commentary (2007-11)

Defining 'Downtown North' through redevelopment

The Central Front

by Matt Edens

The area around Central and Broadway is at a crossroads. How's that for stating the obvious? The intersection of two of inner city Knoxville's main thoroughfares is, of course, literally a crossroads. But it has also been a bit of a backwater over the years. All but inaccessible from the interstate and largely bypassed by redevelopment, it has been overlooked and underutilized for decades, a derelict stretch of streets populated primarily by second-hand stores, empty buildings and a few legacies left over from better days.  

That may be starting to change, however. As I've noted in these pages on previous occasions, there's been a stir of interest in the area from a small band of entrepreneurs. Mostly of an offbeat, bohemian bent, their investments have given birth to neighborhood institutions such as the Time Warp Tea Room and Corner Lounge. Other folks have added to the flavor: Gypsy Hands Healing Arts Center, the Taoist Tai-chi Center and Ironwood Studios. There's also what may be the area's original bohemian "business," The Three Rivers Market, formerly the Knoxville Food Co-Op, just around the corner on Broadway.

It's hardly a coincidence that both Central and Broadway back up to some of center-city Knoxville's most revitalized, some might say gentrified, real estate: the neighborhoods of Fourth and Gill and Old North Knoxville. Once these 'hoods reached a critical mass of middle class, college educated folks who'd appreciate access to things like Tai-chi and chai tea, it was only a matter of time before a few savvy merchants stepped in to meet the demand. It's the same phenomenon that informed the city's smart decision to get behind residential development in downtown: Retail follows rooftops.

Over the last several years, the city's leadership and civic boosters have spent considerable time and effort to kick-start residential redevelopment and get those upper-income "rooftops" downtown. But there are also a fair number in the historic neighborhoods immediately north of downtown: three times as many six-figure income households according to the 2000 census, as a matter of fact. Downtown's numbers have no doubt gone up dramatically in the seven years since, but so have Old North's and Fourth and Gill's, if the real estate market is any indication.

Finally, after years of focusing on downtown and all but ignoring the investment occurring in the neighborhoods north of I-40, the city is looking to facilitate the hookup between these two red-hot real estate markets. Last week, Knoxville's Community Development Corporation rolled out a draft plan for a redevelopment district encompassing Emory Place as well as the Central and Broadway corridors out to Woodland and Grainger.

The Metropolitan Planning Commission is likewise preparing what's called a "Small Area Plan" for essentially the same environs. Together, these planning documents call for two things that should go far to strengthen the organic investment already occurring.  

The first is Tax Increment Financing (TIF), which can provide the gap financing crucial to get projects off the ground. The real estate may be cheaper than downtown proper, but so are the rents a developer can expect to charge. TIFs could also finance city investment in the area's crumbling infrastructure.

Second, and perhaps more far-reaching in importance, is the proposed form-based zoning for the area.   Assuming the new zoning is approved, MPC will draw up codes to ensure that any new development or renovations enhance the area's existing urban character (for an example of what not to allow, check out the sheet-metal building somebody recently plopped down in a parking lot on Central, just north of Happy Holler). Form-based codes will also allow for more mixed-use development to build on Central and Broadway's traditional function as a transition zone between downtown and the neighborhoods to the north.

But as someone who has often said the area is a natural extension of downtown, I have to say the most promising thing about the proposed redevelop district may just be what KCDC is calling it: "Downtown North." After years of neglect the city has finally noticed that, when it comes to downtown and inner-city redevelopment, the area around Central is, well, central.