insights (2007-08)

Saving Old South High School

The bad news obviously is that the McClung Warehouse fire has destroyed some of Knoxville's historic buildings that should have been the subject of restorative redevelopment.

The good news is that another historic building that's been on Knox Heritage's most endangered list is now the subject of an exciting redevelopment plan that may come to fruition soon.

The former South High School, which was built in 1935, has been deteriorating ever since it was vacated in the 1980s. An opportunity to save it was lost two years ago when County Commission nixed a plan by developer Leigh Burch for investing $3 million in conversion of the landmark building into 26 condominium units. South Knox Commissioner Paul Pinkston spearheaded the opposition, contending that the property was worth more than the nominal price at which the county administration proposed selling it to Burch. A further attempt by the county to sell it at that time failed to produce any bidders at any price.  

Recently, however, the county has received a proposal from the Renaissance Property Group to purchase the property for $22,500. In its proposal, Renaissance contemplates investing $5.25 million to convert the 40,000-square-foot building into a "creative design center." The center would include office space for architectural and design firms, workshop space for artisans, exhibit galleries and a community events center.

It all sounds wonderful, both as a big boost to south Knoxville development as well as from a historic preservation standpoint, But $ 5.25 million is as a lot of money, and the Renaissance proposal is still subject to financing and other contingencies.

A spokesperson for the firm, Shebbie Graves, cautions that, "We are in a preliminary feasibility analysis stage, trying to resolve some major issues that will determine whether we have a viable project." From a financing standpoint, one of them is obtaining $750,000 in federal historic tax credits. (The executive director of Knox Heritage, Kim Trent, is confident that restoration of South High qualifies for them because of the building's eligibility for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.) Property tax abatement is another prerequisite, but Graves says both the city (in which the property is located) and the county are supportive of providing it. Pinkston is also backing the proposal.

A bigger stumbling block could be getting enough parking to meet the needs of prospective tenants, clients and other partakers of the proposed new center. "If we don't have adequate parking, it's a deal killer," Graves reports.

The vacant, historic structure that would house the center is adjoined by additions that were built in 1951 to support expansion of what had been a junior high school into South High. After South High was closed in the 1980s via a consolidation into what's now South-Doyle High, the additions came to be used by the school systems as its Professional Development Center. And all parking spaces at the site are presently allocated to the center.

However, South Knox school board member Robert Bratton asserts that, "I can get them [Renaissance] all the parking that they really need. It's an easy problem to solve." Other schools officials aren't so clear on that.

Renaissance Property Group is a Knoxville-based firm whose principal, Howard Primer, has long resided here. The firm specializes in converting older, typically vacant buildings into apartment complexes and has done so successfully in several other cities including Atlanta, Jacksonville and Orlando. But the proposed design center would be its first project in Knoxville.

The center is patterned after one in Charlotte that involved renovation of a former knitting mill. Graves also draws an analogy to the renovation of former Tyson Junior High School as office space here by developer Sam Furrow in the 1990s. Renaissance doesn't yet have any tenants lined up for the South High space, and it's hard to imagine the firm getting financing from the renovation until some signed leases are in hand. But Graves has a reputation for resourcefulness gained during the years she served as executive director of Knox Housing Partnership. While I don't know Primer, I trust he does as well.

"Save South High" should become a rallying cry for everyone concerned with historic preservation, and Renaissance's exemplary plan for doing so deserves community support on its own merits.