South High Senior Living, 835 Tipton Avenue, Knoxville, July 2020
(Ed. Note and Full Disclosure: I am the caretaker for my uncle. He is 86-years-old and has serious dementia. I brought him to Knoxville from his native Mobile, Alabama in 2018, when we realized he could no longer care for himself. He lived at Knox High (then Senior Living) until last August when the decision was made to cease meal preparation there, which made it no longer a viable living option for him. I moved him to South High Senior Living (an assisted living facility) where he has lived for the last eight months. When I learned of the possible conversion of South High to a drug treatment facility, I made preparations for him to move, rather than waiting to see what happened and possibly facing a crush of people looking for a new home. He moves out on Monday.)
On March 16, Rick Dover met with residents at South High informing them of the possibility South High would be sold to the McNabb Center for use as a drug treatment facility. This would dictate that residents would be required to move. He stressed the community’s need for drug treatment beds. The resident’s focus was on the fact that, if the sale went through, they would have to move.
Mr. Dover had approached the McNabb Center offering the building for sale. He would later point out that this is the business plan for his company: redevelop a building, start the business, and then look for a buyer. McNabb was looking to add beds to their treatment facility due to the rapid increase in addiction in the city. They were raising money to expand their facility by twenty beds. This offered the possibility of adding a hundred, without the expense or time involved in construction.
The agency met with community members who voiced concern at the possibility of having a drug treatment facility located next to an elementary school and in the middle of a neighborhood. As the conversion to drug treatment would require a change in zoning, McNabb submitted a request for that change to the Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commission. Planning staff recommended rejection of the zone change because “it does not meet any of the criteria for a change to the land use plan.”
At yesterday’s meeting a range of community members expressed a range of concerns and opposition, including safety of the nearby school children if people addicted to drugs lived in the neighborhood. Others pointed out that plans could later be changed for the center or that it could be sold to someone who does something potentially more damaging to the neighborhood. A resident of South High spoke against the move noting that he and others who moved there, including a 106-year-old female resident, assumed it would be their final home. Members of the audience wore blue shirts with banners saying, “Save South High.”
Benjamin Mullins, a local zoning and land-use attorney spoke for McNabb, as did Houston Smelcer, McNabb VP of Development and Government Relations. They stressed that the facility would be in-patient and would have minimal impact on the community. They pointed to the record at their other facilities as examples of harmonious relationships with their neighbors. They also noted the facility is at less than half capacity, and suggested the business is not working and would eventually not be viable. (Ed. Note: To give context, a number of residents have moved out as a result of the pending sale.) Mr. Mullins said zoning staff has mis-interpreted zoning regulations.
Commission voted down a motion to deny the zoning change by a vote of 11-3. They then voted to support rezoning by an 11-2 vote, overriding staff recommendation. It was an unusually personal debate for a planning commission meeting, with several members revealing drug-related tragedy and struggles within their own families. Chair Tim Hill said in conclusion that there are no heroes or villains in the story, just people trying to make the best decision for the community. The decision means that the issue will go before City Council with a recommendation from Planning to grant the zoning change.
I spoke to Mr. Smelcer after the meeting. He said, “With approval of City Council, we would close almost immediately thereafter, and we’ll take a thoughtful, paced process to moving in. We want to do right by the residents, but also taking our time moving our patients over, as well. When we were approached by Rick Dover to come look at this property, we were already down the road raising funds to expand the existing facility. It was going to allow us to expand from forty-five beds to sixty-five beds,” which would have allowed them to help about “500 more people a year.” He said the South High facility would give them “at least 100 additional beds,” allowing them to move from treating about 1500 people per year to treating 3,000. “That’s a lot of lives saved.”
The PILOT Dover received when he purchased the property for South High would cease to be in effect once the property is sold. Rather than eventually being on the tax rolls, as would have been the case if he continued to own it, McNabb, as a non-profit, would not pay taxes.
I spoke to Tommy Smith, the city councilman who represents south Knoxville. He said, “I think all of south Knoxville is sad about South High closing.” He grew up nearby and understands the history. “The potential re-zoning has real human impact,” both for seniors and those struggling with addiction. He said he’s spent a lot of time with the neighborhood and those residents need to be heard. “There was a time when Lindbergh Forest residents chipped in their own money to save the building.” He said south Knoxville residents have been open to “adapting” over the last decade and he is proud of them.
He feels planned development is an option that might be better than simple rezoning, given the other possible uses allowed under this zoning change (it would include a homeless shelter, for example. that It is a tool allowing for specifying uses that are not allowed in a specific location even though zoning designation would do so. This was discussed in the Planning Commission meeting and rejected by McNabb as to slow a process to allow for them to meet deadlines for state funding they hope to use. Deed restrictions were mentioned as an alternative.
Still he said the idea for the alternative process should not be ignored. Of the community, he said “This should happen with them and not to them.” Smith said deed restrictions are between owners and developers whereas planned development includes the neighborhood and acknowledges their role in this action. “It comes with community benefits . . . I would hope that every community would be as open as Lindbergh Forest has been . . . I think there is a path for planned development where everyone wins.” He pointed out that both Giffin and Galbraith were rezoned using Planned Development.
In addition to South High, other Dover properties are changing or potentially changing. The aforementioned Knox High, once meal preparation stopped early last fall, began accepting residents of all ages. That was contrary to the original request for a PILOT filed with the city when he purchased the building. Dover told Compass he, “forgot about the language and has rented units to people who don’t meet the age threshold, though the vast majority of residents have been age 62 or older.” The Industrial Review Board removed that language from the agreement earlier this week.
Dover also currently owns the historic Farragut Hotel building, currently housing the Hyatt Place Hotel. Changes are afoot there, as well, with HD Patel and the Ephant group making a move to purchase the building. The Ephant Group obtained a beer license for the location last month, a step required to operate the hotel. According to Dover, a contract is in place, but has yet to be executed. The Ephant Group owns or co-owns several other major downtown properties, including the Hope Brothers Building (428 South Gay St., the Tailor Loft Building (430 South Gay Street), and properties at 304 and 308 South Gay Street, 122 W. Summit Hill Avenue (formerly Vine Furniture), and 130 South Central Street.
More recently, Dover Properties opened The Tribute at 719 Locust Street (the old Supreme Court site) and is a partner in the coming Church+Henley project.
(Final Ed. Note: Please feel free to express your opinion about any of the above, but refrain from personal attacks. They will be deleted.)