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.


  1. Christine Dano Johnson says

    A fun way to research the history of a block or a building is to check out old Sanborn Insurance maps of the area. I mapped structural racism in Knoxville for a historic preservation course and used those a ton. If you’re a UTK library user, you can access them via the library page. I think they’re available as a database at Knox County Library as well.

    To consider this one preservation worthy often you have to look at the funding going into any changes to it. If the project developer is receiving any state or federal funds they typically have to engage in some form of Cultural Resource Management. Who knows? The building might have housed an important person or event, or have been culturally important in some way.

  2. I think this is a geat proposal for that lot. I think maybe the ground level should be reserved for retail and residences should be on the upper levels. They could add some floors if funding is available.

  3. I’m all for this. Big Don’s is an eye sore and a mixed-use project would be a welcome addition to the Old City. Hopefully the residential space will be for sale rather than rent.

  4. Sean Martin says

    It seems pretty clear that as currently designed, the replacement building would be a huge improvement over the current building! However, the concern that the current building will be torn down and the new building will fail to happen is very legitimate. To me, it seems like the simplest solution would be for the developer and architect to agree not to demolish the existing building until drawings for the new building are finished, and funding has been finalized (or is close to being finalized). Wait to start demolition of Big Don’s until the new building is “shovel-ready” so to speak.

    I don’t know who the developer is, but I do know Duane Grieve and I think he’d be just as bothered by yet another empty lot as I would be.

  5. Christopher King says

    I’ve advocated for a while that the city should institute a bond requirement on developers who want demolition permits and promise to replace old buildings with new buildings- that would be held as collateral until the project is completed. The only way to make sure developers don’t “accidentally” end up making parking lots is to hit them in their pocket books- we would make it too economically unviable to do anything but fulfill their promises.

  6. interested party says

    I’m not too worried about losing this building, although I will reserve final judgment until Kaye Graybeal weighs in. But ground floor residential violates the downtown design guidelines. You can’t have pedestrian-friendly buildings that have transparent fronts for folks to look into if you have residential. What you get are maybe glass walls – covered 100% of the time by drapes. Grieve KNOWS what the guidelines say. I’m getting pretty tired of folks not being required to follow them.

    • Art Wagner says

      I agree with you on the issue of unelevated ground-floor residential. The Lerner Lofts (Gay and Wall) are a perfect example of why it doesn’t work.

  7. I think you know how I feel about this one, and I’m as adamant about preservation as one can get. This seems like a scenario that represents actual “progress” where we replace a building that has passed its expiration date with something better. I do, however, share your concern about what happens if nothing ultimately gets built. I don’t know how one could guard against that.

    On another note, I submit for your consideration a building which is better than those torn down for its construction: The Whittle Building/Federal Courthouse. I don’t think anyone shed tears for the Gateway bookstore or the Trailways bus terminal when they fell in 1988. The faux collegiate style of the new building may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I see people taking photos of it more often than you’d think.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      I agree with you on that one, but it was a generation ago – twenty-seven years, incredibly. It’s also true that the original intent of the developers was to tear down the Bijou to make room for it and only a concerted effort stopped it from happening.

      • If we are only looking at the current generation of buildings, then you’ll be hard pressed to get a response. I think you could probably count the number of new buildings, built downtown in the last 10 years, on one hand (the parking garages Locust, Market and Walnut, the condos on Union, the History Center addition). Am I missing anything?

  8. Chris Eaker says

    If demolition will result in an improvement for a neighborhood, then great, go for it. All too often though — as you point out with the parking lots downtown — it results in a net loss to the neighborhood. I would love to see these old buildings replaced with what is shown in these renderings. That would be a huge asset to the Old City.

  9. Brian Ewers says

    As a business owner in the OC, I drive by/walk by these building everyday. I am a preservationist at heart and as an Architect have worked to preserve historic buildings. Don’s building had a recent roof collapse and although it has been shored up, it still needs to be removed. It detracts from the appearance of the OC and this is the gateway to the OC from the Downtown. The building design Grieve Associates is proposing should be supported as a great contribution to the downtown revitalization effort. You have my vote.

  10. Art Wagner says

    Because those engaged in preservation have to fight heartbreaking and often futile battles, they regularly get the reputation for being irrationally attached to every aging building, something that is untrue. Most, however, are attached to issues of legitimate use of space and preserving what can be preserved. In this case, the current buildings on Central may have some nostalgic value, but little in the way of aesthetic, architectural, or historic value, particularly in view of their severely diminished physical conditions. It’s pretty clear that if the structures were replaced with those represented by the renderings, it would be a benefit to the Old City visually and in usability.

    I have mentioned on occasions various U.S. architects who are able to design structures that enhance historically sensitive areas almost transparently. I’m glad to see there are local architects that can be included in that group.

  11. Hi Alan – I believe in preservation, but clearly, this building was not cared for and is in terrible condition. I would welcome a building that houses retail – which we need desperately – and one that fits with the “old” look of our Old City. A modern building would not be appropriate, so I would hope they would take that into consideration. I am so excited that our little part of the city is becoming a vibrant community with exciting changes taking place!

  12. Residential on the first floor can be good urban design — consider the townhouse you live in KUG. The ground floor residential should be raised somewhat so passersby can’t look directly in the windows, and I don’t see how they can accomplish that in this building.

  13. My reaction would depend on whether I trusted the developer. For example, I would expect David Dewhirst to follow through and create a great building based on his previous record.

  14. They tore down a building to build the Transit Center. It was white. Remember? Maybe used to be the Chamber?

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Yes, I do remember that building. I may have overlooked that building because the Transit Center – which is probably the best ground-up building we’ve built in many years is mostly built over JW Pkwy. But that’s a fair example. I would add a little asterisk just because it is a public building and not one delivered by a private developer. But still, you are right.

  15. Helen Cargile says

    From what I understand the building that held Big Don’s is in bad shape. I think it is quite an eyesore and would welcome something else being built on that property.

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