We are truly seeing some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities in downtown Knoxville. After a number of years of incremental changes, we are being confronted, in several instances, with the chance to make significant revisions in the fabric of the city. Most often that involves restoring the fabric of the city destroyed in previous generations. Such is the situation with the potential sale of the TVA Towers.
As reported in the Knoxville News Sentinel (and other news outlets) last month, the towers currently have about a forty percent occupancy rate, with about 740 TVA employees and a few others. Visualize one of them empty and the other at about eighty percent capacity. It doesn’t seem sustainable, and that appears to be what they have concluded. The sale is currently only being explored, but TVA is considering demolishing the buildings across the street, selling that land to a developer and having a new building built there to their specifications for a new, smaller headquarters.
TVA has been in a number of downtown buildings through its history, some of them still standing, others not. They occupied the Pembroke and the Daylight Buildings (standing and occupied) on Union, the Federal Building on Walnut (torn down for the latest parking garage) and probably others.
And then, forty years ago, they decided (with the city’s encouragement) they needed a large, impressive headquarters. What we lost in the course of that decision would be precious if it existed today. Jack Neely wrote it best last week, so see his article here for more information. He says 41 businesses lined Wall Avenue, which included the St. James Hotel, celebrated last week with the release of recordings made there in 1929 and 1930. Mixed in with the demolitions was a loss of direct access to Market Square from the north and the project may be partially to blame for Summit Hill Drive which wreaked its own havoc on the city fabric.
We can’t completely undo what was done forty years ago. The question is, when offered a chance to recover some of what was lost, will we step up and be remembered as the generation that seized the day and thought big or as the generation that, in the midst of development at every turn, could have done more?
The easy thing here would be to do the minimum. The towers are sold, the adjacent buildings demolished and a new building built. At that minimum level we’d probably get a better building across the street than the unfortunate building sitting there now. But why not explore other possibilities? Why not seize the chance to undo a previous generation’s damage?
I “measured” the length of the buildings on either side of Market Square and got a measurement of about 150 ft deep (fifty steps, honestly) and then did the same from the front of the towers out to the front of the fountain, which was about 105 feet (thirty-five steps). I was curious if the space there was deep enough for buildings and I believe it is. The opportunity is there, in my opinion, to return a measure of the storefronts to Wall Avenue.
The land is available from the alley behind the TVA Credit Union all the way down to Walnut. If the TVA Credit Union could be replaced in that building by retail, we could have about two straight blocks of retail stretching from Gay Street to Walnut only separated by an opening into the space between the two towers.
I talked to David Denton, whose rendering you see here. It’s not exactly what I would propose, but that’s not the point, here. The point is to go big with the chance we may be offered. His rendering also shows retail along Wall and his idea would be to build it along the inside of the TVA Plaza in a manner that forms a pedestrian walkway of varying widths, giving a sort of village feel. My vision was simply that the face of the towers on each side of the plaza would become retail.
I like his pathway idea, but I’d like to see the plaza dropped to ground level between the towers. The elevated plaza was TVA’s response to the city’s requirement that there be a pedestrian connection between Market Square and Summit Hill. By elevating it so dramatically, they gave the impression it is private and made walking between the two much more difficult than necessary. Which appears to have been the point – they met the letter of the requirement while thumbing their noses at the spirit of the stipulation. I suspect a large percentage of people who will read this article have never even considered venturing up the steps onto the plaza.
How do we accomplish this? I’m not sure, but it will certainly involve the city working with private companies, including those who purchase the towers and others. I’d like to see the city purchase the plaza (or the earth underneath it) and the land on the Wall Avenue (south) side of the towers to be parceled and re-sold to developers with specific guidelines for construction. The city should easily make its money back.
Any suggestion like this has often been met in our city by explanations of why it can’t happen. Why not think big? If Boston can build a tunnel under an entire city, can’t Knoxville level out one plaza? The Knoxville of a hundred years ago raised an entire block by two stories. Before that we lowered the other end of Gay Street in front of the Bijou Theatre. Are we less resourceful now than we were a hundred years ago?
A generation ago we did much to destroy the city’s fabric, from the Auditorium and Civic Center to I-40, the TVA Towers, Summit Hill Avenue. Subsequently we’ve compounded the connectivity issue and destroyed more of the urban grid with James White Parkway, an out-sized Henley Street and, most recently, Hall of Fame Dr. Here’s a chance to be known as the generation that re-claimed some of that loss.
Will we think big? Or will we simply be happy with “good enough?” The next generation is waiting to know.