Many of you, no doubt, heard the recent news that the former Regas Restaurant Building sold to a developer. As development moves in this direction, there are reasons to be optimistic that it will connect via Gay with Emory Place and Broadway. We’ve recently looked at the development snaking its way out Central toward Broadway on a roughly parallel path. But the area is a bit sketchy, so will it work?
It’s interesting to note that the first time development hit the area it was met with some skepticism. The year was 1910 and according to John Weaver’s great article on what we now call Regas Square, when Clay Atkin built the Atkin Hotel on what is now the parking lot at the corner of Depot and Gay it was a real stretch to believe it could be viable on the outskirts of downtown development. It worked very well for many years and, perhaps, so will the latest development on the site.
Regas Restaurant actually inhabited two buildings. The main entrance opened into a newer construction, but a few feet from the door customers moved into an older portion of the building. This building was once several stories tall and housed the Watauga Hotel. The bottom floor is all that remains of the original building. It is clearly different from the front portion and boasts a few architecturally interesting details including a marble arch facing Gay Street. Interestingly, close observation reveals that more of the original façade is likely hidden beneath a covering added, probably, during the Regas Restaurant era.
So, the entire block, minus a small portion on the northeastern corner, has been sold. The name of the developer as well as the developer’s intention has been kept quiet, so far. If anyone reading this knows what’s up and would just love to reveal your secrets, email me at KnoxvilleUrbanGuy@gmail.com. It seems a bit perilous, not only because this stretches the outer rings of downtown a bit, but also because I hope the small remnant of the old hotel is preserved. It’s the only remaining historic structure on the block. I’m hoping it’s preserved and the parking lot becomes a vibrant building. I can hope.
Across Gay Street on that block, a picturesque row of buildings already has a bit of life going on. The Theatre Knoxville Downtown holds about fifty patrons and boasts a nearly forty-year history. Businesses and apartments fill the other buildings. Broadway is only a block to the west and looking east down Magnolia, Tennessee Valley Bikes and the Public House are about a block away.
Just beyond them, of course, sits the corner of Magnolia and Central which was recently purchased by Jeffrey Nash. It is within sight (under the Interstate) of Knoxville High School which should be developed in the near future, though a final vote on its future was delayed by a month due to concerns about its use. The recommended plan involves senior housing and, while I questioned the practicality of the location for that use, others have questioned whether that is the proper link between downtown and Broadway.
Meanwhile, just north of Regas is the Interstate, unfortunately bisecting the city where businesses used to continue the streetscape on the 400 block of North Gay. The city currently provides parking there behind a sturdy fence. The street on the other side of the Interstate is currently undergoing a facelift, with street parking and the same type of old-fashioned street lights seen all down the length of Gay.
The 500 block has its obstacles to development. The Knoxville Area Rescue Mission holds the building on the southwestern corner of the block and a used car business behind high fencing sits opposite it. That said, the buildings on the western side of the street are attractive and contain Clayton’s Wholesale Furniture and Auto Technicians, both vibrant businesses. I’m told the folks at Auto Technicians are very good at what they do.
Just past the 500 block of North Gay is Fifth Avenue. To the west, Broadway sits one block away with two attractive buildings on the block. Minvilla is across Broadway at that intersection. To the east sits an attractive Church, a home that once was owned by the Sterchi family and another with the name “Lucerne” on the front. Both are very attractive homes which, I’m assuming, are sub-divided into apartments or condos. The Lucerne Building holds condos and at least one of them is for sale. (Updated: I deleted the word “not” from the “attractive homes” sentence, because I assume they are divided into apartments. I also updated the Lucerne Building sentence based on an email I received from a reader. Much thanks.)
Moving north on Gay, past Fifth Avenue, the 600 block hosts another row of attractive buildings on the western side. A bakery, among other things, inhabits the block. As you follow Gay past the 600 block, the road ends into Emory Place which includes a number of very attractive buildings, some in use and others seemingly vacant. St. John’s Lutheran Church also sits on one end of the semi-square. It’s an extremely attractive spot. And it’s around the corner from Knoxville High School. See how this all fits together nicely?
So, it appears risky, a bit sketchy, but it seemed that way a hundred years ago, as well. It seems likely all these threads will weave together eventually, though not necessarily without fits and starts. The concentration of homeless individuals who linger near, around and in the middle of Broadway and wander this stretch of Gay presents a challenge for businesses interested in the area.
But this type area also offers the opportunity of cheaper rents than downtown proper and that’s a good thing for a new business. I don’t know what’s going on at the old Regas site (email me!), but I do know a new endeavor hoping to get a start on the 500 Block of North Gay Street. It’s pretty exciting. I’ll give you an inside look early next week. So, what do you think? Will it work? Is it crazy like Mr. Atkin a hundred years ago?