Architectural Density: New Suburbanism is Undermining Downtown

At a recent public downtown forum at the UT Downtown Design Studio on a Thursday evening early this month, Professor Mark Schimmenti showed maps of several cities, ranging from antebellum icons like Savannah and New Orleans' French Quarter, to New York neighborhoods Soho and Brooklyn Heights, to Como, Italy. It's admittedly an arbitrary selection of world cities and neighborhoods, chosen because they're famously appealing places and because they're geographically about the same size as downtown Knoxville. All the maps are on the same scale, emphasizing the built environment in sharp contrast to parking lots and empty spaces.

Shown in this relief, most of them make dense, interesting patterns. But compared to the others, downtown Knoxville looks scattered, like something disintegrating.

That might seem kind of a puzzle. Downtown has gotten more and more densely populated in the last 20 years, seemingly more urban.

But there's an irony here. As we're accommodating so many more residents and revelers downtown than we did 20 years ago, we're doing it with markedly fewer buildings.

Almost all of the new activity downtown has happened within old buildings, growth possible just because so many old buildings were empty or underused. Meanwhile, we've been destroying our raw material. During the same 20 years that downtown has gotten to be so much more fun, mostly thanks to preservationist development, downtown's stock of old buildings has been decreasing at an impressive rate. We've lost acres and acres of urban floor space. Even as we've ostensibly learned to value our city, one building after another has bitten the dust: the stylishly industrial Tennessee Mill & Mine building, the old 1920s bus-station garage, the Park Hotel, the Knaffl Studio, a forgotten brick corner saloon, the once-elegant five-story Sprankle Building, most of the hugely Victorian McClung warehouses, the artistically elaborate Mann's Mortuary, the potentially versatile Walnut Street buildings, the complicated old News Sentinel building, and other less conspicuous clusters of buildings on Market Street and Summer Place and State and South Central Street.

Though downtown's the source of most of the positive press Knoxville has earned in this century, the neighborhood occupies less than 1 percent of the city of Knoxville, geographically, and about one one-thousandth of Knox County. Downtown sticks out on this landscape. I know there's a boyish impulse to flatten it. For many of these, it's the only motive I can discern.

In almost all cases, these demolished buildings have not been replaced by anything much at all. No architecture, anyway. I can think of only one small exception, the ca. 1940 pharmacy building that yielded to the Regal Riviera. All our other demolition sites are mainly empty space.

In terms of brick and mortar, downtown's getting not denser, but sparser.

Every story's different. Some of the buildings demolished were intact, potentially useful to preservationist developers who never got the chance.

Others were buildings cheaply modified over the years, no longer much to look at, buildings few noticed or cared about when they were torn down.

Some of the losses were accidental (sometimes predictably accidental, as in the case of McClung Warehouses, destroyed by fire: Knoxville's most dramatic and expensive example of demolition by neglect).

Most demolitions were deliberate. Several of those were torn down by owners who announced plans to build something there, and then didn't. A lot of architects' impressive renderings of infill development are yellowing, several years old now. Just show us some pretty pictures. We don't much care whether you're really going to build them. We're easily dazzled. We'll run your pictures on the front page, congratulate you at receptions, and then politely forget all about it.

Some of it's just rubble and dirt. Some of it's used for surface parking, and in most cases, underused at that: surface parking that's empty most of the hours of the week. Maybe it'll eventually be something. The Marble Alley project, a little delayed but scheduled to break ground in February, should fill in one of the biggest patches, the long-blank site of Tennessee Mill & Mine on State Street, demolished in the '90s.

That's an exception we're looking forward to. But now a landowner wants to demolish the 1920s Pryor Brown parking garage, notable for its mixed-use retail spaces—for, in the near term at least, more surface parking.

With each unreplaced demolition, our physical downtown resembles, more and more, some peculiar suburban development. Maybe some people like that. But anything that reduces the city's urban potential reduces the city itself.

We've got a lot of bases covered. You like the suburbs? We've got plenty. Gothic, rancher, log cabin, riverside, lakeside, mountain view, cul-de-sac, sidewalks, no sidewalks, interstate access, take your pick. You like strip malls? We've got you taken care of there, too. We have hundreds of them. Big box stores, covered malls, whatever you want, with about a million surface-parking spaces.

You like downtowns? All we can promise in that regard is that, yes, we've still got a downtown, a very tiny one, and it's an exceptionally wonderful place to drink beer. But it's not a place where you can fill a prescription or buy a cell phone or a computer or shop for good deals on refrigerators or laundry detergent. As of last month, it's no longer a place where you can buy glasses; with the closing of Clancy's, for the first time since the 1700s, there's no optician in downtown Knoxville.

Maybe we're getting there. We won't get there by making downtown more suburban. We need more residents, maybe more offices. We need to fill in some of those empty spaces.

A downtown with a lot of surface parking lots is a sort of a cutesy imitation of a downtown, a trainer downtown.

We'll keep Market Square and the Old City and most of Gay Street, maybe. But as everything else falls away, these icons lose their context and look more and more like artificial props, sets useful for a period movie about a city that used to be right here.

Updated: Added the map comparison, and corrected the location of the forum to the UT Downtown Design Studio.