commentary (2006-43)

Downtown living attracts hipsters, young and old

Ephemeral Aspirations

by Matt Edens

An interesting news item caught my eye the other day. Interesting, in part, because it didn’t involve underage pages, rogue political operatives or whatever mud the Corker and Ford campaigns were flinging that week. Instead, it had to do with the unusual auction held last week at the Foundry where, in a few hours, auctioneers sold off all 47 of the condo units currently under construction in the former Candy Factory overlooking the World’s Fair Park.

Metro Pulse publisher Brian Conley is, of course, a partner in the somewhat controversial redevelopment. But what really caught my eye about the article was that the units sold for about $225 per square foot, with some smaller units fetching in excess of $250 per square foot. Either are premium prices for the Knoxville market, exceeded only by prestigious real estate along Cherokee Boulevard or waterfront property in West Knoxville. And those figures represent an increase of roughly 60 to 70 percent since the Lerner and Fire Street lofts first topped the $150 per square foot threshold two years ago.

What makes that increase even more interesting is that prices have risen alongside supply. With the Candy Factory, the Burwell, Holston and Gallery lofts, in addition to several small projects, we are poised to add more than 200 units to downtown’s residential base.  The fact that this sudden glut hasn’t driven prices down, or at least leveled them off, leads me to believe that the demand for downtown housing is considerably stronger than credited by some suburban skeptics.

In fact, if the crowd bidding on units at the Candy Factory is any indication, affluent West Knoxville suburbanites may become a strong segment of downtown’s urbanites. Some of that is due to the simple fact that downtown, and especially the Candy Factory, is nearly next door to Neyland Stadium. But, increasingly, the nightlife and activities around downtown and Market Square are also part of the attraction.

Downtown Knoxville is becoming an embryonic example of what architect and urban critic Joel Kotkin calls the “Ephemeral City,” towns such as San Francisco, New York and Miami: “fashionable and faddish” places populated primarily by twenty-something hipsters, aging empty nesters and affluent part-time residents with no permanent abode. They are cities that, according to Kotkin, no longer “labor to retain middle-class families and factory jobs or worry excessively about economic competition with suburbs and exurbs. Instead, they nurture their cities’ fashionableness, ‘hipness’ and style.”

Crammed with cultural attractions, nightclubs and restaurants, Ephemeral Cities are wonderful places to spend the weekend. But they are, in Kotkin’s mind, economically unsound. And he has plenty of disturbing data to back up his argument. Not only are Ephemeral Cities plagued by ongoing job and population loses, their service-based economies create a growing gap between their hob-nobbing haves and the have-nots who wait the city’s tables, clean its hotel rooms, and cook its cuisine. Typically high housing costs and tax burdens only add to the squeeze.

Luckily, Knoxville’s growing cadre of loft-dwellers is only a tiny segment of a much larger community, a tiny ephemeral enclave in what Kotkin would otherwise consider a “City of Aspiration.” Mostly sprawling Sunbelt cities in the South and Southwest, they are the exact opposite of ephemeral. Embracing “growth and new opportunity, lower-cost housing, more permissive business climate, and consistently warm temperature,” have succeeded in luring ever-larger numbers of new migrants and immigrants, mostly young families, and in nurturing numerous new businesses. “Financial and business services, information technology, and even manufacturing are all growing,” according to Kotkin.

And, while Cities of Aspiration are great places to start a business or a family, they’ve often been square, boring places to hang out, particularly if you’re a twenty-something hipster or an affluent baby-boomer looking forward to retirement. But not any more: As Knoxville and dozens of other Cities of Aspiration mature, they aspire—at least in places—to emulate the ephemeral, adding loft-living and latte culture, albeit on a much smaller, local scale. You won’t find too many globetrotting millionaires living in the Fire Street lofts or lunching at the Tomato Head. But downtown Knoxville is increasingly appealing to a similar niche: people who could afford to live anywhere but are drawn to the energy, activity and attractions of downtown.