There was talk of putting a glass roof over a moribund Market Square, the S&W was slated for demolition, and there wasn't a shopper in sight. Along the street, the upper windows were dark. But in that December of 1999, you could slip in from the cold to the Great Southern Brewing company—one of the only places on Gay Street open past 6 p.m.—and find optimism.
Young architects, developers, and the miscellany of the city's nascent new urbanists and ne'er-do-wells tipped pints and envisioned a thriving downtown with upper floors filled with residents and streets bustling with commerce. Often heard in those conversations was the aphorism "retail follows rooftops"—the proposition that attracting residents to downtown would create the core support for retail to find its way back. If you created the residents, the retailers would follow.
Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Planning Commission released a report on housing in downtown and its growth over the past decade. It shouldn't come as any surprise that it paints a picture of downtown as a residential neighborhood on the upswing. Housing in downtown Knoxville has doubled in the last decade. According to the report, in 2000 there were approximately 535 units of housing downtown. Over half of those belonged to Summit Towers, a facility that rents only to the elderly and disabled. By 2008 (the last year covered by the report), that number had grown to 1,051. And the price for that housing rose 232 percent in the same period.
Not surprisingly (to someone who lives here), most of downtown's residential units are north of Summit Hill. Fifty-nine percent of downtown's total inventory of housing is concentrated largely on Gay Street's 100 Block and along Jackson Avenue. That area alone, which is home to the 100-unit Sterchi Lofts as well as the Emporium, comes in with a density of more than 15 residences per acre. Along with JFG Flats, those developments also account for the majority of the 180 units marketed solely as rental. The area is also home to numerous smaller, privately-owned condo developments such as the Commerce Building and Fire Street Lofts.
The report also places the number of residential units either proposed or currently under construction in downtown at 180. These include the Elliot on West Church Avenue, the Crimson Building on Gay, and the Southeastern Glass Building on Broadway. The Daylight Building on Union Avenue, which recently made its way onto the National Register of Historic Places, and the Farragut Building on Gay Street are expected to provide 117 additional rental units.
The result? On any given night, you can figure that there are thousands of people downtown, not counting visitors or late-night office workers. And that residential population has helped usher back a vitality that the city hasn't seen in decades. A lot of us are the people you see on the sidewalks every day. And those reliable feet on the street are at the core of downtown's resurgence.
So what about the retail? A month or so back, the Central Business Improvement District released a new Strategic Business Plan for downtown designed to encourage the downtown business climate to mirror the residential trend of the last decade. The plan is one of the more progressive and ambitious efforts to come out of the CBID in recent years, and keeps with the organization's core goal of making downtown a better place to live, work, and play.
The plan focuses on four basic priorities: business recruitment and retention; growing funding and leadership; the collaboration of stakeholders; and examining the CBID organization itself to see that it's up to the challenge. But perhaps most key to the strategy are the measurable goals and timetables associated with the plan, and an increased focus on bringing additional retail to downtown. Among its priorities are to "add 25 new non-restaurant retailers to downtown by the end of 2012, with short term goals of five new businesses in 2010, eight new businesses in 2011 and 12 new businesses in 2012, which is a 90 percent growth over current levels." Nearly doubling the number of non-restaurant retailers downtown in two years may sound ambitious. But if the housing boom of the past decade is any indication, it's certainly possible—particularly as the downtown population grows.
Ten years down the road from that December in 1999, you can enjoy the crisp winter breeze of a thriving and open-air Market Square, dine at a renovated S&W Grand, join the rest of the shoppers on Gay Street, and spot a few Christmas trees twinkling in the living room windows above.