Major News for Future Downtown Development

Parking Lot at the Corner of Summit Hill and South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2019

It’s something we’ve talked about on this blog for years as a missing piece in the downtown development equation: the missing 200 block of South Gay Street. Once a thriving connector packed with businesses, the construction of Summit Hill, and other decisions resulted in the demolition of those buildings, leaving the 100 block of South Gay Street isolated between the suburban roadway and the rail yard.

On the east side, a small strangely-shaped pocket park remains, thanks to the curve in the four-lane road. On the west side, next to Crown Court, sits one of downtown’s ubiquitous parking lots. That parking lot has generated conversation for years regarding its potential to re-connect the 300 block to the 100 block by having something in between that encourages pedestrians to wander further afield from the Market Square center point. Once connected, an easy turn of the corner would lead to the Old City.

The difficulty in making something happen on that spot began eighteen years ago when only the most optimistic downtown supporter could have imagined the environment we have today. At the turn of the century, downtown had shown little sign that a corner of any sort had been turned to returning downtown to the vibrant place it had been a half-century earlier.

Parking Lot at the Corner of Summit Hill and South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2019

In 2000, Leigh Burch purchased Sterchi Lofts. It likely seemed like a lark for many, including banks, to imagine filling it with apartments. He built 100 units which, until Marble Alley remained the largest residential project in downtown history. In order to secure financing and to convince people to move into the mostly abandoned center city, he had to have parking and demonstrate that it was going to be available for a long time. Enter the parking lot on the 200 block.

Mr. Burch negotiated a fifty year lease with KCDC, the housing arm of Knox County and the city of Knoxville, beginning in the year 2000. He completed and filled Sterchi Lofts in 2002 and its residents have parked in the lot since. He is in the process of converting the apartments to condominiums. Given the fifty-year lease, it seemed unlikely the parking lot could be developed before 2050.

That changed last week when it became official that Mr. Burch has relinquished his lease and has purchased the parking lot toward the top of Vine, near Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and behind Crown Court. Residents of Sterchi will begin parking there within the next month. KCDC regains operational control of the parking lot, opening the opportunity to investigate potential uses.

Parking Lot near the top of Vine Street, Knoxville, January 2019

Leigh says he’s had conversations for years about the possibility of releasing the lot and he and Ben Bentley, Executive Director of KCDC, have been discussing a solution for the past year. They reached a deal at the end of 2018 that resulted in the release of the previous agreement. Leigh says his crews have been working on the parking lot up the hill, clearing trees that had encroached and he plans to re-stripe it right away. In the end, there will be more spaces up the hill than there are at the corner of Summit Hill and Gay.

To explore what might happen next, I talked with Ben Bentley who confirmed there will be a Request for Proposals, which he hopes will be issued in the next six months. He expects there will be public input and he wants to see the best use for the spot. Whether the RFP will be broad — invite developers to create their best visions — or more narrow — carefully define what must go in the spot — is to be determined.

He pointed out that any project will need to add to the greater community good, but also has to be financially viable. In that regard, the market will have a great impact on any plans, which is why he wants to get the process underway as quickly as possible, while market conditions are still relatively strong.

Parking Lot at the Corner of Summit Hill and South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2019

While KCDC manages affordable housing across the county, that would not impact the use for this development. I asked about the possibility of work-force housing and he said that would be a good thing, but is also impacted by the market and whether a project can be developed which includes it and is still able to remain financially viable.

He said working with Mr. Burch was great and that while the parking lot facilitated a great development nearly twenty years ago, times have changed, and now the best use for this spot is for it to be developed. In a real sense, those early, crazy developments, like Sterchi Lofts are what ultimately created the environment which allows us to do better today than we could twenty years ago.


  1. Trees encroaching on a parking lot?! Heavens!

  2. Kathleen DeWine Benedict says

    This seems like great news for downtown. One question. Our church, Immaculate Conception Church has an agreement to use the lot on Saturday nights for 6:00 Mass and Sundays for 8:30,10:00, and 11:30 Masses. Will Mr. Burch still be agreeable to our arrangement to pay a nominal fee each month for parking?
    Just wondering.

  3. This would seem to be an extremely positive development. For years, we’ve jawed about the energy-sapping quality of that empty space that acts as an unconscious discouragement for pedestrian traffic to the 100 block. Plus, the topography of the lot, its vertical visibility, and its unobstructed view to the east would seem to offer imaginative builders a lot of possibilities and a lot of floor space. While housing and retail jump immediately into everyone’s mind, I would urge adding arts/entertainment to the mixed-use formula. Here’s a similar example tried out by that small village to the northeast:

  4. I would be great if this project could be envisioned as the anchor for a significant reworking not only of the west side of the 200 block of Gay St, but also of the chaotic situation on the east side that involves Country Music Park, the orphaned remnant of Vine Street that functions as both a parking lot and a dangerous cut-through street, and the sub-optimal use of older buildings on the south side of Summit Hill. Done well, redevelopment of this entire area could become much more pedestrian friendly, provide a more suitable locale for a public sculpture honoring the birth of country music, perhaps incorporate an appropriate homage to the displaced African-American community, and be a strong connector not only between lower Gay Street and Market Square on the one hand and the 100 block of Gay and the Old City on the other but also to the entire rapidly evolving area north of the railroad tracks. It’s an opportunity to think big about the whole area that shouldn’t be dismissed.

  5. Can the public park in that lot now?

  6. downtown resident says

    What did Mr. Burch receive from the City in return for his agreement to relinquish his rights 30 years before the lease-expiration date?

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      An agreement to purchase the lot up the hill from KCDC which, as an organization, isn’t really about operating parking lots.

      • Downtown Resident says

        So he relinquished the rights to a more valuable parcel of real estate for the right to purchase a less desirable parcel of real estate? That doesn’t make sense… Unless I am missing something.

        • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

          He relinquished the rights to *lease* a lot for the rights to *purchase* another. Perhaps that is what he preferred going forward. It is also possible that he recognized that corner lot is much more important to downtown development, but in any case, he exchanged a property he could use for one he could use as he pleases. Maybe that was worthwhile to him.

        • Holy crap can’t we focus on the good as in this is wonderful news for downtown development and better use of valuable space. Mr Burch is obviously smart and did what was best for himself and the downtown community. Win win for everyone.

        • Ownership of a parcel is far more valuable than a lease. He can also do whatever he likes with the new property (within code). So, if he decided years from now that he wanted to build a mixed use garage/other business, he could. The same is not true of his old leasehold interest.

    • He got to buy KCDC property without an RFP.

  7. This is amazing news! If anyone wants to read a very good history of the West portion of the 200 Block of Gay Street I suggest they go check out this article by John Weaver Jr on his blog he runs about Knoxville History.

  8. Steve Cotham says

    It is a shame that Cal Johnson’s Poplar Log Saloon was taken out for the parking lot. It originally stood on the north end of that lot until it was flattened by a ball-and-chain.

  9. A new mixed use high rise….Fingers crossed.

  10. Wow, what an unexpected, yet terrific, opportunity to infill this critical property at one of downtown’s busiest and most important intersections! Kudos to Leigh Burch — one of our preeminent downtown developers can add another major civic contribution to his list of valued achievements. Let’s hope that the final plan is not only sensitive to its surroundings on Summit Hill (TVA, Crowne Plaza, Knoxville Visitor Center), but also to its being the last opportunity to successfully link downtown with the 100 block of Gay Street and points north, as well as with the Old City.

    • Pretty sure he did it to address the questions swirling from selling Sterchi not because of some sense of civic duty. As is only a limited number of 2 bedrooms are allowed to park there and it cost about $15 more per month then renting one from the city. I would think that the lot hes moving to would give most new buyers a spot.

      • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

        However you parse his motives it has to take into account that the conversation has been ongoing for years and this final round that resulted in an agreement has been going on for over a year. This wasn’t a sudden move related to the announcement of the conversion to condos at Sterchi.

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