Large Riverfront Tower Project is Back (The Design Review Board Reacts)

Rendering of Locust and Hill from the Southeast (From the Design Review Application)
Rendering of Locust and Hill from the Southeast (From the Design Review Application)

The idea has gone through several owners and iterations, but the general theme remains the same: To build a large residential tower just off the Henley Bridge on a relatively small, seriously sloped parcel of ground. The last round of conversation involved “The T,” and was (I was amazed to realize), proposed just about six years ago. Originally envisioned at nineteen stories, it grew to twenty-six before being abandoned.

As before, the latest project, which is being referenced as “Hill and Locust,” is stirring strong reactions ranging from architectural criticism to a debate over whether any housing is good housing at this point. At the heart of this round are plans for a seventeen-story building which would include five levels of parking and twelve levels of apartments. The parcel faces Front Avenue (a small piece of which remains and parallels Neyland), but also borders Henley, Locust, and a small portion extends up to Hill Avenue.

Site Location (From the Design Review Application)

While the building would be seventeen stories tall, that is measured from the base at Front, meaning that the structure would not appear as high as that might sound relative to other buildings built on our bluff. It might look more like a twelve-story building, but it would be significantly taller than the smaller, mostly residential buildings lining that section of Hill. The small portion of the project that would extend to Hill Avenue would be six stories, matching the scale of the adjacent Overlook residential development.

A significant concern among residents and businesses on Hill Avenue is traffic flow into and out of the garage which is routed through an entrance and exit on the small street. The street already suffers long backups and gridlock before concerts and sporting events at UT as traffic comes off Henley onto Hill, to use Locust as an access to Neyland. It raises questions for emergency vehicle access, but also would seem to make coming and going from the new apartments extremely difficult if not impossible during those times.

The primary pedestrian access is in that same northeastern portion of the building that fronts Hill Avenue. Initial plans call for a “cafe” on that corner, though in clarifications during the Design Meeting, the cafe was likened unto a coffee cart in a hotel lobby, meaning this is the lobby, not a business for the public to visit. The section fronting Hill will have a “brick veneer with metal accents.” That would seem to be consistent architecturally with the adjacent Overlook. The entire building would be steel and concrete, as opposed to the stick-built proposal for the T.

Site Diagram (From the Design Review Application)

As seen from the south, the base five stories, which include the parking levels built of cast-in-place concrete sections, would also include “architecturally canted columns” at the corners. The residential section is shaped like a C and surrounds a level of amenities, which includes a pool immediately above the garage, a clubroom, fitness room, and lobby. Glass balconies are included for the apartments.

The project includes 290 total homes and offers 399 parking spaces. For comparison, consider our currently largest downtown development, Marble Alley Lofts, which came in at 248 homes and 370 parking spaces, albeit on a significantly larger footprint. More recently, Church+Henley brought in 237 units. The breakdown of units in the new building includes 99 studio units (535 sf), 127 1-BR units (715 sf), 38 2-BR units (1,115 sf), 19 3-BR units (1,300 sf), and seven penthouse units (2,500 sf). Totals for the project include 235,653 leasable square feet and 375 beds total. Ten percent of the units (29) would be leased as affordable housing, leasing to people making 80% or less of Knoxville’s Average Median Income ($44,303).

The developers (Whelchel/Gillenwater Trust/Welchel, Barbara H and Zenith Properties, LLC are listed as owners of the property, Origin Development out of Savannah lists the project as theirs, while the Design Review documents indicate Woodfield Development, LLC out of Isle of Palms own the development), represented by Brock Hudgens Architects (Atlanta), brought their proposal before the Design Review Board yesterday and the crowd assembled included a number opposed to the project.

Design Review Board, Knoxville, April 2024
Design Review Board, Knoxville, April 2024
Design Review Board, Knoxville, April 2024
Design Review Board, Knoxville, April 2024

In a back-and-forth, the developers/architects spoke, those opposed to the project spoke, and the developers responded. Then more people commented. For an hour and a half.

Bill Lyons served as primary spokesperson for those opposed and his bottom-line argument was that it does not meet the guidelines for a development in a Boulevard District. Specifically (among others) he cited section 2c of the guidelines which calls to “Maintain sight lines to historic buildings that were originally located in an open setting, providing setbacks for new buildings next to historic structures in order to preserve views.” The new building is adjacent to historic buildings and structures like the Henley Bridge, Riverhouse, and the Boyce Temple House.

He also objected to the late notice on the project and what he felt was inadequate information to the public. Among his points, he noted the heavy traffic through the area. Others expressed concerns such as the addition of another heat-producing building to a heat island.

Board discussion included landscaping, potentially to soften the view from the bridge and river, the impact on traffic, and the possibility of adding something behind the building to front the river. Most of the conversation centered on the mass of the building facing the river and Henley Bridge. While acknowledging the building needs to include a certain number of units to provide a profit and that the number will require height, the committee hesitated at the current design. Wishing to see something besides a garage and a massive white wall along the river, they ultimately voted to postpone a decision to give the developers and architects time to consider changes that would soften that side.

I think I’m reading the room correctly in thinking that approval is eventually expected, but they are hoping for improvements. The developer hopes to close on the land in June and to begin construction in early 2025.

And this wasn’t the only major project discussed at the meeting. I’ll have more on the other later today.