A Tale of Two Buildings: Two Development Projects Return to Design Review Board

Aerial View of the Vine and Locust Project
Aerial View of the Vine and Locust Project

A month ago, I reported on two major downtown development projects before the Design Review Board. Decisions on each were postponed with directions to the developers to make improvements on the design of the respective buildings.

Hill and Locust (The Tower on the River)

The first, a seventeen-story tower on the riverfront, located on a sliver of land comprising four parcels on a steep hillside. The property, currently under contract, is set to be sold in a sale brokered by Jay Benson and Tim Duff with Realty Executives, in June from Zenith Properties and others to Origins Development (Charleston) and Woodfield Development (Atlanta).

The tower project met with significant community resistance (since the meeting, a petition demanding changes in design has garnered over 1100 signatures) and was tabled until the May meeting with the suggestion that the developers return with a different design that addressed, particularly, the massing on the river side and the traffic flow, all of which was to enter and exit onto Hill Avenue.

The developers and architects met with the community on May 1st to hear more about their concerns and to gain input on potential design elements. At yesterday’s meeting, each party returned with their amended proposals. The proposed design for the tower on the riverfront incorporated several changes to address concerns expressed during the previous meeting and since.

Drawing of the Revised Hill and Locust Project

The design now includes setbacks above the garage level (five floors) along the eastern (Locust Street) and western (Henley Street) to remove the sheer wall effect, as required by downtown codes. Additionally, the massing on the south-facing side has been altered so that the eastern side is taller than the western side, breaking up the single wall appearance of the previous design. The entire project has been lowered one story. Entrances to the residential building were also added along Locust Street, addressing code requirements to avoid a blank wall on a city street. A patio space was added to the corner of Hill Avenue and Locust Street.

Four-story diagonal concrete supports now cross the width of the parking garage, starting with the second floor, making it more interesting to those who view the building from the south and echoing, according to the developers, the arches in the Henley Bridge. An entrance was created to the garage from Front Street (on the south) and landscaping was added to the sliver of additional property on that side of the structure. The garage also includes openings on Front Street which the developers said could be converted to commercial spaces in the future.

City staff recommended that the board discuss the massing on the south side and recommended approval of the project pending a few details including, most significantly, city engineering approval of the traffic flow and parking plan.

Several speakers, including an attorney who works on Main Street, and four residents who live on Hill Avenue, expressed opposition to the project expressing a range of thoughts such as that the building would not be approved for other downtown locations, and that documents going back to the 1930s urged a beautiful entrance to the city and a protection of the riverfront as shared space. Local developer and multi-building owner Nick Cazana spoke in favor of the project, saying he liked it and didn’t want to see Knoxville “staying in our shell.”

The board seemed to generally agree that this design is better, but still “not quite there.” Some sentiment was expressed for increasing the height of the eastern tower and lowering the structure adjacent to Henley even further. After a vote to deny the request, which was intended to allow for the developers to request a workshop with the board, failed, a motion passed delaying it at least 30 additional days.

Rendering of the Vine and Locust Project Looking Up from Near Summit Hill

516 West Vine Avenue

The second building up for discussion, a prominent hilltop project on the other end of downtown, hit resistance from the Board in the previous session, at which they deferred to the May meeting, requesting design and material improvements. The building is located across the street from Summit Towers and is bounded on three sides by Vine Avenue, Locust Street, and Cafego Street.

Oren Yarbrough, lead architect for the building, presented a list of changes made to the building since the last meeting. Primary among them was the addition of a substantial portion of brick and a lighter colored brown brick that matches more closely with some of the brick and other surfaces. The brick extends two floors for most of the building, with exceptions made on other portions due to the significant slope on the site.

Rendering of the Vine and Locust Project from the Northwest (beside Summit Towers)
Rendering of the Vine and Locust Project Looking Up Vine Avenue

The panels on the upper portion of the building were also altered to give the building more interest. Double window bays now are more consistent with the look of the homes across the street. Landscaping was also detailed, which made the project more appealing from the south, or Summit Hill side. The small amount of parking in front of the building will be largely enclosed by the trees and other plants.

Unlike the previous discussion of the project, this one went rapidly. The consensus seemed to be that the new design better met expectations and Joe Petre, the developer representing Lawler Wood, acknowledged as much. With very little comment, including the statement that when we remove a building, we should try to see that we replace it with something better, the board unanimously approved the project.