Oh, Dear: Urban Outfitters, the Arnstein Deal, and Our Olfactory Nerves

A few weeks ago in this space, I confessed how all this Asheville downtown retail stuff, as wonderful as it all is—and I don't deny the wonderfulness of any of it—has the undertone of rubbing our noses in something unpleasant.

Knoxville has its advantages, but based on recent retail developments downtown, Knoxville sometimes seems to be trailing eagerly after that other city less than half our size.

The city's Urban Outfitters deal offers an extra twist on that theme.

I hear Urban Outfitters is great. My daughter's very excited about its arrival. I've never been to one. I don't ever buy things except food and beer. If you have been to an Urban Outfitters, maybe you've been to the one that opened in Asheville three years ago. It's 120 miles away, but the closest one to Knoxville.

I hesitated, but just a little bit, to share a recent conversation with a visitor from that city. Earlier this year, an Asheville promoter was here in our office, encouraging us to publicize some upcoming Asheville events. It's something we do only occasionally, considering that Asheville is two hours away, sometimes more, depending on current landslides.

I mentioned how much I like downtown Asheville, and she responded it was still a work in progress, and that she and her colleagues wanted to be sure downtown Asheville was "not just the same-old Urban Outfitters type stuff you see everywhere."

I mentioned that downtown Knoxville was dearly craving an Urban Outfitters. That we'd been contemplating six-figure public incentives for renovations to lure them.

"Oh, dear," she said.

I had the impression that further conversation on the subject might be embarrassing for one or both of us, so I asked her about how the old Biltmore was getting along.

Later I looked into it, though. Asheville didn't have to sell itself to Urban Outfitters. It was the other way around.

No incentive loan or grant was involved. Urban Outfitters wanted to be in the Asheville market, and, working with a local developer, paid to fix up a downtown Asheville eyesore, a major renovation that involved adding an extra floor.

Even then, Asheville wasn't that crazy about it. A lot of Asheville, which strongly resisted the invasion of Starbucks a few years before, didn't want Urban Outfitters, either, because it was a chain and would lead to the "mallification" of downtown Asheville. Some Asheville landlords refuse to rent to national companies.

Our perhaps lightly more radical counterpart, the Mountain Xpress, ran a story about Urban Outfitters in 2009, headlined "Here Comes the Chain Again." Knoxville's different than Asheville, I know.

Despite our crowded evening sidewalks, in the last 15 years, downtown Knoxville has lost most of its old-line industry, and for reasons I don't understand, much of its old office base. And non-restaurant retail remains elusive. There are times when downtown's hubbub can seem two-dimensional. Maybe, here, retail does need this hard nudge, and maybe one exceptional building deserves the investment anyway.

The Arnstein, at the corner of Market and Union, is one of the finest buildings in Knoxville. Built in 1906 by energetic, progressive German-Jewish immigrant Max Arnstein, it was Knoxville's first steel-frame building, a "skyscraper," and a wonder to behold. Designed by the prominent New York firm of Cleverdon & Putzell, whose works are still landmarks on Broadway, the Arnstein's interesting history goes well beyond its 22 years as a department store, offering our closest equivalent to haute couture. For much longer, it was a TVA office building. Then it enjoyed an unlikely spell as a publishing center, during the 13-30 and Whittle era: For a while, Esquire Magazine was directed by guys with offices in this building.

I was employed in that building twice, over the years, and am fond of the place. I'm inclined to favor whatever makes it work. It is, or should be, a downtown landmark, and retail use will keep the public involved with it. It was built for retail use, but it hasn't seen a big store since Max Arnstein retired in 1928. (It was the best year in American history to retire.)

People who know more than I do about downtown development seemed to favor the quarter-million Urban Outfitters deal. If Knoxville profits in the long run, and the Arnstein gets a makeover in the mix, maybe it's worth it.

But Knoxville's much bigger than Asheville—bigger city, bigger metro area, with a much bigger university, supplying about 25,000 consumers right in their target market. Why wasn't Urban Outfitters begging to come here on their own?

Moreover, why didn't a large local firm bite at the Arnstein Building? Knoxville, despite other charms, hasn't been known as a generator of large, upscale retail concepts since the days of—well, come to think of it—Max Arnstein.

The Arnstein's fenced-off construction zone has forced our vigorous Saturday farmers' market to shift some of its weight to the east. The booths that used to be near the Arnstein are now along the shadier Gay Street end of Union. It might work fine, except for a sometimes noxious odor, just east of the Square, for much of the summer. The particularly noisome stench may render the ripe tomatoes and peppers and squash purveyed there a little less appetizing than they might be otherwise.

I had originally assumed the stench emanated from the sewers and suggested a perhaps urgent plumbing issue. But one of the market's organizers assured me it had to do mainly with grease traps of one or more of the several restaurants with kitchens that open onto that alley. As an idea, cooking grease somehow does seem a little nicer than what it sometimes smells like.

In any case, I'm afraid it may not be a simple fix. Last week, I happened to run across this description of it: "The alley between Market Square and Gay Street has an odor not altogether pleasant to the olfactory nerves," wrote one of my favorite local writers. "Bring in another sanitary policeman."

Captain William Rule wrote that in July, 1877. That kind of deep history may well suggest a chronic problem.

Do we still employ sanitary policemen?