Those were the basic questions discussed by a group of around 130 people last night at the Standard on Jackson Avenue at the first meeting of the Downtown Urban Design Forum. Buzz Goss, one of the panel members, noted the irony of discussing Knoxville’s future in the (former) shadows of the McClung Warehouses which no longer sit across Jackson Avenue.
The meeting was organized by Mark Schimmenti, UT architecture professor (and UF graduate). The discussion was billed as a round-table discussion on developing Knoxville’s future. The crowd was invited to join the conversation and that happened to an extent. The panel members represented some of the most interesting partners in downtown development and their comments filled most of the time. The panel consisted of Mark Heinz (developer and architect), Jack Neely (Metro Pulse, Knoxville’s Historian), Jeffrey Nash (owner of Crown and Goose and developer), Rick Emmett (Downtown Coordinator), Stephen Dupree (Downtown Provocateur), Buzz Goss (Marble Alley Developer), Mark Carberry(Metropolitan Planning Commission) and Kim Trent (Executive Director of Knox Heritage).
There was some dry conversation and a bit of wonk-speak, but there were also some interesting points made. The initial question was, “What does Knoxville need?” which many of you will recognize as a recurring series in Metro Pulse. Mark Heinz suggested we need a grocery store, more parking and light rail. I’ll agree with two of the three but, of course, one of those is a fantasy. He added that Knoxville needs to continue growing steadily as it has in the last ten years.
Jack Neely pointed out that many of the things we now say we need downtown existed, not in the distant past, but during the time people talked about downtown being abandoned. He said that during what people refer to as the dead period downtown had two pharmacies, a full-service grocery store and an electronics store – three of the things most anyone would now name as missing during our resurgence. Try as I might, I can’t remember any of those things being downtown in the eighties or early nineties.
Jeffrey Nash who is from London, but has been a part of Knoxville development for fourteen years, noted that the most encouraging trend he sees is the influx of massive out-of-town investment that is just now starting. Millions have been spent on projects over the last ten or more years, but the new influx will be in the tens of millions – money that can only come from larger investors from other cities. His point of emphasis for what we need is infrastructure. He said improvement of sidewalks, landscaping and the provision of high-speed Internet will show prospective investors that we care about our city.
Rick Emmett pointed out that the city has fairly aggressive plans to improve infrastructure – including some in the Old City. He predicted the next four years will be transformative and encouraged everyone to maintain their optimism even in the face of the occasional mis-steps or set-backs. Kim Trent built on is point to note that we should not take this time for granted, but should both cherish and work to extend it.
She made another interesting point and I’ll be honest, it’s one that I’ve been thinking about lately. She likened us to a debutante – not surprising since she shares with me a most traditional southern hometown in Mobile, Alabama. She said we need to up our dance card by which she meant that a lot of outsiders and developers are going to come calling now that we’ve achieved so much momentum. They will want public help in the form of TIFs (Tax Increment Financing) and that the city should expect more from developers and their projects in return, such as better designs that will carry the city forward, not just help the developers to make money.
Buzz Goss noted that Gay Street as we know it is about the fourth generation of buildings along that street. He asserted that we need to accept that some buildings will be lost, but that our focus should be on what we get in their place. General skepticism was expressed around the room as to what we get when a building is knocked down in downtown because we generally get a parking lot or a patch of grass if not a parking garage. Others suggested that sometimes we get something better. Bill Lyons noted that we lost a small former Chamber of Commerce building to gain he Transit Center, a structure that has claimed awards for reclaiming space over James White Parkway and for incorporating so many green features.
Mayor Rogero spoke briefly, emphasizing the importance of neighborhoods
Some interesting discussion centered around the nature of new structures downtown which disdain expressed for bland suburban structures and an emphasis on quality construction. Kaye Graybeal and others noted that new construction needs to be in the style of today rather than an attempted imitation of the era of Gay Street currently represented in the hundred-year-old buildings there.
A bit of back and forth centered around Marble Alley which some people feel should include retail on street level. Buzz pointed out, as he has in the past, that right now we need more residents downtown to make retail more possible. John Sanders questioned the economics of the next step – getting new construction to make sense for developers.
Finally, I think Kim Trent hit on another key point, related to her earlier statement. She said we “have to believe we are good enough” for the next phase of development to work. Self-perception can doom us to think small and accept second-rate development or it can help us demand and expect the best. It is important that we begin to see the great assets we have rather than trying to be like other cities we perceive to be better than us.
If you would like to be a part of discussions going forward, you can join the group and the conversation here. There will be additional meetings in the future. Mark Schimmenti noted that he’d expected thirty people and we had, by his count, one hundred and thirty. That, or something very similar, seems to be repeated at every meeting about downtown that I attend. It may very well be a symptom of our inferiority complex – or simple low expectations – that will undermine or sell downtown development short if we don’t understand and take advantage of this moment in our history.