commentary (2006-11)

Leash Laws

Give downtown design beasts room to run

Leash Laws

by Matt Edens

With condo prices approaching the $200 per-square-foot mark and practically every available empty building being renovated into residential lofts, it looks as if this downtown redevelopment thing just might have legs. So, as the mighty beast that is modern real estate development slowly awakens downtown, some folks are a little worried it could go stomping through the neighborhood like Godzilla, knocking down buildings, spewing chaos as well as condos.

Collaring, if not taming the beast before it becomes too big to be brought to heel seems to be the idea behind the design guidelines currently being workshopped around downtown by the Metropolitan Planning Commission. Downtown residents, for the most part, sound receptive to the idea, a little anxious over what their own advocacy has awakened. As market forces rapidly reshape downtown, there’s rising concern from some quarters that the quaint old neighborhood, once construction dust settles, will never be the same.

Now, unless you have a penchant for the subtle beauty of crumbling brick and the pungent aroma of decaying plaster, a downtown that’s no longer derelict is a generally a good thing. But I can also understand what the worry is about, particularly from a historic preservation standpoint.

Historic overlay zoning currently protects Market Square and a scattering of individual buildings, but as things stand now, there is little to shield most of downtown’s remaining historic buildings from the wrecking ball. And the fact that a fair number of downtown’s historic buildings have survived to this point is more a matter of the market’s indifference than any conscious attempt at preservation. With no demand for the real estate, it was often easier and cheaper to let the buildings stand empty and take depreciation than to pay the costs of demolition (or, unfortunately, maintenance).

Demand, at least for residential space, has returned, driven by the promise of luxury lofts with cool urban architecture and a less car-dependent lifestyle. The result has been rejuvenation for many of the empty relics lining Gay Street and a steady revival of the city’s old commercial core. But as the market for lofts continues to grow, could preservation take a backseat to profit?

Early on, preservation was an essential part of the formula. Tax credits for the rehab of commercial property on the National Register helped fill the gaps and made projects feasible, even if the developers had to deal with design review from the Tennessee Historical Commission and the National Park Service (preservation tax credits are not a local incentive). But now that the market has matured, developers can forgo the tax credits and convert warehouses and old office building into condos, meaning their renovations aren’t as subject to review. Plus, as developers are beginning to build new to meet the rising demand, there remains the possibility that some smaller buildings might be bulldozed to make way for larger lofts.

Then there is the even more pressing concern of urban design. In its scattering of surface parking lots, downtown has large amounts of “blank canvas” for architects and developers. What gets built on these is just as important to the shape of downtown’s future as concerns about preserving its past. It’s vital that these new buildings fit the city’s urban fabric. But that doesn’t mean they should be faithful reproductions or reinterpretations of historic buildings.

How an infill building addresses the street and sidewalk matters far more than whether its exterior is clad in brick, glass or gleaming stainless steel. Consider how Market Street, one of downtown’s most pleasant, mixes historic buildings alongside two of Knoxville’s most unabashedly Modernist ones—Home Federal and the former Crystal Building (even if BankEast’s recent remodeling is the architectural equivalent of ’80s nostalgia).

So, while I think design guidelines are a good idea for downtown, I also feel that they should be tailored to two different but interrelated goals: overlay zoning that protects and preserves those historic buildings that remain, but for vacant lots a fairly open set of standards for infill construction that eschew aesthetic and stylistic considerations and concentrate on urban design. Avoiding redevelopment messes isn’t just a matter of keeping the beast on a short leash. We should also, where appropriate, give it room to run.