Letter: Sticking to the Plan

On the corner of Central and Fifth stands a beautiful red-brick school. Residents and business owners in the surrounding neighborhoods are hopeful that historic Knoxville High will soon see the same revitalization that has been happening downtown. But their hopes may be in vain.

Back in 2007, Knoxville's Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) published a report with a strategic plan to expand downtown northward by connecting Broadway, Central, and the Emory Place and Old North neighborhoods.

A wise man once said, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." The MPC had a vision for change—one that was easy for Knoxvillians to support.

The report clearly states the goal to "provide a seamless, pleasing connection between the neighborhoods and downtown" and how to accomplish it: "Many of the recommendations in this plan are focused on creating a vibrant, mixed-use urban environment."

For downtown Knoxville to move northwards, developers need to create a destination worth visiting, a revitalized hub where people want to live, work, and play. Mixed-use spaces are the linchpin of this vision.

Fast forward six years.

Historic Knox High is sandwiched between Fourth & Gill and the Old City. Beautiful but mostly empty, the building is up for sale. The 2007 MPC report makes mention of it: "Knoxville High School is an important historical landmark in the extension of the downtown area. This building has significant potential […] but is currently underutilized."

In this year, the Knox County school system gave the building back to Knox County. In partnership with The East Tennessee Community Design Center, Knox County invited developers and members of the local community to help decide how to make best use of the building. They came to conclusions similar to those found in the 2007 report. "Reuse of Knoxville High should provide a population to support existing retail and entertainment nearby."

Because the area already had multiple low-income housing developments, developers and residents were not in favor of more low-income and subsidized housing.

Knox County later issued an RFP with the project's overarching goal and specific criteria for evaluating proposals from prospective developers: "Knox County hopes to ensure that the final development of the property (Historic High School) will be an asset to the community."

• Residential use of some kind

• NO low-income housing

• NO subsidized housing

Knox County received three proposals:

• Dewhirst Properties (mixed-use space): Dewhirst's mixed-use space would include 75 lofts, three 1,800 square-foot commercial spaces, 16 artist studio apartments, and one community venue.

• Family Pride Corporation (low-income senior housing): Family Pride's senior housing proposal includes 100 apartments and six artist apartments.

• HKHS Partners, LLC (senior housing): This LLC is a partnership of Family Pride and two other developers.

Based on the 2007 MPC report's vision and recommendations and the RFP's criteria, you might think that the Dewhirst Properties proposal would be a shoo-in.

You'd be wrong. The Family Pride Corporation won the bid by 10 points.

Family Pride has secured a community investment tax credit loan by partnering with non-profit South Eastern Housing Foundation. This 0 percent loan requires that the housing to be limited to low-income residents, specifically seniors whose incomes fall below 80 percent of adjusted median income for Knox County, currently $34,000.

The RFP's criteria were adamantly against low-income/subsidized housing projects, yet the committee not only considered Family Pride's proposal but also approved it. In addition, Family Pride proposed paying $500,000 in cash to the city. This cash offer is what tipped the scales for Family Pride, as the Dewhirst proposal was originally 40 points ahead before the county weighted-in which proposal was most financially attractive to the county. Is the short-term benefit of $500,000 worth ignoring both the RFP suggestions and the 2007 MCP report?

Many residents and business owners in North Knoxville are concerned, to say the least.

We're not asking for special consideration for any of the proposals. We're asking for consistency. If halfway through a football game, the refs decided that one team's field goals were worth seven points, not three, spectators would be concerned.

The rules established before the game determine the winner. We want decision-makers to follow through with the original 2007 strategic plan and to follow the RFP's criteria while evaluating and disqualifying proposals. We ask that they make decisions based on long-term economic vitality, not short-term cash windfalls.

Later this month, the Knox County commissioners will meet to either approve or deny Family Pride's proposal.

Please tell the Knox County commissioners to stick to the plan.

Nathan Fray