Downtown Metamorphosis

Rendering Reactions

Most who attended the Worsham Watkins presentation at the Tennessee last week found the downtown redevelopment drawings thrilling to look at. To them, it seemed a long-nurtured dream come true for downtown, promising hundreds of offices (possibly even occupied), hundreds of new residents, and thousands of visitors.

For a center-city development, its physical losses seem almost abnormally few. Most of the acreage targeted for development is ugly surface parking and characterless postwar buildings. There's no question that the plan has many strengths, and it's not surprising that in the week since the presentation most have praised the plan. Last weekend, Ron Watkins sat through a very comfortable half-hour on a TV talk show, during which the panelists asked no tough questions about the design.

But at the end of Watkins' presentation Wednesday, not everyone joined the standing ovation. Early in his talk, Watkins implied that Knoxville had put its famous talent for dissent behind it and that the entire community was behind the plan. Since then, supporters of the plan have anticipated that any opposition would be symptomatic of typical Knoxville backwardness. Some have serious concerns about the plan, though, and not all of them are ornery hillbillies.

We spoke to a number of architects and urban planners here and in other cities about their honest impressions of the plan. Only a few were ready to comment for the record, and they all did so with caveats that they hadn't studied the plan long enough to thoroughly analyze it—though several did have strong first impressions.

We also compared the plan to the often-quoted document that precipitated much of the program: the Urban Land Institute's 1998 report on redeveloping the World's Fair site to support the new convention center which, significantly, advised the city to move the convention center nearer downtown and to provide a link between the convention center and Market Square.

The Skyscraper

The most conspicuous feature of the Worsham Watkins plan—deliberately so—is the 33-story tower. Even though it's to be built at a lower elevation than Gay Street's tall buildings, the tower and its fancy steelwork on top will be the highest thing ever built in downtown Knoxville.

We have only a few clues about who will occupy such a big tower; for now, it appears to be there just to be tall. That in itself may have some value. One problem distinctive to Knoxville that urban planners have cited over the years is that, given Knoxville's hilly terrain and jungly habitat, downtown is undetectable from most points in the city. Even the Plaza and Riverview Towers, the tallest buildings in East Tennessee, are invisible west of the UT area. The argument has been made for years that people don't think about downtown much because they can't see it.

Downtown would be at least a little more conspicuous with the heretofore unnamed office tower. The huge office tower would probably be visible from the interstate, perhaps for miles around.

By concentrating lots of employment—over 2,000 workers, according to WW—in a few square feet of surface, an occupied tower would also combat suburban sprawl, at least in a modest way.

Based on downtown's low office-vacancy rates, the ULI study did recommend a new office building big enough to house 2,000 workers, and that's exactly what the unnamed tower would hold.

The tower would supplant the project's most regrettable historic casualty, the circa 1925 Daylight Building on Union Avenue. Other historic buildings spared by the project will be dwarfed by it. Some architects call the tower out of scale, several times taller than all the buildings around it. It will block views of the mountains and cast a long shadow over the Summit Hill area. Lead architect Doug McCarty says they were careful to pick the site; to avoid either overwhelming Kendrick Place in the west, or shadowing Market Square on the east. He acknowledges it will cast a morning shadow on Old City Hall, the present headquarters of the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership.

Many modern planners take a dim view of skyscrapers. Some writers have predicted the demise of skyscrapers as an anachronism irrelevant to today's high-tech economy which doesn't require concentrations of employees and materials. In recent years, major corporations—IBM, AT&T, and Dial, to name a few—have given up their skyscraper headquarters for shorter, less assuming digs. The once-prestigious Sears Tower in Chicago now has acres of vacant space.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, commenting on America's cooling toward skyscrapers, was headlined, "If you build it, they will yawn." Some architects regard them as relics of the extravagant mid-20th century. Knoxville seems to reflect the trend, on a much smaller scale; though the city's economy has been strong, no one has seen fit to build a building of more than a few stories in Knoxville in almost 20 years. (Our last two skyscrapers were built by a couple of brothers named Butcher.)

However, as Donald Trump and others continue to build skyscrapers, other pundits see continued life for the American skyscraper as a symbol for power and success, and as a means to maximize land use as available real estate dwindles.

The design of the tower, as portrayed in the drawings, might be characterized as postmodern. Some call it Gothic. Others are more apt to use the word Gotham—as in Gotham City. Some say the acute angles in the signature steelwork on top reminds them of the angular Worsham Watkins logo. McCarty is quick to add that the drawings don't indicate the building's final design.

Hotel

As shown in the drawings, the faux-Victorian Marriott—adjacent to the office tower—would be arguably the most attractive hotel in central Knoxville. Though it's fully four blocks from the convention center, it's touted as the convention-center hotel.

"The Marriott people felt that it was not too far," says McCarty. "If they're comfortable, I'm comfortable." He acknowledges that the covered passages, emphasizing a lively, pedestrian experience, partly serve the hotel's needs. "But if that's not an interesting walk," he says, "it probably is too far."

However, the oft-quoted ULI report specifically advised against building another hotel downtown: "The city will not be able to support new hotel space based solely on the convention center traffic...until the business climate can support such space, the panel recommends that existing hotels be renovated and expanded before new ones are built."

Glass

The most quoted quip at the Tennessee Theatre last week came from Vice Mayor Jack Sharp, who said he's going into the window-washing business.

From the all-glass Winter Garden to the glassed-in "flying mall" over Henley, to much of the tower, Marriott hotel, and shopping atrium—to all those interior tubes that connect them all—the Worsham Watkins plan does call for thousands and thousands of panes of glass. Beyond the question of how so much glassed-in "conditioned" interior could be heated and cooled efficiently, that window-washing question will surely turn out to be a serious issue. This region has a relatively high population of birds. The roof glass would need to be cleaned frequently or they'd begin to look pretty awful. One big flock of martins could make short work of it, spoiling hundreds of man-hours of work.

A larger question is why so much of it has to be glassed in. The glass, well maintained, will allow natural light in and render some dramatic views to people within the passageways, Cascades, atrium, etc. Ask Ron Watkins about why so much needs to be enclosed, and he'll answer, simply, "Why not glass?" or, "Because we want conditioned space." (In Watkins' lexicon, "conditioned" means "climate controlled.") "And conditioned access," he continues, "so that people can enjoy that area whether it's raining, snowing, super hot, super cold, regardless of the elements."

When Watkins describes the project, he describes it from the point of view of someone walking inside all the way from the 11th Street area to Market Square. You walk inside from the 11th Street parking garage, through or around the Winter Garden, then through the cineplex, then through the office/hotel/shopping area. Doug McCarty explains that the interior corridor was a feature Worsham Watkins felt was necessary to attract the necessary clients.

Its purpose seems less plausible as it leaves the hotel to the east, still in the air, and crosses Walnut street through the residential townhouse block and further into Market Square.

"It's a private back-door entrance to Market Square," says Jon Coddington, a UT architecture professor who specializes in urban design, as he looks over the plans for the first time. "You're getting out of that tunnel and going into another tunnel," he says, chuckling. "Is there a bump?"

Coddington admits he hasn't had time to study the proposal, but decries what he calls the "interiorization" of the project. "You can come to the city and never go outside," he says. "One of the wonderful things about Knoxville is the environment and the ability to go out in it."

This interior approach raises the question of why a city should care about bringing people downtown. One reason, of course, is simply to expand the center-city's tax base. You can do that anywhere, of course, inside or out, as long as people are buying stuff, and the WW concept may accomplish that.

But another reason is just to show to every tourist, salesman, casual visitor and passerby that there's activity in this city. If all the activity is inside, hidden from view—well, does it count? Consider our own example. In the year 2000, there's already a great deal of activity downtown, in Plaza Tower, in Riverview Tower, in the City County Building, at TVA headquarters. Downtown already has the highest concentration of businesses in East Tennessee. Over 17,000 people come downtown every day. When people say downtown's "dead," they don't mean there's nobody downtown; what they mean is that there aren't people and activity visible in the streets. A recent article in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution refers to "the ghost-town feel of downtown Atlanta, where buildings seem to have gone up without thought to life on the streets below."

The ULI report states that "Knoxville needs more residents, office workers, and visitors walking around downtown." It seems possible that the WW plan, which emphasizes walking around inside buildings downtown, could be a perfect success—and downtown Knoxville could seem nearly as ghostly as ever.

Though pedestrians would hardly be trapped in this swanky maze, most of the passageways are well above street level; pedestrians would have to find a way down before they can get outside. McCarty says there will be several ports to enter or exit the conditioned area, but the thrust of the design seems to be to keep visitors inside—at least, until they get to Market Square (which is uncovered in the current plan only because WW finally dropped a notion to enclose it with a glass dome). To many critics, that segregation of the development patrons from the rest of downtown is a key weakness.

"This project denies the idea of the street as a public place," says Coddington. "It's becoming a specialized area, instead of this place where the larger community gathers."

The interior approach is contrary to much of modern urban-design theory, as practiced in Chattanooga's downtown revival. John Bridger is manager of Chattanooga's Design Center, which is credited with much of downtown's comeback. His main concern is the street. "Some upper-story connections could serve as linkages, could be a convenient way of getting around. But be careful what happens on the streets. Downtowns depend on their streets. They live or die by their streets. There should be a lot of streetfront opportunity; it shouldn't all be in a sealed-glass building."

McCarty agrees, and readily unrolls detailed drawings of major street entrances to the cineplex, hotel, shopping atrium, and office building, especially along Union, which he believes will have busy sidewalks. Much of the activity, however, is focused more toward the higher interior walkways. The hotel lobby and the theater lobby, for example, are upstairs from the sidewalk.

McCarty adds that the project will further enhance street traffic by spinning off restorations and new businesses throughout the adjacent neighborhoods.

We might attribute to City Councilwoman Carlene Malone the use of the term "Habitrail" to describe the concept—but apparently the term occurred to several viewers at the Tennessee Theatre spontaneously. ("Habitrail" is the brand name of a pet-rodent container characterized clear plastic tubes through which gerbils run from lodging to dining to recreation destinations.)

"The walkways remind me of what le Corbusier was planning for Paris, to separate people from the streets," Nashville architecture critic Christine Kreyling says. "Thank God they didn't actually do it. I notice that they avoid the term 'skybridges,' which has become a term of opprobrium. They have proven not to be successful in places they're tried. They do have them in Minneapolis—but Knoxville's climate is so mild. In Cincinnati, my home town, they haven't worked well."

Though "security" is sometimes used as an argument in their favor, Kreyling says they're actually more dangerous than public streets. "There have been muggings on the skybridges," she says. "At night, after the stores are closed, a mugger's chances of finding someone walking alone are much better than down on the street." When you divide pedestrian traffic between ground and skybridge routes, she says, it renders both less safe, because both have less traffic.

In defending the approach, McCarty says, "I'm not saying that the streets would be as active if this didn't happen. But the feeling is that that must happen."

11th Street

When the ULI visited three years ago, they were impressed with the potential of the South Lawn for open-air concerts. They recommended that the convention center, originally sited there, be moved to the downtown side of World's Fair Park. They didn't recommend building a 5,000-seat amphitheater, but that's what the WW plan calls for. Its proximity to UT and Fort Sanders makes it an apparently good fit.

The ULI also called for medium-density housing along 11th Street, though they made their observations before JPI built its large apartment buildings there.

The WW plan places more upscale condominiums on 11th Street: what they call "carriage housing." As portrayed—two-story buildings with a pool of surface parking—they somewhat resemble the nearby JPI student housing, except with more steeply pitched roofs. Though they're often described as a "buffer" between the Winter Garden area and Fort Sanders, the ULI message was to better connect the two areas.

"The carriage houses, as a development, look very suburban to me," says Kreyling. "It's just surrounded by parking. They don't address the street at all." They do front the street, townhouse style, without much of a setback; McCarty says that's what makes them carriage houses.

Though it's one of the plan's most conventional aspects, it's also one of its most controversial, largely because it requires removal of existing structures.

The Victorian houses along 11th Street were painstakingly restored for use during the Worlds Fair. They're all currently occupied by artists' studios and shops, offices of the Humane Society and Keep Knoxville Beautiful, and one successful coffee shop. But the city has run them at a loss. The WW plan promises to move and preserve the houses somewhere within the neighborhood, an eventuality of which some are skeptical—but even if successful, such a move will abolish any national registry status which they might merit. Also, the current location of the small but elaborate houses—on a row of tiny lots between an industrial area and Knoxville's most fashionable residential neighborhood—tells a story of working-class aspirations. Anywhere else, they'll just be old houses, and ones that may not fit the scale of their new neighborhoods.

Many are also concerned about Fort Kid, the popular playground near the Knoxville Museum of Art and the Candy Factory. The three family-oriented attractions have worked together well over the last 10 years; teachers, scout leaders, and parents have made a habit of visiting more than one of them on each outing. The WW plan calls for moving Fort Kid elsewhere within the immediate area, but the fact that the plan doesn't yet propose a specific place for the playground may suggest its priority in the scheme.

Cineplex

For many Knoxvillians unlikely to either live in the condos or visit the hotel or work in the office tower, the most welcome part of the entire plan may be the cineplex. It won't compete with any other business downtown; there's not another first-run movie theater within five miles of the place. For tens of thousands of Knoxvillians in all directions—especially in the UT area and all of South Knoxville—it will be the most convenient movie theater.

Nashville's Christine Kreyling is impressed with little in the rest of the plan, but she does like this part—mostly. "The cineplex idea is a really good idea," she says. "In Fort Worth, that has proven to be successful. But the lobby's on the third level. Again, you're just pulling people off the street." McCarty argues that despite the fact that the theaters themselves will be on upper floors, the street level will be one of the main entrances to the cineplex.

Included in the plan is the construction of an IMAX theater—as if to replace the one we tore down a few years after the World's Fair because we didn't know what to do with it.

The loss of a modern and well-maintained fire station is regrettable, and had caused some anxiety within the emergency-response community, but it will almost certainly be replaced in the downtown area.

Market Square

The biggest anxiety for many was the fate of Market Square. Almost 150 years old and perhaps the most storied spot in Knoxville, Market Square evokes emotional responses as well as speculation that it's potentially a perfect town square.

An ambitious program to refurbish Market Square, mainly by calling the bluffs of landlords who'd been sitting on vacant property, was passed in a dramatic City Council meeting in 1997. Soon afterward, when it was learned that Market Square might be important to the convention center development, the city chose to hold those plans in abeyance. Some frustrated landowners blame the anticipation of the convention center-related development for a quarter-decade of stagnation that might otherwise have seen productive independent redevelopment. Business on the square has declined markedly during that time.

Worsham Watkins originally proposed encasing the square in a glass dome which could somehow be opened on nice days. News of plans for it leaked out last summer, and it turned out to be the project's biggest bugaboo. Though many believed the plan was impractical, it remained a prospect at the PBA demonstration in January. Cynics suspected the unlikely dome was there just to be a bargaining chip, a planned concession to the community.

Though non-restaurant retail has very nearly died there, the square remains central Knoxville's most popular lunchtime spot, and recent years have seen a sudden resurgence in another of the square's original purposes, as middle-class residents moved in. Before last week's presentation, word had spread that through eminent domain, Market Square, with or without a dome, would wholly be transformed into a high-performance "shoppertainment" district, with no room for residents. They were rumors that WW insiders wouldn't confirm or deny until last Wednesday.

Last week's presentation put some of those fears at ease; one of the evening's biggest surprises was Watkins' mention of residential lofts on Market Square as being part of its destiny. But the plans for the Square as described on the PBA's website sound less liberal, with mention of possibly "some loft residences." Many were alarmed to learn the extent of the "restrictive covenants" that would be placed on the square's owners, and the amount of control the private development would have over the makeup of city's most historic spot. At press time, some Market Square owner/residents still suspect the long-range plan is to force residents out.

The ULI report, again, strongly pushed for maximizing downtown residences: "The city should support residential development by instituting a friendly permit process and supporting the conversion of historic buildings."

Winter Garden

Add the convention center to the linear downtown redevelopment and it forms a long L, the corner of which is not the convention center, but the Winter Garden. It seems to be the hub of the entire development, with linkages north, south, east, and west.

Knoxville, the largest city in one of the most botanically diverse regions in America, seems suited to a botanical garden; it's hard to think of any attraction more appropriate. Its architecture, which vaguely resembles the Victorian Crystal Palace in London, is arguably compatible with the nearby L&N depot and the Victorian motif of the rest of the development.

In their presentation, Worsham and Watkins compared the proposed Winter Garden to the similar enclosed garden at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville; those who've seen it know it's a lovely, interesting place. But it's also free. Will people pay an admission to see plants as readily as they pay an admission to see man-eating fish and giant frogs at Chattanooga's Aquarium? Kreyling doubts it will have much gravity in itself. "The Winter Garden, the Cascades, those are amenities, not destinations," she says.

McCarty acknowledges the Crystal Palace was a direct inspiration for the conservatory and would rather compare it to that legendary Victorian model than to the Opryland Hotel, which he says is comparatively only a "courtyard." McCarty has worked mainly on the exterior design; what the interior will look like has yet to be announced.

Crossing Henley: the Cascades

One of the public benefits of the development that PBA advertised from the beginning was that the development would find a way to cross problematic Henley Street and bridge the UT area and downtown.

This plan does so in a more extravagant way than anyone predicted, by projecting a glassed-in "conditioned" 25 to 35-foot-wide concourse across Henley near Summit Hill. "The Cascades," as it's called, would feature escalators from the L&N Station area to the new cineplex and shops. McCarty says the concourse will be "just like a street," with buildings on either side. If it doesn't seem like the sort of place that might have parades or demonstrations or street performers, McCarty asks, "Tell me, why not? The intent of the developer is for it to be a street kind of experience."

Though the ostensible purpose for much of the development was to connect the convention center to Market Square—with a larger charge to connect the UT area to downtown—it remains to be seen whether many would regularly walk through the Winter Garden, the Cascades, the cineplex, the shopping atrium, the Marriott, etc., just to go downtown for lunch.

Many observers, including Coddington, still see Clinch Avenue, with its existing viaduct, as the most direct and logical connection between UT and downtown, and between the convention center and Market Square. "Clinch could become a great street," Coddington says, "one that starts in Fort Sanders and ends in the city."

The PBA does plan to improve the Clinch Avenue pedestrian walk (built for the World's Fair, it's a narrow, roundabout route); it will still be as narrow—it'll mostly be the same bridge—but McCarty says they're working on a plan to rebuild the western end, improving access. That corridor is not addressed in the WW plan.

"I think people will still cross on Clinch," says McCarty, who studied that option as a site for the big developments. "But there was a real need to create this energy, to find property that could have more intensity, more square footage, more types of features tied to it." He notes that Clinch is already crowded with buildings that aren't going anywhere: UT's Conference Center, the old YMCA, the Hilton garage. McCarty's innovative mixed-use design for PBA's parking garage/retail center is already going up at Clinch and Locust; if done well, it will at least partially address this more obvious route to Market Square, and to the projected wonders of Union Avenue.

Kreyling thinks the plan ignores a more sensible way to deal with Henley: to slow traffic down and encourage pedestrian crossing by widening the medians. "Henley Street is just a bad street," she says. "It's an escape route, it's not a street. Any urban-design expert would suggest you fix the street, make it a boulevard, allow pedestrians to cross it."

Architecture

Some, like Tim Ledford, executive director of the East Tennessee Community Design Center, like what they've seen of the plan. Wayne Blasius, vice president of Denark-Smith is especially impressed with WW's commitment to use of high-quality materials.

Others are less impressed. "It's pretty conservative postmodern stuff," says Coddington upon his first viewing of the plans. "In many ways, it can be anywhere, in Atlanta, it can be a mall. In some ways it reminds me of the outer belt around Washington, D.C. It doesn't seem there is any close analysis about what Knoxville is as a city. One of the things I've noticed from the older buildings is that it's a brick city."

McCarty points out that if you look close they do use a lot of brick, even on the shiny skyscraper. "We blended natural materials, the bricks of downtown, with ribbon glass." From his window he points to downtown's current tallest buildings, which are both faced with glass. "We've tried to combine the styles of downtown." He points to the tile roofs and other features which, he says, will reflect "the warm materials of the city."

"What we've got is a very interesting vision," Coddington adds, "not necessarily a community vision. A city tells a story about itself. What the city might want to think about is what story this development tells, and whether it's a story the city wants told."

Christine Kreyling is a little more blunt. "All the walkways, that hermetically sealed environment—people can get that stuff at a suburban mall. I don't think that's what people come to cities for."

Though McCarty takes exception to the term postmodern, most call the tower that: modern materials, like glass, but with unapologetic reflections of traditional styles. The dominant style of the smaller buildings is a sort of nouveau-Victorian, much of it seeming to reflect the grandiose, European-influenced style of the 1905 L&N terminal which is adjacent to the busiest part of the plan and other turreted, steep-roofed buildings of Knoxville's past and present. Whether coincidental or not, some of it resembles the Vendome, a turreted apartment building once the tallest building downtown, which stood about a block away, on Clinch; it was torn down early in the century. Downtown is still dominated by Victorian commercial buildings, and this plan acknowledges that with a bow, but some observe that the buildings have an elegance more Parisian than Knoxvillian.

The development as a whole is also bigger than any Victorian dreamed. Though the L&N is preserved and may profit from the development, the station which for nearly a century has been the most conspicuous building on its block is now to be shadowed by the slightly taller cross-Henley shopping mall, and nearly dwarfed by the development as a whole, so much so that it's invisible in several of the drawings. McCarty acknowledges that the Cascades will be noticeably taller than the L&N, a fact that couldn't be helped, given that they wanted a streetscape interior, "dramatic" glass roof, and plenty of clearance over Henley.

Likewise, the 1848 School for the Deaf, better known today as Old City Hall, has enjoyed a sunny southern exposure for over 150 years. It will be not only dwarfed by the project across the street, but literally overshadowed by it. "What concerns me is the Old City Hall building," says Coddington. "It was given a privileged place in the city. This is a diminution of that history."

In the Worsham Watkins presentation last week, Kendrick Place, the upscale townhouses just off Locust which have long been fully occupied, was mentioned as one of downtown's contemporary successes. McCarty says he kept the biggest building away from Kendrick Place in part to avoid minimizing it. But in the drawings of the new development, Kendrick Place looks like a footstone, a leftover of another, smaller era.

Integration

If passed precisely as pitched, the WW plan will form one long strip of new, high-density development: eight blocks of brand-new architecture built on a larger scale than most of the rest of downtown. On drawings, it looks like a shiny, futuristic city of its own: or an extravagant, eight-block-long luxury ocean liner docked in old Knoxville.

Kreyling, viewing the plan on the website in her Nashville office, says, "It looks more like a real-estate scheme than a master plan for redevelopment."

Coddington holds that the chief failing of the WW plan is its existence in the absence of "a comprehensive master plan," for all of downtown. For that he blames not Worsham and Watkins—they're just developers—but the city itself. Knoxville, he says, "dropped the ball" by not having a comprehensive urban plan for Worsham Watkins to work with.

Some suggest that the hermetically sealed aspect is deliberate, designed to keep the customers in the bigger project and not share them much with the rest of downtown. "I know it's hard to say no to that amount of dollars coming into downtown," says Bridger. "But developers, they're not thinking about making a city. They're thinking about making a project."

"This is laid out not strategically," Coddington says, "but as a matter of convenience. I think if the city had had a master plan, I'm not sure the office tower and the hotel would be located right there."

Does it serve the development or serve the city? McCarty thinks this high-intensity approach might work better than a scattershot strategy of smaller projects around town. "Then this intense area can become a catalyst for everything around it." He suggests it might inspire landowners to rehab some run-down buildings on the south side of Union, as well. "We need an intense program to get it started. Once we have that, then the rest of downtown will follow."

© 2000 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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