It’s no secret that recent years in downtown Knoxville have been exceptional. The explosive growth has sometimes been breath-taking and press around the country continues to take notice in articles like this one just a few days ago. Still, it has been growth of a certain type. While we’ve lost some buildings that should have been saved, many historic buildings have been re-imagined into contemporary living and retail spaces. The downtown population has increased significantly and the center city is now seen as a cultural, retail and culinary focal point of the region.
But something conspicuously absent in this renaissance has been new construction. The last ground-up construction that comes to mind downtown was the Market Square Garage which opened in 2005. That nine-year period has seen remarkable strides for the city, but no additional new construction. The period also parallels one of the worst periods for our national economy in the last eighty years, so simply the fact that we’ve grown at all during those years is probably a testament to the potential in our city.
I’ve felt, and I’m sure I’m not alone that when we began to see ground-up construction we would have moved into a different phase of our comeback story. Others have pointed out that major investment from outside Knoxville would signal that turning point. Both appear to have happened this year. The results are both exciting and, I think, a bit cautionary.
Probably the largest of the current projects, the Baptist Hospital site sold last December for over six million dollars. Demolition began in March and is now well underway. Little, if any, protest was raised for this demolition. It’s hard to convert a hospital for many other uses. Additionally, the fact that an investor was found who would purchase the property, demolish the hospital and actually build something in its place was rather remarkable. Many cities currently have one, two or more empty hospitals with no prospect of change in the near future. The plan is to spend around $150,000,000 on construction after the demolition is complete. It’s an eye-popping sum and beyond anything seen in our city in a long time.
A much smaller scale project is underway at the intersections of Locust, Summer Place and Walnut, as a new parking garage is under construction. The city of Knoxville paid over $2,500,000 for the site and spent additional money preparing it. An early projection had the cost of construction at $10,000,000 to $15,000,000.
Not as big as the Baptist Hospital construction, but not small. The garage should provide over 1,000 spaces just across the street from the 700 space Market Square Garage and like others downtown will be free nights and weekends. It is slated to be completed in about a year.
Another project broke ground, officially, just this week. Marble Alley has been discussed extensively since developer Buzz Goss first proposed it. That was in 2008, not exactly the best time to move forward with such a project. Original renderings had much grander ideas in mind, but the basic concept of bringing new development, including residences, to downtown Knoxville to help bridge the gap between Uptown and the Old City is finally coming to fruition. And it is a reverse of the norm in recent decades: we are turning a parking lot into a building rather than the opposite.
The city is investing around 1.5 million dollars in street and other improvements and the project itself will cost between $15,000,000 and $20,000,000. The result will be 238 apartments, a 350 space parking garage and other amenities including a pool and fitness center. The units are expected to be available in early 2016. The major significance here is that the entire project is ground-up residential and it dwarfs the last new residential construction which would be the units included in the 2005 Market Square Garage.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of these projects to the city. Whether you look at the combined economic impact, the shift to new construction or the increased population represented in the Marble Alley and, later, the Baptist Hospital site. There’s nothing to compare to it in recent decades. So, it’s all good, right?
Well, it’s complicated. The designs of all three projects have taken large amounts of criticism. Urban design is different from suburban design, with mixed-use preferred over single-use. Additionally, given our stock of architecturally significant buildings, many people long for architecture that makes a contemporary statement – and in a good way. None of the projects represent mixed-use to the degree that many would have hoped.
The Marble Alley project doesn’t include street-level retail, though original designs called for that. Likewise, the parking garage at Locust and Walnut has the barest of nods to street-level retail. We are running out of older buildings that can support retail and it’s imperative that new construction include retail space or we will be thwarted in our efforts to become a well-rounded urban area.
It’s a concern to me that rather than challenge our auto-centric idea that parking should be at our doorstep, we continue to attempt to sacrifice so much potential to accommodate automobiles. The new garage will be across the street from two other garages, a block from another and two blocks from a fourth.
So, on balance? I think the Baptist Hospital project and Marble Alley are a net good for the city. I’m not convinced we need 1100 more parking spaces – and that’s not to mention the 350 planned for the Marble Alley site. What do you think about the projects? Are you excited? Disheartened? Somewhere in between?