commentary (2007-13)

The 'favored few' appears to have taken a bit of a snub

Interesting Developments

by Matt Edens

Seems like it was only yesterday, back before the McClung Warehouses burst into flames, that some aggrieved sorts liked to talk about how a "select group of developers" were set on dominating downtown redevelopment with the explicit complicity of city government. That alone was weird enough to behold, since it wasn't so long ago that most of the supposedly select group were sideline players themselves, dismissed with a pat on the head as dilettante developers while the supposed "pros" were proposing to build planetariums or put domes over Market Square. Say what you will about Knoxville being insular and unwelcoming to outsiders, but it's interesting how someone like David Dewhirst went from the crazy guy who thought people might like to live downtown to good-old-boy developer in barely five years.

What's weirder is that when a sizeable contingent of this supposedly select group of developers signed an open letter to City Council expressing concerns about the proposed design guidelines for downtown, Council didn't so much as bat an eye. The proposed guidelines passed 9-0 on the first reading and, by the time you read this will have probably passed on the second. Either: A.) in this town, your luck can change that fast; or B.) that "select group of developers" business was a bit of an oversimplification.

Personally, I've been a bit on the fence about the whole downtown design guidelines issue, as I can sympathize with both sides (tricky too, since I know a fair number of the folks who helped draw up the proposed guidelines as well as many of those who penned the letter to Council). After years of advocating for historic preservation and urban living, I certainly understand the desire to promote quality redevelopment in Knoxville's rapidly evolving downtown. But I can also see the developers' point that downtown is, by nature, supposed to be a bit more dynamic than the historic neighborhoods that surround it. And would largely agree with the point that, with some exceptions, it's not so much "of a piece," either. Although, in light of language in the proposed guidelines about "new building materials should relate to the scale, durability, color, and texture of the predominant building materials in the area," perhaps it could be. That seems to be where the division lies between the developers and the committee that drew up the guidelines.   And, as Knoxville's historic neighborhoods continue to move upscale, I suspect similar conflicts will surface there as well, as affluent homeowners (and, perhaps more to the point, their architects) attempt to reconcile a desire for up-to-date design with century-old surroundings.

Such battles can be bitter. Witness, for instance, the accusations of racism and elitism being tossed around in New Orleans between the traditionalist New Urbanists and the rather more avant-garde dean of Tulane's architecture school. But the surprising thing about downtown Knoxville's design debate is how much both sides actually agree on. There's no argument about the urban-design aspects of the guidelines, even though such requirements would rule out a lot of what passes for cutting-edge architecture these days.

"Cutting edge" by the way, is a surprisingly apt description of the new, Daniel Libeskind-designed Denver Art Museum that's apparently all sharp points and knife-edge angles (where the art actually goes, I can hardly begin to guess).   But aside from such sculptural "starchitecture," it is entirely possible for Modernism to all but seamlessly meld with an urban environment. Knoxville even has a few fine examples--although the city seems to be losing them fast.

Consider Market Street. Between Market Square and the former Whittle World was always one of my favorite stretches of street downtown, despite the fact that it had two fairly pure, albeit old-school, examples of Modernism. But the Crystal Building and the original Home Federal Building, despite being glass, blended in just fine, due to their respect for the street's scale and urban design. Now destroyed for a recent "face-lift," Home Federal's distinctive façade may be gone for good. Because, in light of that language about "the scale, durability, color, and texture of the predominant building materials in the area," it's a little uncertain if some future preservationist could one day put back what was historically there.