of some concern for that reason. The city, hoping to save the building and improve the lot of this city block, offered to take bids and proposals from developers.
Josh Flory gives a good description of the various bids. Five bids were submitted before the deadline and a city committee ranked them from the project they give the highest marks on down the list. The bids now move – with the committee’s recommendation to the Industrial Development Board which will take up the issue at its 5:00 meeting today at 17 Market Square.
At first blush, I thought any of the first three sounded fine to me. They each include apartments, retail and a parking garage. The fourth proposal, brought by Nick Cazana is for a mix of condos and a larger portion of office space. This seems strange given that office space is languishing downtown leading an adjacent building, the Medical Arts Building, to be converted from office space to apartments even as this new project is being discussed. I assume the fifth place project is in fifth place for a reason.
That left me to look at the top three one more time. A second reading made me notice that Josh had done some digging to find that Collegiate Ventures is one of the backers of the leading proposal. The contact person for that company is the same person who was behind the disastrous Gameday Condo Project. Unpaid taxes, maintenance issues, accounting irregularities and widespread disenchantment led to a fiasco in that situation.
So, I became concerned, but then a friend brought up the same company and pointed out that the concept they are proposing is less urban-oriented and more student oriented. There’s a difference. They are working with another company, Academic Privatization, a company whose website proclaims they represent “excellence in collegiate student housing.” I read their proposal and one other thing jumped out at me: they referred to downtown’s “Disney clean and friendly downtown environment.” Disney is pretend. Downtown is not pretend. I did not care for that characterization. I do like the fact that they proposed another pedestrian bridge, but if they didn’t fulfill their promises on a previous development, why think they would this time? You can read the full proposal here.
The second proposal is The Henley and it is offered by BNA Associates, which is Philip Welker and Ethan Orley. You can read their full proposal here. You may think the names associated with this proposal sound familiar. That would probably be because they also have a track record which may be examined: the Hotel Oliver. I’ve never heard anyone say a negative word about that project and according to the documents they submitted, they’ve been waiting for an opportunity such as this one in Knoxville.
They are proposing a 376 car garage, over 200 apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail space. Retail would line Henley and Church while the frontage on Locust would be residential. The parking would only be exposed on Cumberland. Specifically addressing the college housing issue, they note that their approach, while it may appeal to some college students, is to make The Henley more consistent with an urban environment and architecturally consistent with the buildings around it.
I wasn’t able to find and read the third proposal, but according to Josh’s article, it includes, “20,000 square feet of retail space and 150 apartments and a 480-space parking garage.” Of interest here is that Buzz Goss is the primary force behind this proposal. He is local and, as is the case with Mr. Orley and Mr. Welker, he has a proven track record. He is also steadily moving toward a first phase of development just off Gay Street which would also convert a parking lot to residential and retail space.
I’m not sure how much weight the committee’s recommendation will carry. Perhaps it will be rubber stamped. I’m also not sure what they were thinking. Did they know about the developer’s association with the Gameday project? It seems to have been a bit obscured in the documentation, so there is a chance they did not.
In any case, we have a chance to take an abandoned building and save it. We have a chance to take a surface parking lot into something useful and attractive. Given the pace at which some local parties are requesting to continue knocking down buildings to make more paved surfaces, we best seize any opportunity to do the opposite. We may be on the verge of an exciting new phase in downtown development. If we mess it up, it may be a long time before we get the chance again. I hope the Board makes a wise, thoughtful decision.
Why not join me to watch the drama unfold? You might even want to express an opinion. 5:00 PM, 17 Market Square