Building-Project Enforcement

Our accidental parking lots, and how to prevent them

It was four years ago that Home Federal tore down the Sprankle Building, the five-story beaux-arts brick building at Union and Walnut. The bank announced the construction of a new annex with mixed-use potential, and presented a drawing of it for publicity.

The demolition was controversial, and I had friends on both sides of the issue. The younger architects and developers of Gay Street and Market Square saw it as a sickening loss for downtown. As the downtown-condo market heated up, developers had tried to buy the 1904 landmark from the bank, to convert it to its original use: upscale mixed-used residential.

Other friends, most of them affluent elderly folks, cheered. Referring to my pleas to save the building, they said, "But look, Jack, at the beautiful building they're going to build." Demolition advocates emphasized the urgency of keeping Home Federal downtown. To stay downtown, the bank insisted, it had to expand right away. Bankers emphasized urgency about the project. "We need more space now," an executive told the daily paper in early 2005. Building the annex soon was the only way, they said, they could possibly keep 250 employees downtown.

The bank announced they were going to begin construction "no later than 2007" to be completed "by 2008." The bank's president added, "We're not going to leave a big hole there." In early 2005, editorials cheered the plans.

Whenever I walk down Union to Pete's for lunch, I can't help but notice the grand new building isn't there yet. There is, in fact, a big hole there. It's a private-access parking lot. I've heard groundbreaking is contingent on the economy improving, but groundbreaking was already behind schedule before the current recession. The bank's profits are reportedly up now, in spite of the economy.

Meanwhile, in the last four years, developers who once hoped to buy the Sprankle for residential conversion have completed several other residential-conversion projects, with new construction still underway. There's still demand for downtown living space. The most popular spaces are the historic buildings. There are few left.

You folks who were excited about tearing down the Sprankle to build the new building, and you know who you are, please do have a word with your good friends at Home Federal and offer some encouragement.

I'm not as cynical as some who are convinced Home Federal tore down the Sprankle just to prove they could. ("It was like your big brother sitting on your face," one said.) I bet they'll build their new building one of these days. But the city should regard this as another learning experience. What's happening, or not happening, at Walnut and Union reflects a longtime Knoxville habit.

Recently in this space I considered a parallel issue. In 1996, developers of the demolition-enabled parking lot bounded by Cumberland, Gay, Church, and Market Streets were allowed to ignore the city's Streetscape plan, over the strong objections of the Metropolitan Planning Commission. They convinced City Council to give them sweetheart exemptions to the city's parking-lot quality standards, for one reason: Their parking lot was to be strictly an "interim" thing, before they built something major there. That was 13 years ago. In that time, the substandard parking lot has only gotten larger—via further demolitions—as it has earned its owners millions.

It's chronic. A business buys a historic building, announces grand new plans for new construction. Everybody breaks out the champagne. Expeditiously they tear the old building down—developers never seem to have any trouble financing demolitions—and always somewhere right between demolition and groundbreaking, they say, Whoops! Change of plan. How about a parking lot. That's what we think Knoxville really deserves.

It's what happened to Staub's Opera House, the Edison Theatorium, the Knaffl Brothers Building, Ross Flats. All interesting historic buildings, some of them so beautiful it's hard to convince newcomers they ever existed. All torn down for grand construction projects that didn't happen. All became, for decades, long-term parking lots.

Most surface-parking-lot acreage downtown today occupies sites of buildings demolished for construction projects that never happened.

It happened with public money on the big block bounded by State Street and Central. About 10 years ago, an experienced preservationist developer offered an ambitiously realistic plan for redeveloping the huge old brick Tennessee Mine and Mill building as condos. It would have been on the lead of the downtown condo-conversion tide. Other interesting buildings stood nearby, a 1920 bus station and a brick Victorian saloon building.

But the property was seized by eminent domain for a pageant of grandiose public projects, first by the city and later by the county, which, several years ago, razed all the buildings on the block. And paved it as a four-acre parking lot—which, of course, they assured us was temporary. Then, having successfully paid for an expensive demolition, they followed the Knoxville tradition and gave up their plans to build something there.

The county's been trying to sell the property, so far without success.

It's just a giant parking lot, after all, and underused at that. Without interesting old buildings on it, hardly anybody's interested anymore.

Economic downturns happen, but in Knoxville they never seem to get in the way of demolitions. The demolition happens. It's right after demolition that they do the reassessing. Then the dreamers move away, retire, die, or just get distracted, and forget their big building plans. The rest of us forget, too.

We need a way to hold developers to their promises. Some cities have laws against tearing down historic buildings. For Knoxville, I propose something lighter, more pro-development. Here it is: Whenever a business tears down a historic building, or any building—or clears a space for what they swear will be a "temporary" parking lot—they should be required to submit to the city a bond equal to the value of the building being demolished. The money would be returned to the developer, with interest, but could be used only for the construction of the lost building's replacement.

If developers mean what they say, they shouldn't have any problem with that.

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