The Market Square redevelopment plan promulgated last week attempts to bridge the gap between the Square's individualistic property owners and the city's bent for comprehensive development that will bring commercial vitality to the Square as a whole.
By encouraging individual owners to submit proposals for the development of their parcels, the plan seeks to allay concerns that their property will be condemned or coercively brought under the control of a single developer. By providing that these owners must be "willing to redevelop their property in a manner that is compatible" with what's termed the "conceptual plan" of a "coordinating developer," the plan tries to assure an overall strategy for bringing the largely moribund Square back to life.
All of this is based upon the premise that, "while the interests of each property owner must be considered, the Market Square area should be redeveloped in a comprehensive and coordinated manner. The involvement of a developer who has experience with downtown retail and commercial developments in cities comparable to Knoxville will be critical to the overall success of the project. Also, a piecemeal and uncoordinated redevelopment based upon each property owners' individual rehabilitation schedule and preference would adversely affect the promotion of the overall project area..."
The plan bears the imprimatur of Knoxville's Community Development Corp., which is the city's redevelopment agency. But it was really crafted by Mayor Victor Ashe and his closest advisors— both in and out of city government. KCDC Chairman Bill Lyons, who is one of them, deserves credit for going to great lengths to assure all concerned that the plan will be shaped by a participative process and not imposed by fiat. It will take all of Lyons' acumen as a UT political-science professor to guide that process, which started with a public hearing Wednesday evening.
At this juncture, however, the 19-page KCDC document, which is labeled "draft," raises at least as many questions as it answers about how the plan is supposed to work and whether it will prove workable. What follows is an attempt to address some of those questions, with yours truly's views interspersed with those of others.
Q. What will be required of individual property owners who want to participate in the redevelopment?
A. Once having declared their intent to do so, and once a coordinating developer has been selected by KCDC, individual owners will be required to enter into "development agreements" that include "appropriate restrictive covenants." But the plan is vague as to what's meant by these crucial terms; indeed, it looks to the coordinating developer to define what types of covenants are needed.
Lyons and others involved in the plan's formulation suggest they would start with restrictions on the types of business and hours of operation of commercial tenants on the Square. But could they extend those plans to include requirements for improvements to and maintenance of buildings, lease terms, tenant selection by the coordinating developer or mandatory contributions to a common fund for promoting the square as a whole? The answers remain to be determined.
Q. Can KCDC succeed in its declared intent to "use its best efforts to facilitate development agreements between those property owners who wish to retain ownership of their property and the coordinating developer"?
A. We don't doubt KCDC's good intentions to avoid the heavy-handedness associated with prior proposals by Worsham Watkins International and the Public Building Authority to acquire control of Market Square. But if facilitation fails, condemnation is KCDC's last resort. And some owners remain fearful that its plan will turn out to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.
There's seemingly no precedent for KCDC's approach even having been tried, let alone succeeded anywhere else in the country. "I've never seen anything like this," says John Elkington, whose Memphis-based Performa Entertainment had been seeking to take the lead in Market Square development but whose interest has been waning. "It's going to be a prolonged political process, and it's going to take the wisdom of Solomon on KCDC's part and a very remarkable developer to get all those people across the goal line," Elkington asserts. But he also allows that, "It depends on good faith and a developer who can work with everyone."
Q. Who can be expected to respond to KCDC's request for proposals (RFP) from prospective coordinating developers?
A. It's easier to guess who won't respond than who will. While Earl Worsham says, "I don't know," it's highly likely that Market Square has heard the last of WW. While Elkington says he's reserving judgment, his many barbed criticisms of the selection process suggest he's unlikely to proceed.
A pivotal person is the Square's largest property owner, David Dewhirst, who also commands the respect of most of his fellow owners. A few months ago Dewhirst was close to partnering with Elkington, but then negotiations fizzled. Now, he's known to be having discussions with another prospective partner who's had a track record of success with downtown commercial development in another nearby city. Such a partnership would seem better positioned than any other entrants to reach an accord with a property owners' association that has so far resisted the imposition of a single comprehensive developer.
Another possibility is that the association could come up with a separate candidate of its own. Already, the association has retained a commercial planning consultant from Michigan. But its president, Bill Ambrose, says, "We're sticking with the plan we gave Mayor Ashe that included joint marketing, leasing and financing agents."
Q. Can commercial revitalization of Market Square succeed in isolation, let alone in piecemeal fashion?
A. The answer on both accounts, in yours truly's opinion, is a resounding "no". Concerted redevelopment of the Square needs to be part of a more encompassing downtown redevelopment effort in order to achieve proverbial critical mass. To its credit, the city is now extending itself to make things happen on what may be the single most important front: residential restoration of historic buildings. Just last week the city committed to a ground floor lease, tax abatement and facilitation of an $884,000 "bridge loan" to clear the way for a $5 million, 46-unit apartment complex in the Emporium Building at the corner of Gay and Jackson. Its co-owners, Dewhirst and Birmingham-based developer Adam Cohen, expect to start construction in November.
An even larger, 99-unit restoration of the nearby Sterchi Building is "getting very, very close," according to its Atlanta-based developer Leigh Burch. He's awaiting a $7.1 million loan commitment that's expected in October. Again, tax abatement and a dedicated parking commitment on the city's part are key to getting securing this.
These probably represent the two most significant downtown developments of the past decade and hopefully the harbingers of more to come.