urban_renewal (2006-07)

Office space for the downtown-minded

Gray Flannel Suit, Optional

by Matt Edens

Between the Burwell, Holston and now the recent announcement concerning the old KUB Building, the conversion of downtown’s older, class-B office space into residential continues to build momentum. And, with Mast General Store and the movie theater moving onto Gay Street, retail seems likewise poised for resurgence as well. But where does that leave what, for the last several decades, has been the backbone of the central business district: commercial office space?

To be honest, it doesn’t look good. The vacancy rate for downtown office space, according to the Metropolitan Planning Commission’s 2005 Office Market Analysis for Knoxville and Knox County, runs at 15.9 percent. And, while a quarter of that vacant space is in TVA’s 211,863-square-foot East Tower, those numbers are one reason why there’s a sudden rush to convert some of that under-used space to residential.

The notion of a massive tower filled to the top with anonymous cubicle rats (or, to go back a generation earlier, men in gray flannel suits) may have as much of a future as the floppy disk, but I wouldn’t write downtown’s office market off just yet. And all those new lofts may just be the key to bringing it back, much as the growth of the ‘burbs brought on its decline. Think about it—which came first: subdivisions? Shopping malls? Office parks? Downtown’s revival seems destined to follow the same curve.

Developers Larsen Jay and Patrick Hunt, however, are determined to get in front of that curve. The pair recently purchased the Ely Building on Church Avenue, primarily to house their own companies, DoubleJay Creative and Strategux Consulting, but also to offer other budding entrepreneurs prime space in the handsome red brick building that, since 1903, has housed physicians offices, law firms, WBIR’s radio studios, a print shop and, most recently, the Ross/Fowler architecture firm.

Aiming at the sort of small firms likely to be launched in downtown’s lofts, Jay and Hunt have set the building up as a shared suites and services facility; each occupant gets dedicated office space, plus use of shared services such as a fully furnished conference room, reception area with full-time receptionist, networked office equipment (copier, printers, fax, etc.), broadband, unlimited local and regional calling (including voicemail) and all utilities. The idea is to take some of the hassle out of starting a startup. Tenants can write one check and get everything they need.

And for those loft dwellers who like their live/work space but occasionally need something larger, the Ely offers Downtown Virtual Offices that include use of the mailing address, a phone number with custom answering, voicemail and use of the conference room. m

The Ely Building: 406 W. Church Ave.