I am a resident of South Knoxville and a supporter of the 2006 Vision Plan for Knoxville's South Waterfront. Recently, I read that Atlanta-based developer John Gumpert had plans to develop the property lovingly referred to as "the tank farm" on Island Home Avenue. Initially, I was encouraged by the prospect of long-awaited development on the South Waterfront. However, I was disappointed to see his plans for a large, sprawling apartment complex that in no way resembles the promise of the 2006 Vision Plan.
I find the scale of Mr. Gumpert's planned complex most troubling. Nine buildings cover the 11-acre lot. The remainder of the complex is primarily covered by pavement to make room for 446 off-street parking spaces. This is a huge departure from the Vision Plan, which called for a total of 450 off-street surface parking spaces to be constructed for the entire South Waterfront over the first 20 years of development. Gumpert's proposed complex also crams nearly half of the rental units called for in the 20-year vision in the easternmost tenth of a mile of the waterfront. While this sprawling complex might look at home in an outer ring suburb in Atlanta, it fundamentally goes against the long-term vision for Knoxville's South Waterfront. To provide Mr. Gumpert the $3 million of public financing he has requested from the city to develop a complex that is such a departure from the Vision Plan would almost certainly cause widespread disenchantment among the residents of South Knoxville.
Even in success, Mr. Gumpert's complex will be bad for the waterfront. If people actually begin to rent units, the complex is so big that it will likely absorb market demand for waterfront rental units for some time to come. Under the city's most aggressive projection, the complex would satisfy rental demand for over four years, leaving down-river development stymied. However, my gut feeling is that Mr. Gumpert (or whoever begins managing the complex after Mr. Gumpert leaves) will have difficulty leasing units. Outside of students, I can't imagine that there is a market for what Mr. Gumpert calls "class A" waterfront apartments where the parking lot is bisected by an active railroad spur. If it does indeed fail, it will be the second complex built by Gumpert that will sit empty on the South Waterfront. I doubt that many developers will stand in line to follow his example.
I hope that both this city and the residents of South Knoxville can get beyond the mindset that "some development is better than no development." If this project moves forward, it will be the precedent-setter. If done well, it could spur excitement, demand, and, ultimately, more quality development. However, if done poorly, it could render the South Waterfront a failed "pie in the sky" experiment. I, personally, don't wish to see it end that way.