The City Responds to the Urban Land Institute Report – and Listens

Mayor Rogero, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, March 2015
Mayor Rogero, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, March 2015

A large crowed gathered at the East Tennessee History Center to discuss the recommendations by the Urban Land Institute, about which I wrote last month. (Read the report if you haven’t. Too many people who have obviously not read it are discussing it on Facebook.) A brief introduction by Bob Whetsel, short remarks from Mayor Rogero and a direct, organized and short presentation by Anne Wallace to frame the conversation with what has happened so far and then city officials effectively got out of the way and listened. I suspect a lot of cities would never experience such a thing.

Anne’s presentation did clarify a few things. She said we need to understand that the ULI report is “a set of recommendations on issues we deal with everyday. This is not a plan to be implemented.” She pointed out that it will lead to public discussion and then, hopefully, some sense of what the citizens will support. She pointed out principles that guide the city government’s approach to development. Among other’s on the list was the principal that growth should be “market driven” and it should have “sound urban design.” It occurred to me that those two principals sometimes clash.

One piece of “news” to most of us in her remarks was the statement that the city intends to purchase the Supreme Court site by the August deadline. The previous plan had been to have a developer who would buy it from the city in pretty much the same transaction. That is no longer the case. The intention of purchasing it from the state is driven by the desire to prevent poor development on the site which could happen if it is auctioned off by the state. Bill Lyons later referenced the importance of the “stewardship of Henley at that site.” The current state appraisal for the site is $2.4 million.

A second news item, though not a surprise is that the city has set the McClung site as the priority for re-development. A “master planner” will be secured who will come up with a vision for the property, though other developers may complete pieces of the project. Bob Whetsel suggested  that if a below-grade parking garage were to be built there, as many have suggested, that might be done during the master planner phase and then other developers might have the chance to build on top of that base. Later councilman Della Volpe pointed out the importance of keeping in mind that this site will be the public face of downtown to everyone passing on the interstate.

The idea of a master developer drew a number of questions from the audience. Apparently it is a common practice elsewhere. Anne Wallace pointed out that often these planners are addressing massive sites like former military bases covering perhaps a hundred acres. She answered the question hanging in the air when she said this person could certainly be a local developer. Joe Petre would later point out that the organic growth which has served us well seems hard to reconcile with a single developer/planner getting to design what will potentially be a $100,000,000 project.

To Joe’s point, Bill Lyons agreed that a master developer does seem contradictory to organic growth, but that, clearly, we don’t want development that doesn’t work together well on the site. Anne Wallace pointed out that “master developers” elsewhere are often actually teams of developers. Bill also noted that massive public discussion will guide any decisions. To a question from Wayne Blasius, the audience was told there is no time frame for getting the master developer, but the discussions are underway as to how to proceed.

Anne Wallace, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, March 2015


Finally, Anne pointed out a couple of errors in the ULI report. First, the Clarence Brown can’t go under the Holiday Inn because that is private property. Second, the hotel occupancy rates and nightly hotel rates used in the ULI report are inaccurate as they reflect the larger county. For downtown she said our hotel occupancy rate is about ten percent higher than the rest of the county and the average nightly price is over $100. The implication was that some additional hotel development might be warranted.

She said the coliseum site needs more study and that is currently underway and is expected to be completed this summer. The intention for the World’s Fair Park is to follow the ULI suggestion of retaining the green-space and adding complementary development along the edges while connecting it with the Jackson Avenue corridor. As for Henley Street? She pointed out that 43,000 cars use it daily and that it is a highway passing through four states. She said they are pursuing “above grade crossing improvements and enhancing connectivity. She said they will have to consider TDOT and are looking at, “strategic, incremental improvements.” Later someone asked if the city had the power to change lights on Henley to make crossing times longer. The answer was affirmative.

From there the discussion took over and, surprisingly to me, didn’t last until the 7:00 PM time limit. A number of people did speak. Mary English suggested the city consider meeting space for non-profits in some of the new construction, a sentiment that was echoed later.  Mike Cohen, Mike Collins and Joe Petre all asked questions about the master developer. Bob Whetsel responded that a survey of who is interested will be followed by a screening process to see who is qualified to do the work and then these developers or planners will be asked to make proposals.

Robin Hill pointed out that the infrastructure to handle the current and the additional traffic must be considered. Bob said that was already being examined. Bicycles and dedicated lanes were mentioned by Matt Warden and others. Michael Henderson, a Mechanicsville resident expressed concern over a lack of cycling connections there. A Bicycle Facilities Plan has been developed and will be presented next week, April 8 at 6:00 PM at the East Tennessee History Center. You can read the report and learn more here.

Bob Booker spoke passionately about saving the Knoxville Coliseum if possible. He told a fascinating personal story about its history from his perspective as an African-American, long-term Knoxville resident. He said when he heard the coliseum was opening in 1964, he found the number for the box office, called and asked if there would be “seating for negroes.” He was told the facility would be integrated from the outset which he said led to cheers among his co-workers.

Mayor Rogero followed that with a note that her first Knoxville memory was made there in 1966 when her family pulled off the interstate when moving from Florida to Ohio. They saw a billboard advertising a Beach Boys concert there and stopped to allow young Madeline and her sister to attend the concert.

A bit later Umoja Abdul-Ahad told how “urban renewal” devastated African-American communities and wealth. He expressed distrust of the system saying, “I’ve been to a thousand meetings like this where comments are made. When the money hits the table, the people are forgotten. I cannot take my children or grandchildren to any of the places I used to live.”

Henley Street did elicit some conversation. Rhonda Reger, a 100 block resident and UT employee expressed her hope that the ULI suggestions regarding Henley Street will be considered carefully in order to make Henley Street a better pedestrian, cycling and retail environment. Bob Whetsel noted that they hear that and they hear the opposite. It didn’t take long for that to happen. Betsy Pickle who lives in south Knoxville said Henley Street is not a barrier. She pointed out that people who live in Fort Sanders drive to the Old City to drink and don’t want to walk or bike. It seemed an odd defense to suggest that people can drink and drive. She said south Knoxville has suffered enough and seemed to suggest we leave Henley Street alone.

Bonny Pendleton of Theatre Knoxville Downtown and Steve Drevik of Flying Anvil Theatre each spoke in favor of the recommendation for medium-sized performing arts space. Scott Poole, dean of Architecture at UT, said transportation questions need to come next, including walking and biking throughout the impacted area. He asked, “Is there a  master plan for the master developer to look to?” The answer was, “no.”

Becky Hancock asked if the comments would be posted online along with the city’s presentation and we were told it would be posted today. It should be posted here. The city wants your comments and I’ll welcome them below, of course. If you don’t let the city administration know what you think, you get what you get. As it is I would not want to be in their shoes and try to navigate the conflicting demands. Here’s where to send your comments: