Galbraith School, 4333 Galbraith School Road, Knoxville, February 2023
Thomas Boyd and Will Sims are partnering in a new project at the former Galbraith Elementary School under their Central Jackson Group, LLC. The two are joined by architect Login Higgins and the plan is to bring additional housing to an area that is critically short in that arena. That it is within easy walking or biking distance of Baker Creek Preserve makes it an even more appealing location. Thomas said during our walk-through, “I don’t think you can have enough apartments in Knoxville, right now.”
The two purchased the property from Jim English last year for just a bit over a half million dollars. He’d owned the property since about 2012 and had hoped to create an artist collaborative or some sort but plans never materialized. When he offered it for sale, Thomas and Will happily stepped up, feeling it was an ideal location for multi-family housing. Built in 1930, with Frank Barber serving as architect, the structure has additions from as recently as the 1970s.
The new additions are mostly cinderblock construction and cement roofs, while the older section has brick walls and hard wood flooring. The building’s original classrooms are quite large and can be transformed without moving walls, into single large units or two more affordable units. He pointed out that there is a growing list of former schools that have been transformed into housing and said, “It’s pretty easy to see this could be a cool one.”
He pointed out that the old schools have extremely wide hallways and tall ceilings, making them feel grand. “It adds some character that wouldn’t be possible to build today.” He said the flooring is probably salvageable and he pointed to other details as we walked, such as the very old hydraulic door closers and said he hopes to keep those as much as possible. The large windows are also an attraction.
While the project will include a mix of apartment sizes and bedrooms, “we want to target more single bedrooms and studios.” He said that the demand he has experienced is for smaller, less expensive units. Still, he said some of the rooms lend themselves more to larger units and there will be some of those.
In the existing buildings, they envision about thirty units, some with their own external entrance. They also plan to build another building on the property and, with that, ad another thirty or forty apartments. In total they expect to have about seventy-five new homes. He pointed out that one of the challenges will be constructing a building up against a historical building and making it architecturally complimentary.
They hope to begin construction somewhere around the beginning of 2024, with both the renovations and new construction to proceed simultaneously, if conditions remain the same with all the variables, such as supply chain, labor availability, and interest rates. If costs go up or other things change, they will redevelop the old building first.
The gym/cafeteria offers opportunities for a range of uses or apartment types. Will said that the plan there is for back-to-back outward facing units with external entrances. “The footprint of each unit would be fairly small, but they would be two be two story units. Thomas pointed out that there may be other uses for the area, such as common spaces. Will pointed out cafeteria tables, originally designed to fold into the walls, which are still in the space and Thomas said he was trying to determine if there is a way they can be incorporated into the project.
There is currently a space in the middle of the structure, enclosed on three sides. The two envision it as a courtyard with perhaps a small pool and lounge area. They will consider the possibility of a community garden outside the structures, though they aren’t sure if that will work out. “Will and I are so used to being downtown that having all that extra space, why not create benefits for people?
They recently had a meeting for the neighborhood residents, and they were largely supportive. There were some concerns about traffic, but acknowledgement that other uses, such as a school, would generate even more traffic. The traffic it does generate will be balanced against the reality of a large, abandoned building in their neighborhood. Having it active again is appealing to everyone.
There will be parking onsite for all the residents, even with the addition of the new building. The two are trying to exploit the luxury of having a project with a 2.6-acre footprint. They hope the project will come in at about a year of construction time, though that could shift. They hope the planning complete over the remainder of this year will make the construction go smoothly.
Thomas wrapped it all up by saying, “Being able to rehab an old building like this while providing more places to live in the periphery of downtown is kind of the reason I do almost everything. It’s our business, but it’s a cool one. It’s not like finding an empty lot, it’s part of the cultural history of this area. A lot of people have really fond memories of the place and are really invested in what it turns into. Being able to be responsible for having it not be torn down is the stuff I care about. I’ve picked a lot of financially questionable projects because I like the buildings.” Will added, “We saw a cool old building and wanted to return it to its glory, with changes.”