Ground-Floor Opportunity

Here's hoping for more retailers on downtown's streets rather than more residents

One of the things I like to say about making my home downtown is that it's great to live in a place where, every day, things seem to get just a little bit better. I've lived in a few places over the years, and you can't say that about everywhere. It's no secret that Knoxville's center city has been on the upswing for the past few years, and I'm always happy to hear about some new business about to open. And while I'm always interested in new retail, it's particularly nice when it's something that's primarily geared to downtown dwellers.

So a few weeks ago when I read that another grocer is about to open, I was pleased. The new store, expected to open by the first of the year, seems well situated on the ground floor of JFG Flats, squarely in the heart of downtown's densest residential district. From the blurb I read in the News Sentinel, it sounds more practical than ambitious, with plans to offer "beer, food, and sundries." I'm fond of all those things. With Aisle 9 up and running in the Old City, Just Ripe ripening up on Union Avenue, and the planned expansion of offerings at the General Store on Gay Street, I wonder if I'll still be hearing how "what downtown needs is a grocery store" by next summer. That's always been a little bit of a canard to me. A quick check of Google Maps shows the distance from my front door on the 100 Block to the Three Rivers Market on Broadway to be exactly the same as it is from my place to the south end of the Gay Street Bridge. Still, a store around the corner will be nice.

One thing these new openings show is that there's still entrepreneurial interest in ground-floor retail in downtown along with, at least for the time being, storefronts without stores. I believe the momentum downtown has developed over the past few years will take care of that over time. Meanwhile, something else is going on the ground floor.

One of the major turning points in downtown residential development came with the opening of the Sterchi Lofts. Over the course of a few months, a lot of new faces appeared as dozens of new residents moved into the building. One thing that puzzled me then was why the ground floor wasn't developed as retail or a restaurant. With several floors of people—including a large contingency of college students—a pizza joint seemed like a shoe-in. But the ground floor space on downtown's now nearly completely renovated 100 Block opens only to residents of the building. The opening of the Lerner Lofts consumed another street-level commercial space that today occupies the seemingly prime retail corner of Gay Street and Wall Avenue situated directly between Mast General Store and Market Square. The windows that once showcased merchandise during downtown's heyday are now shuttered with aluminum blinds behind which its residents presumably carry on life.

As the 300 Building (formerly known as the Crimson Building), located at the corner of Summit Hill Avenue and Gay Street wrapped up its tumultuous renovation, it happened again. Along downtown's main thoroughfare, yet another ground-floor space has been converted to a residential unit. At first, I thought maybe it was just a mock-up of a residence, designed and fully decorated to entice potential tenants. Then I read that the building's owners plan to put plantation shutters to make the model unit more attractive to a potential buyer. They explained in a News Sentinel piece that they had originally planned for retail in the space, and had contemplated the space as a drug store, or perhaps a grocery, but in the end "made a decision that we wanted to move forward."

Don't get me wrong—I'm all for more residential space and more residents downtown. But while there is lots of space both above and below the street that might be outfitted to be attractive lofts, they don't have the exposure to the hundreds of pedestrians, and potential customers that traverse our streets every day. And every time I see another street-level space turned into a living room, I know that's one less space for future commercial development, and one less place to accommodate another business. Maybe I'm too optimistic about downtown's future. Maybe the best and highest use for our ground floor spaces is residential—but I doubt it.

Who knows? Maybe one day the demand for retail space will reverse the trend of the last decade and people will be converting those street-level lofts back into shops and stores. Once downtown hits its full capacity, maybe there will be enough demand for a place just around the corner offering things they can use like beer, food, and sundries. Mmmm… sundries.