Letter: Can We Afford to Just Say No?

The baby boomers are making senior housing the new investment bubble. We've seen Oakwood School and Historic Knoxville High School converted to affordable senior housing. Suddenly an out-of-state corporation has descended into my neighborhood—Mechanicsville—and is trying to rush through a proposal to demolish a portion of the historic Moses School, reduce the green space at the site, and construct a new building with an elevation that will destroy the views of the original building. Last month, the Old Mechanicsville Neighborhood Interest group, meeting in a hastily called meeting without a quorum, endorsed the plan and reported as much to MPC and the Historic Zoning Commission.

An effort by a majority of the neighborhood is orchestrating an effort to derail this plan. Affordable housing for all, not just seniors, is a serious issue that merits rigorous debate and discussion. However, at the center of this discussion, one must be conscious of fundamental economic principles. For real estate it's all about location, location, location! Housing that is in a prime location, the most valuable real estate in the area, is not affordable, nor should it be.

How is it that some of the most valuable properties in our city—in terms of not just monetary value, based on location and proximity to downtown, but also in historical and architectural value—become so-called affordable housing? Our city, for whatever ill-conceived reason, is subsidizing the expense of acquisition and development of these buildings for the developers.[Ed. Note: Knoxville High is a Knox County project.] These developers are swooping in and using our tax dollars through various grants, tax credits, tax incremental financing, and the like to subsidize their projects. Once they begin the big business of running a geriatric ward, they pay no tax, as they are tax-exempt entities. Not to mention that such uses depress the values of the surrounding properties as they are rendered less desirable.

Historic Knoxville High and Moses School are prime real estate that should be converted into mixed-use developments featuring condos and light commercial endeavors. This type of development is a perfect fit for our city. It will attract young professionals who interject youth, vitality, and money into our city. Those young professionals will pay market-value rents; they will pay property taxes; they will shop, eat, drink, and enjoy downtown businesses, thus generating even more tax revenues from sales taxes. More people living downtown means more businesses, and that will further diversify our downtown and generate tax revenues.

If Knoxville truly wants to realize the awesome potential it's capable of, we must stop allowing sub-prime uses with our prime real-estate assets. The city must find a backbone and tell people no. St. John's should have been told no when it sought the demolition permit on Walnut Street; Volunteer Ministry Center's relocation to Hopeless Holler should have been told no; KARM's expansion should have been told no; Baptist Hospital's developers should be told to make their development more aesthetically pleasing and functional within the guidelines of our South Waterfront Plan; the University of Tennessee should be told no to the demolition of historic houses on White Avenue; the rumored relocation of Clarence Brown Theatre to World's Fair Park should be told no; and the affordable geriatric ward at Historic Knoxville High should have been told no.

The city needs to understand that development merely for the sake of development is bad; the decisions made today will have lasting effects on our city well into the latter half of this century. While the list of recent development failures by our city is disheartening, the future needn't be bleak. Recently, the city has shown signs of intelligent development—it's turning a giant hole on Locust into a parking garage (ironically after Kimberly Clark vacated its high-rise across the street due to lack of parking) and it stopped the demolition of Pryor Brown Garage—and here's hoping we can stop the expansion of the downtown geriatric ward.

R. Bentley Marlow