I’m going to defer the second installment of the Fourth and Gill Home Tour in order to open up some weekend conversation about the Jackson Avenue redevelopment. I posted a dramatic proposal from a reader a couple of weeks ago which generated a good bit of conversation.
This is a dramatic proposal, as well, but this one comes from David Denton, who left the city many years ago to pursue a career in architecture and design. His current interest is in design utilizing virtual reality. He’s teamed up with local artist Bobbie Crews, who I’ve mentioned before, to develop a vision that would both help the city and help the arts community.
David Denton, who now lives in downtown Knoxville, graduated from Georgia Tech and spent most of his career in California. He’s worked on some of the most praised design projects in the last thirty years and his work has been featured on PBS and in the New York Times. A full bio is posted at the end of this article, but the point is this person is in our midst and has a proposal for the dramatic statement we want on that end of downtown. He has a history of taking a lofty vision and making it a reality. Let’s listen, Knoxville. And is there a developer out there interested in working with a renowned design architect?
A celebration of art, craft and railroading
A proposed development by David Denton and Bobbie Crews for Downtown Knoxville
Downtown architect and urban planner David Denton and well-known local artist Bobbie Crews have been developing a concept for the future of the McClung warehouse site on Jackson Avenue. The main feature of the proposed development is a village of artists and craftspeople utilizing recycled railroad cars. Their vision, which they hope will be considered by the City, would help establish this area as an arts district and bring tourists to Downtown. They also hope to find a developer who can help them bring this project to fruition.
The fact that the City has control over this property provides an opportunity to build a project that might not be possible in privately owned land and would benefit the City as a whole and Downtown in particular. A conventional mixed-use project may provide the greatest return, but would not necessarily be of maximum benefit to the City as a whole. There are over ten million visitors every year to the Smoky Mountain National Park. The City has not actively pursued the creation of attractions to take advantage of this tourism. East Tennessee has a rich tradition of arts and crafts. Surprisingly, there are few places in Knoxville to learn and appreciate these crafts.
This area of Downtown seems to be evolving into an arts district. This is a positive development and should be encouraged. Some of the artists whose presence has helped to establish this as an arts district are fearful that what will happen to them is a common story in other cities: that is, the arts district that their presence has established becomes popular with others who can pay more in rent, such as galleries, architects, advertising agencies, etc. The result is frequently that the artists have to move on to other less expensive areas. Here is an opportunity to celebrate the artists themselves by creating a community of artists and craftspeople accessible to the public, who can watch them at work and buy their creations directly.
The site is immediately adjacent to a railroad yard. For a mixed-use development that includes housing, such an adjacency might be considered a negative. But if the theme of railroading were romanced, the perception could be quite different and prove to be an asset in marketing new residential and commercial space. Thus the suggestion here is to recycle outdated railroad cars, place them on the eastern half of the site adjacent to Gay Street, and make them available for rent to artists and craftspeople.
The project would have three primary themes: the first, railroad culture and history; the second, the celebration of local arts and crafts; and the third, the example of sustainability through the recycling of railroad cars covered with a skylighted railroad station-like glass roof that in fact would be solar paneled. The remainder of the site to the west would be developed in a more conventional manner that would include tenant and public parking on the lower levels, with multi-level housing above. This site is an important location because of its connection to Gay Street, the arts district, the Old City, and the future development of Gay Street to the north. It desperately needs an attraction worthy of its location that will bring more people to Downtown Knoxville and benefit all of Downtown.
The eastern side of the site closest to Gay Street would be developed with the recycled railroad cars. This solution, not only quite responsible from a sustainability point of view, would also allow for a very economical solution. They are about the right size for many artists and craftspeople, with a platform built between them for public access. The other advantage of this solution is that it could be built much faster than new construction.
The access to the project would be where the stairs are now located, from Gay Street to Jackson Avenue, in the northeast corner. This would be improved, include an elevator and would extend upward with dramatic signage above, which would be visible down Gay Street. The Depot Building could be developed with larger studios and arts-related shops and with a museum of local and arts and crafts.
The Gay Street Overpass could be embellished with banners, celebrating local artists, and the addition of a vine covered trellis. These improvements to the overpass would encourage pedestrians to continue to the new developments to the north, such as the Southern Station. The mixed-use project on the western end would be designed to be sympathetic to the industrial/warehouse aesthetic. The public amenities would be primarily the arts and crafts village, which would include not only working studio space, but exhibition and event spaces open to the public. A common area would be located between the arts and crafts village and the new mixed-use development. The common space could include landscaping, a reflecting pool/fountain, a relaxing refuge for the area tenants, and a transition from the activity area of the village to the quieter residential area.
David Denton, a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, is an architect and urban planner with over 30 years of experience in the field. He started his career as a volunteer teaching architecture in the Peace Corps in Tunisia and was an exchange student in the IAESTE program working as an urban planner in Harlow New Town, UK.
He was the design partner for the San Francisco firm of Whistler Patri responsible for numerous large scale commercial projects including the well-known San Francisco Center. Before starting his own design firm in Los Angeles, he was the managing partner of the internationally renowned firm, Frank Gehry and Associates. He was directly involved in managing many of the well-known buildings produced by that office such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall which was recently featured on a PBS documentary as one of the ten most influential buildings in the history of the United States.
His own design practice for the last four years has incorporated the use of the virtual world in architectural design and urban planning projects. He was one of the first architects to use the virtual world as a design tool for a real life project, a shopping center in Cairo Egypt. He cofounded the Project K2 C with his Egyptian colleague, Dr. Amr Attia inspired by Pres. Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo in which he outlined his vision of Internet collaboration between students in Kansas and Cairo. The project brings together in collaboration American and Egyptian architecture students on architecture and planning projects of mutual interest. This project has been funded by the US State Department. The students collaborate in the virtual world through their personalized avatars.
He also has designed several projects in the virtual world for universities that will be utilized as teaching tools for children. Clients in the Virtual World include The McKinsey Company, Stanford University Library, University of Southern California, University of New Mexico and Santa Barbara City College.
His innovative work in the virtual world has been featured in several publications including the Architectural Record and the New York Times. His work has also been selected to be archived in the permanent collections of Stanford University and the Library of Congress as innovative work in the early development of the virtual world.
He was born in Knoxville and grew up in Sequoyah Hills and spent most of his career in California. He recently moved back to Knoxville with his wife Judith and is living downtown in the Burwell Building.
The attached rendering is very conceptual at this point and is as would be seen looking down into the development from the Gay Street Overpass.