Gay Street Construction: This Old Block

Grinning and bearing the reconstruction of Gay Street's 100 Block

Home renovation shows always make it look so easy. An updated countertop here, some new paint there, a slipcover for the couch and—voila!—you've transformed This Old House into a showcase. But as anyone who's ever taken on home renovation knows, things are never as easy as they look.

When the city announced its plans to renovate the 100 Block of Gay Street, it came as welcome and long-overdue news. Meetings were held, public input vetted, and a plan finalized to completely overhaul the streetscape. Seeing the pretty drawings showing widened sidewalks, street furniture, planters and trees was like watching a home improvement show. I envisioned how nice the block I've called home for the better part of the past decade would look after a little sprucing up. Then the heavy equipment showed up.

Just as with the Market Square renovation, this makeover is much more than skin-deep. The city is rebuilding virtually the entire infrastructure of the block. And replacing the underground gas lines, water mains, electrical and communication lines means digging. Lots and lots of digging. The entire stretch of Gay Street along the 100 Block is currently closed as equipment operators meticulously pick through the tangled mesh of antique cables, pipes, and buried trolley tracks.

But though the street itself may be closed, the block isn't. And its vibrancy, though subdued, remains. Hundreds still live here. And businesses enduring both the crippling effect of having the street closed, as well as a dismal economy, seem to be holding fast.

"It's definitely slowed down a little, but we're focused on the end result, which is going to be pretty cool" says Stanton Webster, general manager of Nama Sushi Bar. Like others, he credits city urban growth manager Rick Emmett and the Central Business Improvement District's Michele Hummel for their efforts to sustain the block's livelihood, despite the major disruption.

"I have heard mixed reactions from the businesses. I understand that some of the retail sales have been down, but on the flip side I have heard that other businesses are good," says Hummel.

Perhaps one of the more surprising developments is that not only are businesses that were here before the construction began holding on, but there's also new retail springing up.

Peter Chang, a Los Angeles native and former resident of The Emporium, opened a small clothing boutique named Eleven at 122 South Gay in May, just as construction was ramping up. The shop carries a variety of women's clothing as well as graphic T-shirts and collectible men's sneakers.

Asked about business, he says "It's not bad. Better than I had expected it to be, really." He also commended Emmett for his role in keeping up communication between the city and denizens of the block.

Not only does Emmett keep that communication flowing via e-mail broadcasts and scheduled meetings, but he also maintains a blog narrative of the project at 100blockconstructionknox.blogspot.com. Beginning in February, Emmett has chronicled the progress—and setbacks—of the complex undertaking on the website set up by himself and Director of the city's Office of Policy and Communications, Bill Lyons.

"The reason we set up the blog is to make sure that everyone has a place to check on where we are and what issues popped up that cause disruptions in the work and in people's lives," says Lyons.

In addition to news, Emmett posts photos of the project as it progresses, some showing the work going on beneath the sidewalks where many hope to see further development once the renovation is complete. A typical blog entry from June begins: "At the risk of sounding like a broken record, or possibly a stuck CD for younger folks, utility work is continuing on the 100 Block of S. Gay Street."

The attitude I get from most of my neighbors seems to be of the grin-and-bear-it variety. After all, the block was largely shut down for nearly a year for reconstruction of the Gay Street viaduct. And building renovation has practically been a constant here for almost a decade. Unlike the Market Square overhaul, most of the buildings on this block underwent redevelopment before any of the street improvements now in progress.

Excavating through nearly a century's worth of renewal makes for slow going. And no one's willing to speculate on a completion date right now. Construction could easily carry on until next summer. There are just too many unknowns.

From its beginnings as a wholesale center adjoining the railroad tracks, to its transformation into the city's most densely populated block and central arts district, the 100 Block of Gay Street has always been evolving. So pardon the mess, but don't hesitate to visit. And join us for this week's episode of This Old Block.