insights (2007-45)

South Waterfront Prospective

insights

After a lot of ballyhoo last year, the cityâ’s plans for South Waterfront development have fallen out of the limelight in recent months. And the cityâ’s director of South Waterfront development, Dave Hill, acknowledges that the loss of visibility has cast doubt on the viability of the cityâ’s plans.

But Hill insists that design work on some $30 million in public-sector improvements has been proceeding apace and will soon be manifest. A public meeting to present schematic designs for a dozen waterfront projects has been scheduled for next Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 6 p.m. at the Kerbela Shriners Temple near Baptist Hospital. And Hill envisions that work on several of these enhancements will begin next year.

The projects range from road work, streetscaping, and a riverwalk along the waterfront to a pedestrian bridge connection to the UT campus across the river, as well as connectivity to the scenic hilltop Quarry Lake that adjoins Fort Dickerson. The cityâ’s budget for the current fiscal year includes $10 million for selected projects, and an additional $6 million in federal funding has been earmarked over the next four years. In addition, the city is seeking a $3 million state grant toward covering the cost of the riverwalkâ’s protrusion over the water at the base of the steep slope that leads up to Baptist Hospital.

The design work is being overseen by Hargreaves Associates, the Cambridge, Mass.-based firm that orchestrated the grand (some would say grandiose) design process that was heralded as fostering several hundred million dollars in uplifting development in a relatively downtrodden area of the city over a span of 20 years. Two local architectural firms, Ross Fowler and Benefield Richters, and engineering consultants, Wilbur Smith and Cannon & Cannon, have been involved in the design process for which the city is drawing $1.4 million from this yearâ’s operating budget.

Whatâ’s unclear is how much of the $10 million in budgeted capital projects this year (and however much more in subsequent years) the city will prepare to commit unless the public-sector funding is derived from accompanying private-sector development. Mayor Bill Haslam has stressed from the outset that the entire South Waterfront undertaking will be â“market driven.â” Toward that end, the city has established a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District to which increased property tax revenues resulting from private development along a three-mile stretch of waterfront will be dedicated to service the debt of bond issues to pay for public improvements.

To date, the only source of such revenues is the Cityview condominiums that are going up on the former Knoxville Glove Co. site on Blount Avenue to the west of Chapman Highway. When complete, the 122-unit Cityview complex is expected to generate TIF revenue sufficient to support $2.8 million in street improvements and riverwalk construction along its borders.

Several other owners of large waterfront industrial tracts have so far shown little interest in redevelopment of their property or, in some cases, have balked at zoning restrictions on the height of any new construction and required setbacks. Bill Baxter and his wife Ginger, who own the Holston Gases facility just east of the Gay Street bridge, have been particularly outspoken in this regard. Yet, the Baxters have been proceeding with the acquisition of additional property that slopes up to Sevier Avenue from their present holdings, suggesting that they may be contemplating redevelopment if zoning variances can be obtained.

The most promising prospects for early redevelopment, in Hillâ’s view, lie on riverfront property owned by Mike Conley to the east of Holston Gasesâ’ and Marathon Ashlandâ’s tank farms. A Hargreaves master plan has envisioned some 140 condos going up on the portion of this 20-acre site thatâ’s above the flood plain. To make it more accessible, the plan calls for constructing a new River Road along the flood line and then connecting to the James White Parkwayâ’s Sevier Avenue interchange. A public park and another stretch of riverwalk would go on the 10 acres that lies in the flood plain. Hill places the cityâ’s cost of property acquisition and improvements at about $10 million, which would consume all of the cityâ’s budgeted funds for the current fiscal year. He wonâ’t venture how much of the cost might be covered by a TIF because there arenâ’t yet appraised property values on which to base it.

The Hargreaves master plan calls for the River Road and riverwalk to extend through the Marathon Ashland and Holston Gases property to connection points in the vicinity of Baptist Hospital. But Hill acknowledges that these extensions arenâ’t likely in the foreseeable future. The cost of relocating the Marathon Ashland facility is the biggest single roadblock, and Hill says the city isnâ’t about to foot the bill for that. â“If we started trying to cover the costs of relocating a business, it would suck us dry in a minute,â” he avers.

Also near the top of Hillâ’s priority list for public-sector improvements is a roundabout to facilitate traffic movement where Blount and Sevier Avenues converge with the southside terminus of the Gay Street bridge. Beyond that, the riverwalk beneath Baptist Hospital and a pedestrian bridge link to the UT campus would each cost upwards of $10 million. So they may also be a long way in the future even if the city is successful in getting the state and federal grants itâ’s seeking to help pay for them.

Space constraints donâ’t permit description of all the other projects on which design work will be presented at the Nov. 13 meeting. But readers are encouraged to attend and to judge for themselves how much progress is being made. â" Joe Sullivan

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