Community Developments: Public Improvements Coming to Downtown's Environs

There are a whole lot of public improvements getting underway in downtown's environs. Indeed, when accompanying private projects getting a public assist are taken into account, developments on the perimeter are outstripping those in downtown proper.

The $165 million revitalization of the moribund former Baptist Hospital site on the South Waterfront and the $65 million commercialization of a brownfield on the western front are, of course, emblematic of the latter. They will be supported by the two largest allocations of tax increment financing the city has ever seen—$22 million in the case of the Baptist site, and a $10 million TIF plus a $1.5 million outright city grant in the case of the University Commons shopping center.

Unlike most TIFs, where the boost in property tax revenues resulting from a development goes toward financing the private project, much of tax revenue generated by these projects will go for public improvements.

At the Baptist site, more than half of the $22 million over 30 years will cover the cost of amenities that have been central to the city's ambitiously conceived, but slow to materialize, South Waterfront Development Plan. These include: (1) a 20-foot wide public river walk that will stretch from the Gay Street Bridge on the east to well west of the Henley Street bridge; (2) a 23,000-square-foot public plaza and event terrace connecting Blount Avenue to the river walk between two of the mixed-use buildings that developers Blanchard and Calhoun are planning for the site; and (3) improvements to Blount Avenue on the south side of the development.

The balance of the $22 million will go toward demolition of the 588,000 square feet of antiquated hospital space that Blanchard and Calhoun must remove to make way for its transformation of the 24-acre site.

A portion of the $10 million TIF allocated to developer CHM for its equally transformative University Commons project will go for a new bridge connecting the 210,000-square-foot shopping center to the Joe Johnson Drive span that traverses the site. This new entry, along with extensive traffic engineering to streamline the flow to and from Kingston Pike, is expected to make the center's Walmart, Publix, and other stores accessible without creating any adjacent bottlenecks.

These new TIF-supported developments, as remarkable as they are, should in no way overshadow long-in-the-works pure public improvements that are coming to fruition in the same vicinities both west and south of downtown.

Construction is due to start in January on the $16 million Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project that has been in the planning and design stage since 2007. The project will urbanize the Strip as we have known it into a roadway that looks a lot more like the 100 Block of Gay Street than a slice of Bearden. To make way for 14-foot sidewalks on either side (including space for interspersed trees and benches), Cumberland will be narrowed from four lanes to three, including a continuous turn lane in the middle. Putting utilities underground will further enhance the visual appeal. This pedestrian-friendly stretch from 17th Street to 22nd Street will be accompanied by a new form-based building code intended to encourage more mixed-use verticality. (The six-story apartment building with retail on the ground floor now going up at 2010 Cumberland is hoped to be prototypical.)

During the two-plus years it will take to complete the project, two lanes will be kept open by doing the work first on one side of the street, and then the other. Federal highway funds are covering 80 percent of the cost with a 20 percent local match.

On the South Waterfront, work is also due to start next year on a new five-acre city park that the natives have opted to name Suttree Landing. When first envisioned in 2007, the park was due to adorn and be funded by a TIF on a $58 million condominium development on property owned by the Conley family. After the real estate market downturn shelved that project, Mayor Madeline Rogero opted to "borrow" the $5 million cost of the park with the expectation that a TIF derived from subsequent private development in the vicinity will eventually cover it.

Suttree Landing Park will include a dock for non-motorized boats, a playground, a natural area, and an 1,800-foot further extension of the river walk that's eventually supposed to traverse the entire South Knoxville Waterfront. New access roads will link the park to Sevier Avenue and also extend along its southern perimeter at an additional $5 million cost of which 80 percent is federally funded.

On downtown's northern edge as well, there's been a major breakthrough. After more than a decade of futility in trying to redress the blight caused by the dilapidated McClung Warehouses (or what's left of them after a 2007 fire), the city has finally succeeded in acquiring the property adjoining the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks for $1.4 million from a bankruptcy trustee. Director of Redevelopment Bob Whetsel envisions issuing an RFP for redevelopment of the property that will hopefully result in preservation of the two historic buildings that are still standing. At the same time, the city is moving ahead with plans for a $500,000 streetscaping project along the decrepit stretch of Jackson Avenue adjoining the property that should enhance its value.

Mayor Rogero deserves a lot of credit for all of these endeavors that her administration has continued to pursue despite relatively weak city revenue growth and mounting pension costs.