St. John's vs. Downtown: Bad Gardening, or Punk Art? The Demolition of the Walnut Street Buildings

In late June, when preservationists chose not to take their challenge all the way to City Council, the fate of the Walnut Street buildings became, entirely, the responsibility of their owner, St. John's Episcopal Cathedral. Offers from developers—and there's more than one—prove the 1920s brick buildings are much valued as potential residences.

When St. John's did not immediately renew its demolition-permit request, many were optimistic that they were reconsidering. Preservationists suspended their petition drives. The Community Design Center, the mostly pro-bono nonprofit that has involved several St. John's parishioners over the years, had made a formal request to mediate the issue and consider multiple options potentially beneficial to the church. Prominent members of St. John's were said to be on board.

As of this week, St. John's response to the CDC was exactly the same as their response to preservationists with alternative proposals. They did not respond at all.

In June, when I wrote a feature story about the issue, my editor suggested the headline "St. John's vs. Downtown." I worried that it sounded too inflammatory, and we went with something else. But it's accurate. Most downtowners—and by most, I mean somewhere north of 90 percent of downtown residents, business owners, and developers, based on the scores I've talked to or heard from—are unhappy with St. John's demolition plans. Reactions range from resignation and regret to disgust and visceral anger.

In the article, I quoted St. John's advocates' reasons for tearing them down, as a reporter should, without criticizing them.

But none of them made sense. In 2011, the church claimed its main reason for tearing them down was expense of upkeep. In an offer maybe unprecedented in Knoxville history, a developer offered to assume all the expenses associated with the property, fix them up at no cost to the church, and within five years, pay the church several thousand dollars a year for the privilege of using them. Allowing the church to retain ownership of them, with the option of regaining control when they chose.

Unexpectedly bereft of a logical reason to tear them down, in 2013, the church came back and said well, they still needed to tear them down, just like a few months ago, but now for a completely different reason. That the second, auxiliary entrance to their parking lot was too narrow. Even though as is, it's wider than the traffic lane of Walnut that leads to it.

A few church leaders tried to sound conciliatory; two told me their plan would be better for downtown as a whole. They emphasize their suburban congregation, in a positive way, that their church is so special people drive from Farragut and Seymour to attend.

And from a suburban point of view, maybe, the buildings are clutter, no different than some unfortunate shrubbery. Cut them down, and there! Isn't that nice?

But downtown is made up of old buildings, close together. That's what makes it a downtown. Downtown's revival, which has earned Knoxville better press in the last five years than we've gotten in my lifetime, has happened almost entirely in pre-1930 brick buildings. Every loss is a loss for the whole. No, maybe the Walnut Street buildings aren't nationally famous or jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Neither is the zipper on your pants. They're important anyway.

On the market, the townhouse-style buildings on this block would be some of the most desirable residences downtown. Gay Street and Market Square residents complain about late-night noise. Walnut Street is quiet enough for your mom. And these buildings, as residences, would instantly become the closest residences to the main public library and the post office (and, for what it's worth, downtown's only Starbucks).

How replacing 5,000 square feet of prime residential space with nothing but a widened auxiliary driveway into a private parking lot can be seen as a general improvement—well, it's a mystery that might stump St. John himself.

When Home Federal tore down the Sprankle building, a block and a half down Walnut, shunning multiple offers to buy it to restore it, they said they needed to build a new building there. And then they didn't build it.

This St. John's demolition doesn't even make that much sense. It seems gratuitous.

Sources within and without the church suggest the people in charge there are not the clergy or the congregation as a whole, who as of a month ago at least seemed to know little about the issue. At St. John's, power is in the hands of a few who don't need, or like, to explain their motives.

All I can figure is that they've just had enough of this confounded downtown-revival foolishness. The ways of the '70s were good enough for them, and should be good enough for us. Like Buddy Ebsen in the old Davy Crockett movies, they're a-tellin' us what fer.

***

The world's most famous art punk, repeatedly arrested in China, Ai Wei Wei may be most famous for his series of three photographs dropping and smashing a Han Dynasty vase.

It's so shocking, art punksters in New York hang framed copies of it in their condos. How could anyone destroy something so old that it can't be replaced—for no obvious reason?

The buildings on Walnut Street aren't nearly as old as a Han Dynasty vase. But by estimates I've seen, they are worth 100 to 500 times as much. Developers willing to buy them tell me the buildings, not counting the scant property beneath them, are worth about a quarter of a million. With demolition, that value will be lost to the owner, and to downtown.

And that may be the key. When is it beneficial to destroy value, without replacing it with anything equally valuable?

When a church owns a building and doesn't actively use it for worship, it has to pay the usual taxes on it. To a church, value can become a liability.

When they demolish it, get some pictures. They may be worth something in punk shock-art circles, and you can be the Ai Wei Wei of Knoxville.

I don't want one, thanks.


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