Former Site of the McClung Warehouses, Jackson Avenue, Knoxville, November 2023
A desire to redevelop the McClung Warehouses on Jackson Avenue and then, once they burned, to redevelop the site goes back well over a decade. The first portion of the building burned in 2007, with a second major fire in 2014 damaging the remaining structures to the point where they could not be saved. At issue was an owner who refused to secure, preserve, or redevelop the building. The second fire, however, happened after the city took possession.
Just up the (proposed) greenway connection to West Jackson, they called the McClung site “downtown’s northern gateway,” and called for “contextual development.” They suggested engaging a “master developer” to oversee the entire site and perhaps structuring it for incremental development, saying design standards were critical. The grade change off the road’s northern edge should be used for a couple of levels of hidden parking and the street edge should be active use, with the goal of making a “two-sided street.”
There was more, but that contains the idea. And then what happened? Nothing of note for nearly a decade. The EPA cleaned up the site and part of it became a parking lot. The replacement of the Jackson Avenue Ramps and the Broadway viaduct required a staging area, so the location was used for that. And nine years later, here we are.
Last night the city hosted another gathering with extensive graphics about the site, giving a history, offering suggestions of how the site might be developed, from green spaces to buildings. A range of placards explored connectivity and streetscapes. Despite the photographs shown here, a huge turnout of many of our best urban thinkers gathered and hopefully offered their input. I’ll put a link to the survey at the end of the article, so please provide your input and let’s hope development happens.
First, I asked a few people who had gathered to give their thoughts on what they’d like to see on the site. These are mostly people who think about urban development extensively and have informed opinions. They didn’t agree on every point, but here are the comments:
Jonathan Clark, Entrepreneur:
I would love to see this become a space that is geared toward local art, performance, and affordable space for artists. I would love for it to show people what Knoxville is all about. I would love to see three stories that can be converted (for a range of uses). Something that is accessible and affordable. Not three thousand dollar a month apartments.
I would not like to see housing. I think we need more affordable housing and . . . I think anything that would occupy this space would be unaffordable . . . I would like to see artist spaces, coop kitchens, restaurant space, and probably something involving kids, maybe public spaces for kids. A small theatre and space for workshops for kids . . . I’d like to see tiered heights. So many places just look like boxes. I’d like to see something that looks like a city.
Jack Neely, Executive Director of the Knoxville History Project:
Pedestrian connections. One is a way to get up the hill without going all the way to Gay Street . . . another thing is connecting the World’s Fair Park with the Old City. I remember walking from a party at the Foundry to a party at Lucille’s (a long defunct jazz bar in the Old City) and it was surprisingly short . . . It would be good to have it (new construction) with respect for the industrial heritage of the block . . . three, four, or five stories. Those were big buildings . . . One of Aaron Jay’s pictures of the McClung got on a cover of Bill Wyman’s “Any Way the Wind Blows” album.
The building was a major economic driver, here. They were not a factory, but kind of like Sears and Roebuck, with tens of thousands of different items. They claimed you could build a Ford Model T out of what you could buy at McClung.
Mixed use makes sense to me. Make it as flexible as possible because, as we know, things change over time. Include residential, certainly. I would assume middle or lower income might be possible along the tracks.
Bill Bruce, Landscape Architect:
Connectivity and walkability. Without street trees, it’s diminished a great deal. Other cities emphasize street trees within the city right-of-way, we don’t. It needs to change. We need to see it on both sides of the street . . .
Kim Henry, 20-year downtown resident:
As a resident who lives a half block away from this space. I would love to see some open space, as incorporated within the structures. We are going to have to include parking, and more mixed use. I prefer condos over apartments, and some additional office space. maybe some space for performing arts. We don’t really have a good multi-use performing arts center . . .
Matthew Debardelaben, Realtor, Urban Thinker:
Connectivity is key to me . . . the one that is interesting is how to get up (the hillside to Vine). It would be so wonderful to climb up and see more development up there. I like a lot of the mixed use ideas I’m seeing and pocket parks. I think of the Highline in Manhattan and how they created such an interesting visual space. You don’t have to have a program. You can sit, look at flowers . . . the big thing I wonder is if a Knoxville developer can take this on or will it need a partnership outside. It’s a big site.
For commercial real estate, I hope they will make spaces that are 1,000 to 1,500 square feet so that local businesses can afford to pay rent there . . . It’s hard (to afford) if it is 3,000 square feet. I think about scale as how they divide the space. For scale, I’m thinking three-to-five stories. Maybe parking on the backside (of the building) and maybe make some visual interest.
Daniel Smith, Developer:
Mixed use retail and residential. I think there will be a lot of cost associated with it, so I would think somewhere between seven and twelve (stories). I think parking is going to dictate it. How many parking spaces can you get which will tell you how many units you can get and that will drive the scale of it, how tall you can go. If someone wanted to go up as high as possible, that would be great for the city, for tax dollars. If interest rates stay high, you’ll have to bring a lot more equity to the table . . . you’ll need to go national (developers).
Oren Yarbrough, Architect:
Two recent larger developments downtown, the Supreme Court Site and the Multi-use stadium, they ultimately taken pieces of that and given them to partnerships to make it successful. It will be interesting to see how they do it, if they break it up. Maybe they need an anchor tenant of some sort in retail or office space . . . it’s such an important site.
I think the eight to twelve story range is appropriate. You have unlimited height, but I don’t think building a wall that is twenty stories tall is going to bode well aesthetically when you are on the interstate looking downtown . . . Breaking up the mass will be important for the pedestrian experience . . . Having pedestrian access will subdivide the site . . . It’s three city blocks by scale. You want to break it up, have moments to pause. The grade would allow for parking entry at the bottom and exiting onto street level.
Robin Easter, Robin Easter Design, Downtown Business Owner for almost 35 years:
I like that they are considering public space, retail, it’s just long overdue . . . I don’t want to see something that feels like a monstrosity. It needs to be on scale with what’s around it . . . I’d like to see retail. I think we need to see more small retail spaces . . . We definitely need more housing. I’d like to see more art. When I first moved into the Old City, there was more green space. The corner across from Lonesome Dove was a little green patch and people used it all the time . . . We used to have more access to the streets and now that isn’t (usually) allowed. We need more spaces that we can use as a neighborhood. I love what they’ve done on our end of Jackson Avenue, having trees, getting those . . . wires removed.
So, the range of opinions was wide. My hope is that we take great care and get it right. We will never have this large a tract of public land in the heart of downtown, again. As for my opinion, I like a lot of what I heard from the people I spoke to. I’d love to see the city give the land to the developer or developers, and have the city agree to build a garage below grade, in exchange for very specific design and use requirements, including a larger percentage of workforce housing. Of course we need to see commercial space along the corridor and I agree it should be small units. Green space, trees along the street and a connection to Vine are all great ideas.
So what do you think? The city wants to know. You can read more about it here. And please, please, take this survey!