Demolition/New Building Proposed for Old City

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A surprise tweet started a series of communications for me a couple of days ago. The tweet suggested that two buildings in the Old City might be torn down to be replaced with new construction. The address concerned is 120- 122 South Central. You may know it as the former location of Big Don the Costumier, which of course used to be Big Don’s and resided on the opposite side of the street for many years. I think I first went there in the late 80s digging through stacks of vinyl albums looking for a treasure. 120 – 122 also contains a Old City Cigar.

I checked with Knox Heritage and learned that they didn’t know about the request. An examination of the agenda for the Downtown Design Review Board showed that it hasn’t risen to the level of an item for action, but rather Grieve Associates Architects in conjunction with developers requested a workshop session at the conclusion of the meeting to discuss the very preliminary plans. Their hope was to receive input beforehand in order to have the project comply with Board expectations when it is presented formally.

The first clarification as the discussion began was that the board has no purview over demolitions. This became an issue when St. John’s Episcopal Church determined to demolish two nearly 100 year old buildings on their property. The Downtown Design Review Board asked for guidance in the wake of the controversy and the city amended codes to make it clear that the DDRB has no purview over the appropriateness of demolitions.

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This doesn’t mean the buildings – which have been condemned – will automatically be demolished. The city appears close to passing a sixty-day waiting period for any demolition requests of potentially historic buildings. First reading passed just two weeks ago. Mr. Grieve acknowledged this new ordinance will likely be in place and will apply to this project. That said, there is a legitimate question of whether the buildings are in a condition to be saved and whether there is a compelling historic rationale to do so. It’s a discussion that will happen over the next weeks and, likely, through the summer.

The proposed replacement building would appear, in every respect to be a great improvement over the present buildings. The current buildings are one story and fill the eastern end of the block starting at Willow Avenue. I don’t know the sequence of construction on the block, but these buildings are the shortest and look somewhat like an appendage to the larger, more substantial buildings on the block, but often shorter buildings are older.

I’ve included only the renderings of the building and not the specific plans because it seems a bit unfair at this point. The entire interior design is still in discussion and could be impacted by several variables. It currently includes, for example, only one stairwell in addition to the elevator. Several members of the Downtown Design Review Board questioned whether that would be acceptable as two means of egress are typical of modern construction.

As currently configured, the building would be three stories and would include retail along Jackson and part of the way down Willow. The ground floor would include two residences, one of which would be accessed from the rear of the building and one of which would front Willow. The upper floors would include six residences on each floor, with a total of eleven two-bedroom homes and two loft units.

All of which could change. One of the most interesting pieces of the discussion involved the number of stories in the new building. Currently at three stories, one of the considerations in that choice was the height of the other buildings on the street. Board members seemed to agree that they would have no concerns about a building two stories taller, pointing out that urban environments, including our own, are filled with buildings of dramatically different heights in close proximity. Witness the 100 block of Gay Street and compare the eastern side with the western side, for example.

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I spoke to Mr. Grieve after the meeting and asked about the residential street frontage. While pointing out that isn’t without precedence downtown, he said that is another feature which very well could change. It is possible, he said, that the entire ground floor – including that residential unit, but not the other one – could be leased to one tenant. He seemed to imply there may be some interest to that end.

So, we have the possibility of a building with a collapsed ceiling, that has experienced a fire in the last few months and doesn’t add to the visual appeal of the block being replaced with an attractive, useful, multi-use building. What could be bad about that? Very likely nothing.

But it always makes me nervous when a building is torn down with promises to build another. Many surface parking lots downtown represent just such promises. Once the building is gone, it is gone, and there is nothing to force a developer to follow-through with previously announced plans. I’ve asked people many times to name the last building torn down in Knoxville which was actually replaced with a better building. Maybe this would be the first in a couple of generations.

Clearly, there are a number of issues to consider. On its face, it sounds like an exciting prospect to me. I’ll hope to hear from Jack Neely regarding the history of the current buildings. But replacing buildings with better buildings would be another marker for downtown re-development. David Dewhirst (who is in no way connected to this project) told me at the meeting that “this is what happens when cities grow up.” If we could just have a guarantee that the project will happen – and it probably will, but we won’t know that for sure until it happens.

So what do you think? I know many of you are preservationists at heart – is this one time you could support demolition? And what about residential facing a street – like Willow. Does it matter that this is not good urban design? I’d love to hear what you think.