News of a downtown summit spread quickly through downtown residents and business owners. For the last couple of weeks it has consumed many a sidewalk conversation. Who would be included? Whose perspective would be heard? Would it be of benefit or simply be another meeting in a seemingly endless series of downtown meetings of various sorts? By the time the curtain lifted (figuratively) at the East Tennessee History Center, several hundred people had converged to find out just what was up.
The meeting started with an introduction by Bill Lyons, followed by opening remarks from Mayor Rogero and then a presentation by Bill Lyons. The presentation covered the city’s Strategy for Downtown, which is viewable on the city’s website. It included such things as moving the center city from “disinvestment to investment,” which would “reinvigorate the tax base in the city core.” On this front, I’d have to say they’ve made great strides. The plan also calls fro strong residential, retail and office segments with an emphasis on mixed use. It mentions “development outward from a strong core.” Essentially, these and the points that followed are things those of us who follow the city have heard before.
A couple of consecutive maps were included, showing “Downtown Redevelopment Areas.” I was a bit confused by the fact that while virtually all of downtown was neatly color coded and named, Locust Street from one end to the other was not. This stretch includes the downtown fire station, Chesapeake’s, Kendrick Place, the Masonic Temple, the UT Conference Center and the Hilton. It also includes current major redevelopment projects under discussion or under construction at the Old Supreme Court Site and the Medical Arts Building. It also includes all of Maplehurst. I’m not sure it matters, it just seemed odd.
A listing followed of the various downtown properties which have benefited from tax incentives, giving their value prior to redevelopment compared to their current value. That was probably the most impressive portion of the presentation, though none of these buildings are providing full revenue to the city because of the tax incentives. It would have been interesting to know the point at which some of the incentives end.
Slides about public infrastructure and investment outside the downtown core followed. Sales tax collections have increased 43% inside the downtown core, which appears to be about the same amount they have increased city-wide during the same ten-year period. And on it went. It’s an interesting presentation and I’d encourage you to follow the link and check it out. Dr. Lyons concluded by noting four challenges going forward: Maintaining Momentum, Design Concerns, Parking Strategy and Keeping the “Mix” in “Mixed-use.”
A panel discussion followed, with questions from a moderator. The panel included Joe Petre, Kim Henry, Tim Hill and Mark Heinz. Joe, Tim and Mark are developers and Kim is a downtown resident who has been on the Downtown Design Review Board. I do wonder if it might have been interesting to have a business owner and, perhaps someone else on the panel to make it not as heavy toward developers. Still, it was interesting and several notable statements were made in the course of answering the questions.
Tim Hill, noting that residential demand is currently outpacing supply, seemed to question whether that will be true after the “500” or so units currently planned are added to the mix. He also said retail is still in its infancy in the city and that he expects retail to start taking back some of the restaurant space at some point. I found that to be a fascinating thought. Mark pitched in that the loss of office space over the last several years (to residential conversions) may cause us a problem down the line as demand for office space increases. Joe Petre said that 90,000 square feet of business space had been leased in the last year, which surprised me. It was mentioned later that the current vacancy rate for office space is 14%, which seems pretty good, to me.
Kim Henry and Joe Petre each noted that linkages from the center city to the areas just out of downtown will be important and Mr. Petre highlighted the importance of the Urban Wilderness in getting people to come here and to stay. Tim Hill mentioned the good things happening on the 500 block of North Gay. Kim also noted that we need new guidelines on downtown demolitions.
The audience was given a few minutes to ask questions of the panel and Kim Trent (of Knox Heritage) asked that they discuss the role of historic buildings and historic tax credits in redevelopment. Mark Heinz noted that it is the downtown stock of great old buildings that have brought us this far. He made the point that tourists like the old buildings and that of the redevelopments downtown, there have been ninety in old buildings and there has been one new construction: a parking garage.
Rick Emmit then spoke before the floor was opened to questions for a few minutes again at the end. He mentioned a couple of interesting coming attractions to downtown: Water fountains (a high tech, new kind allowing for water bottles to be filled and dogs to be watered!?!) and public restrooms. I only blogged about that a year and a half ago. He also talked quite a bit about the Jackson Avenue ramp and the Broadway viaduct each of which he said could be undertaken in “2016/2017.” Regarding the Jackson Terminal project he mentioned a brewery and, perhaps, a winery. He also said that a winery was interested in the depots on Depot with plans to have food trucks and wine pairings. Depot as a development area was highly touted.
Various people expressed concerns ranging from the need for more two bedroom homes downtown for families to a concern that the mission district will thwart any development in that area. There is a new Roundtable on Homelessness that was mentioned and the fact that KARM has a new courtyard intended to give the homeless population a place to hang out that is not in the middle of Broadway.
Finally, one other notable comment came from Finbarr Saunders, God love him, who brought up the potential for Broadway/Henley to be a beautiful boulevard, rather than a speedway. Of course, that was discussed thoroughly in this space over two and a half years ago. I wish him the best, but I can’t imagine that’s going to happen. We could get nothing going for it then even though the bridge closure presented the perfect opportunity. Still, I’d join a movement to discuss it again, should one emerge.
My biggest take-away from the evening wasn’t a particular piece of development information or a fact about a coming attraction. It was that two or three hundred people wanted to talk about the city on a Tuesday night. And I have to say they had more questions and comments than the time allotted. I think both the heavy attendance and the number of questions begs for another summit in the not too distant future and I think that one should have the time proportions reversed: 10% presentations from the city and 90% listening to and answering the people gathered.