Down in Front

Is the cinema the draw or was it drawn?


by Matt Edens

By the time you read this, the long-anticipated downtown cinema should be open on Gay Street (it's tempting to say reopened, considering how Regal recycled the old Riviera's name and real estate).

I'm sure this will be only one of many pieces written this week citing how wonderful it is to have first-run movies return to downtown Knoxville after a 30-odd-year absence. But it's really nice to see another theater marquee on Gay Street. And I'll remind those who say the cinema's architecture compares poorly with the S&W thatâ"considering Regal's initial design ideasâ"we could be making that comparison from memory rather than reality if the plan hadn't been reworked to save the Art Deco cafeteria. So let me say thanks to the city and Mayor Bill Haslam for making that happen (and the folks with Knox Heritage, particularly architect Faris Eid, for convincing them it was doable).

The project was obviously, frustratingly fraught with delays (although some, such as saving the S&W facade, were worth it). But a funny thing happened in the interim. Despite the fact that the cinema was initially proposed to anchor Market Square's redevelopment, the square has fared surprisingly well without it, as has the rest of downtown. Sure, Mast did move in because of the theater's promise. But the lack of it didn't seem to keep shoppers away over the past year.

At this point, I'm starting to wonder if, instead of the cinema serving as the boost downtown revitalization needs to ensure success, Knoxville's revitalizing downtown will be the catalyst for the theater's ultimate success.

The recent addition of several hundred residential units to downtown has produced a profound change, peopling the streets after hours and making places like Market Square more amenable to Knoxvillians as a whole. The shift in attitude toward downtown, if anything, is as significant as its relatively small gains in population. After all, a couple hundred condo dwellers, no matter how well-heeled, can't provide the households required to support even a modest amount of downtown retail, much less a movie theater.

Downtown, at the moment, is lucky to be a destination for a surprising number of university students and folks from out in the suburbs. The cinema should add to the draw. And I look forward to someday hearing it dismissed in Yogi Berra-esque terms, like Sundown in the City, by old-school downtown types as something â“no one goes to anymore because it's too crowded.â”

Entertainment districts have a short shelf-life, though. It's good to see downtown diversifying a bit. But some of the biggest benchmarks in downtown's redevelopment aren't announced by press releases or bright neon. Lately I've been increasingly struck by how downtown's revitalization is starting to ripple far beyond the few blocks surrounding Market Square.

Just last week, working on a story for Metro Pulse 's sister publication Knoxville Magazine , I interviewed a half-dozen entrepreneurs (even if half of them would cringe at the label) busy converting North Central Street into an eclectic enclave of hangouts and homes that should both compliment downtown and help connect it to the gentrifying neighborhoods to the north.

Earlier, I spent a fine Friday evening drinking a few beers on a porch in Parkridge, amazed that all but a handful of the two dozen or more people at the party had moved into the neighborhood since I moved out two years ago. Even more interesting is how, alongside the affordability of the real estate, they cited proximity to downtown among their main reasons for buying in Parkridge. It's something I hear more and more often in all of the neighborhoods around downtown.  

Compared with the front-row seat of a condo on Gay Street, places like Parkridge, Oakwood-Lincoln Park, and N. Central are definitely â“cheap seats.â” But they're still good seats. And the fact that they're filling up is a good sign for both the cinema and the city.


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