commentary (2006-45)

The new need is for center-city services

What Works

by Matt Edens

In a sure sign that I’m growing old and dull, I’m supposed to be on a “panel of experts” this evening, Nov. 9.  The occasion is Knox Heritage’s annual preservation awards, a five o’clock reception at the Knoxville Museum of Art followed by the awards presentation and, according to the press release: “Mayor Bill Haslam moderating a lively and frank discussion on the state of preservation in our community and the challenges ahead” by a panel including local planners, advocates, developers, a representative from the National Trust and me. It’s on account of the 13 years I’ve been writing Urban Renewal, Metro Pulse’s real estate column focused on preservation and the center-city real estate market.

Not that there was much of a market, back when I started in 1993.  There were only a handful of lofts downtown and prices in Fourth and Gill—the closest Knoxville came to a “gentrified” neighborhood—hadn’t broken a hundred grand. West Knoxvillians barely bothered to even declare downtown dead in those days, and couldn’t have found Fourth and Gill if they tried. (Once, during a City Council meeting, a reporter from WATE actually asked me where Fourth and Gill was. I gave her directions, but left unsaid the sad fact that the neighborhood was outside her studio’s back door.)

Knoxville’s leadership class, at least, did know where downtown was. But the leaders had little idea what to do with it. Embarrassed by the fact that the sidewalks rolled up at 5 o’clock, they spent most of the last 13 years desperate for something that might fill those sidewalks with tourists: convention centers, “shoppertainment” and silly domes over Market Square (sadly, they got suckered into spending a ton of taxpayer money on that first one). And, with Universe Knoxville, the community’s leadership demonstrated so little self-confidence in the city’s identity and inherent appeal that they went all the way to outer space in search of an “attraction” that was as much a distraction as anything else (ironically at the exact same moment Oh Brother Where Art Thou? gave much of East Tennessee’s indigenous music and culture sudden cache).

In a way, it was only after the “leadership” exhausted itself in vain pursuit of planetariums and what-not that the preservationists finally got the chance to prove what they’d been saying all along: that downtown’s old buildings, overlooked in so many earlier redevelopment schemes, were actually an asset. Figuring they’d tried everything else, the city signed on, pledging a small amount of support for a few pioneer loft projects—mostly through deferring the taxes they wouldn’t have collected if the buildings had been left to rot anyway. 

Converted into upscale apartments and condos, those old buildings filled up fast. More loft projects followed. I dare say that, comparing the return on taxpayer dollars invested, downtown’s lofts have consistently put far more people on downtown’s streets than the convention center. Loft development has largely changed the tone of discussion downtown. No longer dead or dying, the neighborhood is now dealing with growing pains. Just the other day, I got drawn into yet another a discussion of the Gay Street 100 block’s great dog excrement dilemma.

The Sterchi, Emporium, Phoenix and Fire Street—a relative handful of multi-million dollar projects—have convinced Knoxville’s leadership that they supported preservation-based redevelopment all along. But have they noticed that those hundred thousand dollar houses in Fourth and Gill and Old North now regularly sell for more than $200,000? Or that a house in Parkridge recently sold for nearly as much? ($190,000 was the figure I heard.) Or that, as the supply of unrestored old houses dwindle, homeowners and developers in not just Fourth and Gill and Old North, but also Mechanicsville, have begun building new ones designed to mix in with the old? Homes that compare with the latest suburban homes on fit, finish and price?

I’m not entirely sure the leaders—especially the unelected civic boosters behind the scenes—have grasped what’s going on in the neighborhoods around downtown, but the complicated task of downtown redevelopment won’t be done until they do. With relatively little fanfare and for a minimum of taxpayer dollars, preservation has reversed a trend and brought middle- and upper-middle-class homeowners back to the places they abandoned a half-century ago. The question now is whether Knoxville and Knox County’s leadership can provide the services—everything from public schools to pooper scooping—required to keep them there.