In Defense of a Fence

I had neither the means, nor the intention, to bid. But I was curious enough about who might have both to attend the auction of three Market Square buildings that the U.S. Department of the Treasury was putting on the auction block nearly two years ago. The properties had been seized by the federal government as a result of the arrest, and subsequent conviction, of members of the West family for a marijuana trafficking operation in 2006.

All but one of the three had seen substantial renovation. But the four-story building at the corner of Wall Avenue and Market Square—the tallest on the Square—hadn't changed much. The only visible sign that anything had been done to 36 Market Square was four metal plates that seemed oddly out of place on the facade, depicting faces that represented members of the West Family and the former owner. More than offbeat decoration, they camouflaged a mending of the building's structure, capping steel rods that were inserted to stabilize the aging facade.

When the gavel came down, it was M&W Properties' Ken and Josh Mills' offer that took title to the property. With the winning bid in excess of a half-million dollars, some in attendance murmured that they thought the Mills had paid too much for it. Ken and Josh weren't so sure.

Following the auction, not much about the building changed for over a year. Then, last April, a chain link fence was erected on the Market Square side, and it looked as if progress was on the horizon. When it went up, the city issued a press release stating the fence was expected to remain "for at least several weeks." But throughout the summer, Sundown in the City crowds and other Square visitors continued to be confronted by the barrier. As it turns out, the steel rods installed by the Wests were little more than band-aids, and the front wall of the building was still in danger of collapse. The fence was installed as a public safety precaution.

Months passed without any sign that anything was happening with the building. But behind the scenes, a lot was going on. The Mills had teamed up with Knox Heritage to apply for federal tax credits to offset the cost of renovation. The program is administered by the National Parks Service in conjunction with State Historic Preservation Offices. And as with many such programs, the devil is in the details, and the timeline in the hands of a bureaucracy.

"We work with property owners and their architects to access the Historic Preservation Tax Credits," says Kim Trent, Executive Director of Knox Heritage. "We help the owner navigate the process and since they must meet the Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation it ensures the building will be preserved."

The program is relatively strict, and the approval process very involved. In order to receive the tax incentive, great care must be taken to assure that the finished product reflects a building's historic character. Successful candidates of the program can expect tax credits totaling 20 percent of the cost of the renovation construction costs.

"The new façade will replicate exactly what is there now—down to the size of the bricks and the mortar joints. The only thing missing will be the metal face sculptures added by the Wests, and the storefront will be more in character with the age of the building," adds Trent. According to Josh Mills, such detail has meant ordering 9-inch bricks to be custom made to replicate the existing materials. The modern standard is 8-inch.

With the tax credit application finally clearing the Tennessee Historical Commission only a few weeks ago, construction has gotten underway. It is expected to receive federal approval in another four to six weeks. But the Mills are confident enough to proceed. Construction is expected to take through next August, with tenant buildout anticipated to take an additional month. The Mills remain tight-lipped about who those prospective tenants might be, but seem optimistic that the space will be occupied shortly after they finish. Though they had considered residential use of the upper floors, the layout didn't lend itself well to that use, and will instead house commercial tenants.

Last week, Josh took me on a tour of the building. Temporary walls and bracing have already been installed in preparation for the demolition of the building's facade. The entire front wall will have to be removed and rebuilt to the exact measurements of the original. After completion of that phase, the fenced area is expected to be reduced, with the staging area for the remaining construction moving largely around the corner to Wall Avenue.

I've grumbled all summer about that fence. But as the project is finally showing signs of progress, I have to agree with Kim Trent: "We are thrilled the building will be restored and think everyone will find it was worth the wait. Most good things are."