commentary (2006-52)

What Didn’t Happen in 2006

Wrong Year

by Barry Henderson

One year ago, on the cover of our 2006 Year In Preview issue, we had a picture of a guy sitting on the site of the Gay Street Regal cinema with a box of popcorn, waiting for the first feature. In 2005, a lot of people were expecting that to be the most exciting thing to happen in 2006.

But it didn’t. The eight-screen cineplex, announced to be open in time for the Christmas season of 2006—and even then, much delayed from earlier forecasts—is, at this writing, just some very tall walls. We stand on the sidewalk, wondering where the actual movie screens are going to be.

On the optimistic side, though, the city-cinema partnership did at least get construction begun in earnest, after jumping through several fundraising hoops. Now officially called Regal Riviera Stadium 8—an homage to the original Riviera, the huge movie house which, more or less coincidentally, stood on the same spot from 1920 to sometime when we stopped paying attention to it in the ‘80s—it’s expected to be done by summer.

So, as we recount in this issue the things that happened in 2006, we can’t ignore the fact that a lot of things didn’t happen.

We also announced a year ago that a team of preservationist downtown developers were soon to announce plans for other developments on the old Riviera block of Gay, the S&W and adjacent buildings. No word yet, with suggestions of problems with the city and questions from likely tenants—but they’re still saying “soon.” They deserve points for consistency.

We mentioned that a new bank called FirstBank would be occupying the General Building downtown and soon constructing a 12-story skyscraper at Parkside Drive, though admittedly what we heard was mainly based on a grand announcement of the Fountains at Parkside, accompanied by a sketch, in the daily. We haven’t heard much about that bank lately, as some of the principals have started banks of their own.

Downtown’s first real grocery, a trendy new place to be called A.G. Hamby’s, was set to open in the spring after months of reported construction delays. It didn’t. It seems to have vanished altogether; meanwhile, the Old City Market, a basement convenience store with some groceries, seems to have closed after some distribution problems and a flood. Downtown has more residents, and fewer grocery options, than it did a year ago.

The Days Inn off Cumberland didn’t reopen in April as the fabulously funky new Hotel Indigo. It was to be the only East Tennessee sample of a new concept in hostelry and hotel that changes colors and themes almost as often as it changes linens. We don’t know what the deal with that was, either why they wanted to do it, or, having wanted to, why they didn’t.

Condo owners at the Crimson Building on Gay Street, the ’90s wonder that was the first upscale residential conversion on Gay Street, before it was almost destroyed in a peculiar fire almost two years ago, would be renovated by now. After long delays, owners reportedly have things worked out with the insurance company—but reconstruction work hasn’t yet started.

Some of the predictions from a year ago that went awry were political in nature. In projecting County Commission races, we were confident that most incumbents “seem safe” in re-election. We didn’t predict the statewide county-charter problems that made the long-term incumbents the least “safe” of all.

Most of the disappointments of 2006 had to do with preservationist renovations, which is an unpredictable business at best.

The conversion of the 1929 YMCA building’s old residential floors into condos was something many had expected to have been completed by 2006, but work seems to have slowed to a crawl; the speculation is that it’s undercapitalized.

Based on what we heard from sources, we also reckoned that the Pickle Mansion, the prominent Clinch Avenue Victorian in Fort Sanders almost destroyed by fire several years ago but bought by a vigorous young preservationist, would at least have a roof on it by mid-2006. At year’s end, it still doesn’t.

Some had hoped the fully-fledged Museum of East Tennessee History, closed since early 2003 due to a massive remodeling/reconstruction of the Custom House/History Center building, would reopen sometime in 2006. It didn’t happen, but the space hosted several interesting and unexpected events, like the new Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound’s wildly popular historic-home-movie nights, and the November return of former Knoxville Elizabeth Costive, whose smart vampire novel, The Historian , is a global bestseller now being made into a major motion picture. We didn’t predict that.

One prediction about 2006 was one we got regrettably right, about the McClung Warehouses on Jackson: “We suspect the giant eyesore will keep its busted windows displayed toward the interstate throughout the year, as it has done so ably for so long.”

Some more positive predictions were almost right on the money. Mast General Store opened right on time. The Bijou renovation was just about a month late. Fire Street Lofts opened roughly as advertised. River Towne, the first upscale riverfront condominiums on the south side, seem to have opened roughly on time.

You could almost average it out into a predictable formula: take a developer’s projection of when a project will be completed, and add 40-50 percent to get the real date.

It’s only natural, probably. Construction, especially preservationist construction, is often a complicated ordeal of financing, unexpected hazards, weather, variant interpretations of codes, combining moving and fixed targets.

Fortunately, most of our disappointments about 2006 are not that things aren’t going to happen; it’s that they’re not going to happen as soon as we thought. Developers have to be optimists, or they probably wouldn’t be developers. When you hear a developer mention a completion date, be nice. Nod and smile. Know they sometimes mean well, and make your own private calculations.