This morning at 9:30 in the Small Assembly Room in the City County Building, Scott and Bernadette West will present their request to the Historic Zoning Commission regarding the facade at 32 Market Square. This is their third attempt at gaining approval for their facade design. The major issue that seems to have stalled the approval is their request for a recessed balcony above the entrance to the building.
They note that three other buildings on the square have recessed balconies on their second floor and so, clearly, a precedent has been set. Recessed balconies, in fact, are common in historic districts in our region and all around the country. Additionally, they point out that the Federal Historic Guidelines and Market Square Design Guidelines do not preclude recessed balconies and, in fact, the Historic Zoning Commission has approved the recessed balcony at 19 – 21 Market Square in 2003, which is after the current guidlines were adopted. The document addresses entrances and porches and those comments could be seen to support the request.
Apparently, that isn’t all the support given to the Wests. Knox County’s representative argued for the proposal at the last meeting. City of Knoxville officials were supportive, as was Kay Gaybeal of the Metropolitan Planning Commission. Scott Schimmel and the Market District Association. Scott Schimmel is also a board member with Knox Heritage. So, where could this possibly go wrong?
Some members of the the HZC remain opposed to the design on the basis that it is inconsistent with the historic facade of the particular building. Of course, the current facade isn’t the one they reference. The current facade is poorly done, inconsistent with the historic facade (four windows instead of three) and dates only to 2004. Apparently, they feel the building should be restored to its 1926 appearance which included three windows fronting the second floor.
It’s interesting in light of the fact that so much has changed on the square since 1926. The Market House itself is gone, of course. And while some facades date to the early twentieth century, many do not. Aluminum and glass storefronts, the Bill Lyons Stage, street lamps and fountains did not exist in 1926.
It’s not the first time the Wests have encountered resistance to proposals for their buildings or businesses. Two years ago the controversy was over a roof-top patio – their current “Moonshine Roof Garden” at 28 Market Square. Some felt it might be too loud and disturb the activity below or that it would be visible and detracting to the appearance of the square. Of course, it’s much easier to hear the square from the roof rather than the opposite, particularly during some of the raucous events which happen in that space.
It’s hard to imagine that volume is the concern in this instance. The small number of people who would ever occupy the balcony surely would be no more distraction to those on the ground below than is the case from any of the other various balconies. So what is the issue? Is it simply that it is not precisely like the original facade even though it will be greatly improved from its current and, in fact, more consistent with the original facade than is now the case? Ironically, the Wests are not compelled to change the facade at all. They could simply leave it as it is even though any close inspection would reveal it is neither historic nor well done.
The other question that arises is whether the answer might be different if someone other than the Wests made the proposal. I don’t know the answer to that, obviously. I do feel strongly that each of the regulatory entities downtown have a difficult task when aspiring to impartiality regarding the complex questions that arise in these discussions.
Everyone knows everyone downtown and everyone knows everyone’s past. The people sitting in judgment on the various issues know the people they are judging. Do you treat your friends differently than your enemies? Often the decisions on these difficult issues are easily rationalized no matter which way they go. Whether it is CBID determining which developer will get the money or the MPC deciding who will get a zoning variance, you can bet that the various boards know the petitioners very well. Is it possible to remove personal bias?
In a tiny way, I face the same issue as I write this blog. I choose which businesses to write about, but do my friend’s businesses get more or better exposure? When writing about a friend’s business do I gloss over the flaws and do I give the same consideration to others? Do I say the same thing about my advertisers I would say if they were not giving me money? It gets complicated. The Wests and Preservation Pub, as an example, advertise on this web site.
The Wests are about as good an example of this issue as anyone. Some see them as heroes of downtown while others see them much more negatively. Any mention of them on Knoxnews.com brings out both their supporters and those who revile them. It’s hard to imagine those same attitudes, one way or the other, aren’t present on any committee or regulatory body they approach downtown. It makes any decision about their projects subject to second guesses. So, you be the judge. Should they get approval for this obvious upgrade to the building? Should they be denied unless they adhere to the original design of the building? Are they victims of old grudges and double standards or being held to the same rules as everyone else? Let me here what you think and I’ll let you know the decision.
Not related but important: Come to the block party tonight outside the Daylight Building on Union Avenue. Support businesses stretching the downtown business footprint. From 5:00 to 8:00 the street will be filled with Food Trucks and entertainment. Special deals will abound.