urban_renewal (2007-13)

An exercise in homegrown gentrification

Go Organic

by Matt Edens

"Urban gentrification is organic," according to New Urbanist architect and guru Andres Duany. "Its motive force," says Duany, "is the great urbanism itself: the well-proportioned streets; the good mix of activities in useful building types, a certain architectural quality. And these days the allure is intensified as the promise of the suburb is undermined by traffic congestion and the banality of sprawl. Good urban areas are rare and, in contrast to sprawl, more appealing than ever."

That's certainly true of Knoxville. Besides the urban appeal of downtown condos converted from commercial and warehouse, the large homes along Armstrong in Old North Knoxville or Luttrell in Fourth and Gill are appealing to an increasing number of middle- and upper-income owners.

Two-plus decades of "gentrification," however, haven't made Old North and Fourth and Gill as homogenized as most high-end subdivisions out west. In some ways, Knoxville's center city is now more socio-economically diverse than it has been in years. According to the 2000 Census, the area encompassing both Old North and Fourth and Gill still contained 1,100 people living in poverty (35 percent of the population). But both neighborhoods also contain a growing number of new middle- and upper-income homeowners, drawn by factors such as the attraction of an urban lifestyle and the neighborhood's proximity to downtown.

Some people, particularly if moving to Knoxville from other cities, were surprised by the "affordability" of the area's housing stock. In other cities--Atlanta, Nashville, and Charlotte--people are paying a premium for the sort of historic homes that in Knoxville, with prices now nudging over $100 per square foot, have only recently approached parity with their suburban counterparts. (And only in Old North and Fourth and Gill--prices in other historic neighborhoods hover in the $60-$85 per square foot range.)

Price isn't the only way homes in Old North and Fourth and Gill are increasingly competitive with upscale suburbia. Today's renovators are shelling out some serious bucks for the same sort of upgrades found in brand-new custom homes. The kitchen of this handsome home on Oklahoma, for instance, not only has cherry cabinets and the de rigueur stainless steel and granite, the owners also splurged on a stamped tin backsplash inspired by period originals.

Never divided into apartments, this house retains a host of original details, too: stained, leaded and beveled glass, built-ins, pocket doors, oak floors throughout, elaborate Eastlake hardware, the works. Other upgrades, in addition to all new plumbing, electrical and HVAC, include gas/electric chandeliers set off by ceiling medallions and real Anaglypta wainscoting in the foyer and hall. Outside, there's a brand-new cobblestone walk and one feature you definitely won't find in suburbia: a big upstairs balcony with a beautiful view of downtown and the mountains.

215 E. Oklahoma Ave.