commentary (2006-40)

Quit with your conspiracy theories already

Imminent, Not Eminent

by Matt Edens

I assume, by now, that you’ve heard of the city’s massive South Waterfront Redevelopment Plan. But the most surprising, perhaps promising, thing about the project may be the one thing you probably haven’t heard much about.

Concerns over eminent domain have dominated coverage of the redevelopment effort aimed at reshaping the three miles of South Knoxville riverfront across from downtown. Some of those concerns are a holdover from the Ashe administration’s ill-fated, ill-conceived attempt at redevelopment in the early ’90s, but most are the consequence of timing.

The planning process kicked off congruent to the Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Kelo vs. New London eminent domain case. The Kelo decision, supporting New London’s plan to use public funds to transfer private property from unwilling owners to a for-profit developer, led some South Knoxvillians, along with recurring critics of city redevelopment efforts, to shout “land grab.” And the clamor, despite contrary protestations from planners and city officials, continues.

Never much for conspiracy theories, I don’t subscribe to the belief that the city plans to buy up South Knoxville and sell it off at a pittance to private developers (where, for one thing, will the money come from?). But it’s almost tempting to think that the Sturm und Drang over eminent domain is a masterful piece of Rovian misconception devised to draw attention away from what, for Knoxville, is the truly revolutionary part of the South Waterfront plan. Worry about Kelo all you want, I doubt eminent domain will drastically reshape the rundown stretches of South Knoxville’s waterfront. But there’s a fair chance that form zoning will—for the better.

South Knoxvillians largely like their community’s small-town feel. The sentiment came through loud and clear in the workshops last year that led to the project’s “vision plan.” And there are few parts of South Knoxville that are more small-town than the area just across the river from downtown. Minus the hospital and its immediate environs or the view across the water, Sevier Avenue, Scottish Pike and Blount Avenue could easily be streets in Newport, Oneida or any of a half-dozen East Tennessee towns: old redbrick commercial buildings and clapboard cottages nestled in a narrow valley against a backdrop of steep, tree-covered hillsides. But there’s also, as in Newport and Oneida, a certain amount of decay: abandoned industrial sites, empty buildings, overgrown lots. The trick is redeveloping the latter while preserving that uniquely small town feel of the former.

To do it, the planners and architects behind the South Waterfront Plan have proposed Knoxville take a new approach, albeit one that’s also old. Rather than standard, suburban-style zoning that is mostly about separating commercial and residential uses and keeping them corralled behind berms of landscaping, the plan’s form-based zoning guidelines reinforce the traditional urban form that separates the South Waterfront from, say, West Knoxville. Yes, the plan calls for condos, but it largely concentrates them in areas adjacent to the urban core of downtown, adding more urban-scaled buildings alongside downtown’s bridgehead on the south bank, Baptist Hospital. While on Sevier Avenue, Phillips and the Scottish Pike neighborhood, the plan allows property owners to more easily integrate new development into the old.

Under the current zoning, trying to build a new house on one of the narrow neighborhood lots or a street fronting, commercial building with parking to the rear and apartments above requires a slew of variances. Form-based zoning streamlines the process, cuts through a significant amount of red tape and makes it easier to build the sort of fine-grained urban infill the South Waterfront, indeed all of Knoxville’s inner city, desperately needs. I hope that, once form zoning takes root on the south bank, it spreads across Knoxville like kudzu.

The proposed form zoning guidelines don’t just provide a framework for redevelopment, either. They also offer a fair amount of protection for property owners worried about eminent domain, particularly through the small lot sizes and smaller scale buildings called for in areas like Scottish Pike and Phillips Avenue (eminent domain is most often abused, as in the Kelo case, in assembling large parcels for large-scale redevelopment). But as the plan moves forward I’d also like to see more emphasis on actual preservation zoning and providing renovation assistance to low- and moderate-income homeowners, safeguards to ensure that, as the South Waterfront revitalizes, it also retains its uniquely urban and Appalachian vibe.