It’s a building that most people probably drive past without much thought. Clearly having seen better days, store-fronts sit empty. Windows are busted out on the floors above. I’ve heard it called “ugly.”
I first remember noticing it when walking around downtown in 2009, just after we moved into the center city. I believe a cleaner and travel shop were still open. I needed to fax something and I was disappointed the copy shop had closed and realized there was no place downtown for a member of the public to send a fax. But it was cool to note this unfamiliar street (to me at the time) had a small cluster of retail.
The next time I remember thinking about the building was when a friend mentioned that he wished he could buy it, feeling it had tremendous re-development potential. I couldn’t see it. I never see what developers see. But the conversation upgraded my estimation of the building.
Ironically, the next time I remember hearing about the building, it was from representatives of the current owner, Mike Conley, and the person who now wants to tear it down. I say it was ironic because they convinced me through their presentation that night, that the building was even more valuable than I had realized. It was a parking garage from around the 1920’s and was built by Pryor Brown on the site of his former livery stable. The gentlemen, who came seeking several hundred thousand dollars for repairs, noted that it originally parked carriages, though that claim seems somewhat in question.
Clearly, according to them, this precious historical property needed to be saved. CBID declined to give them the money they wanted and less than three months later they had decided that this “precious piece of Knoxville history” needed to be leveled because it was unsafe for habitation, beyond repair and simply an impediment to what we really need more of in the city: quality surface parking.
After being denied permission to proceed with their plans by the Downtown Design Review Board, they appealed to the Metropolitan Planning Commission who also declined. Attorney Arthur Seymour, who also represented St. John’s in their successful effort to demolish the buildings on Walnut last year and whose name often appears when someone wants to tear a building down, threatened to sue saying that the Downtown Design Review Board had no legal authority over demolitions. Inexplicably, the city’s administration immediately stripped them of the authority, seeming to give into the pressure without a fight.
That removed, the only thing remaining was approval of their proposed use: a surface parking lot to extend the one already in existence on their property, thereby giving us a full city block of paved surface. That use was denied by the Downtown Design Review Board and the Metropolitan Planning Commission. The city council refused to change that position and my understanding is Authur Seymour is suing on behalf of the owners.
Several pieces of this are hard to understand, at the least, and maddening at the worst. Mike Conley says he has long-range plans for the property. This has to be seen in the context, set beautifully by Jack Neely last March. Noting that the Pryor Brown Garage is one of the oldest in the country, he pointed out that it has served as a model of a mixed use garage – something Knoxville has sometimes attended to and other times, such as the development now planned on Walnut, pretty much ignored.
In a more recent piece, Neely points out that Mike Conley has owned the property since the 1990’s and in 1996 got permission to ignore downtown guidelines for fencing, etc. because his surface parking lot would simply be an “interim use.” So when he says he has “plans” one has to wonder.
Additionally, Conley owns significant property on the south side of the river, just behind the Suttree Park development being funded this year with public money. In other words, he will make a large amount of money developing property that has been significantly increased in value by public funding on adjacent property. Does that not give the city any leverage?
Finally, and perhaps most frustrating, is the fact that four developers appear to have made offers to purchase and redevelop the property. The proposals would save the garage and, perhaps develop the rest of the block. I suppose Mr. Conley feels he or his family can make more money in the long term by holding the property. It appears civic duty doesn’t compel him to consider what’s good for the city.
I understand there may have been some progress made in a meeting yesterday between representatives of Knox Heritage, Mayor Rogero and other administrative representatives along with my councilman, Marshall Stair. I’m not sure what transpired, but it’s the first time I’ve heard there may be a way out that gives everyone something they can live with.
Until something is worked out, what can the city do? It could apply an H1 designation which is an historical overlay. The building is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historical Places and that designation could protect it. Please sign a petition to ask that Mayor Rogero proceed with that designation and use every option to prevent another downtown building from being lost.
In this situation, for sure, but in a larger sense, we need to encourage our council members, mayor and administration to make bold statements in favor of historic preservation. We need them to take action to prevent more surface parking downtown – as many other cities have done. Developers need to understand that, yes, they can make money by completing projects in the city, but they will be required to incorporate practices that benefit the city as we go forward. Some developers seem to be more influenced by civic duty than others.
This means no more surface parking lots. This means we must stop building boxes for cars with no other use. This means that we must be upgrading our stock of street-level retail space. It clearly means no demolitions unless something better will immediately replace what was lost.
We need the administration to draw a line in the sand. To make a bold statement. When I think of the preservation battles over the past year, I can’t recall a situation in which the city fought to prevent a demolition. Did the city lobby to stop the demolitions on Walnut? Is the city interested in preserving the homes in Fort Sanders which are now in peril? We need to see the vision our leaders have for guiding our center city to the next level. We are getting better, but we are a long way from home.
Now, please sign that petition, talk to your council member, get others to sign the petition and let’s get moving in a direction that will continue our positive momentum, not stall it.