Market Square should be Knoxville's pride and joy, not the source of embarrassment it is today. The square is the heart of the city geographically, and historically it was a hub of commerce and once the seat of city government. The rows of picturesque, mostly Georgian buildings that bound the square on either side are the envy of many other cities that lack anything approaching their charm in an open setting.
Yet today the square is nearly moribund when it should have long since become a focal point of downtown revitalization efforts. That's about to change if, as expected, the city goes forward with the Public Building Authority's recommendation for restoration of the square as a "festival marketplace." But these recommendations raise numerous questions about the ways and means of restoring it as well as the ends to be achieved. Chief among them:
Is it really necessary or desirable to have a master developer be awarded control over all the property on the square in order to make it spring back to life? What sort of vitality is desired and why are the PBA and the city seemingly deferring to a private developer in defining it? Can a proposed $7 million city outlay for Market Square redevelopment be justified unless and until Worsham Watkins delivers on other, still elusive elements of its downtown redevelopment plan that were previously portrayed as vital to creating "critical mass" for the square's commercial viability? And can the city be trusted to deal equitably with Market Square's property owners, especially those who've forged ahead with or planned residential renovation of their buildings and who feel they've been left in the dark about the city's plans?
It would be nice to think that enterprising building owners, whose watchwords are organic, indigenous development, could make it happen on their own throughout the square, with only a helping hand from the city. But both recent experience here and the expertise of consultants familiar with other cities brand this as wishful thinking.
Even as more residents have moved in, commercial activity on the square has all but vanished. Not even the singularly successful husband/wife team that runs the Tomato Head could make a go of it with a second restaurant. And the husband, Scott Partin says, "We really want the [PBA's] development plan to happen."
It's true that Earth to Old City, a successful specialty gift store, has recently acquired two adjacent buildings on the square with a view to relocating there. Its owner, Scott West, says, "We think we've built a strong enough clientele to make it even if nothing else comes, but we'd far, far prefer to see Market Square renovated and developed as a whole, and we'd very much like to see an outside entity involved." In part, West's desire to vacate the Old City is based on the lack of common controls over hours and types of businesses there and collaborative promotion of them—some of the things that a Market Square master developer is intended to accomplish.
West's views from within are strongly reinforced by the view from without of RTKL Associates, the Chicago-based consulting firm retained by the PBA to conduct a design review of the Worsham Watkins plan. This is the firm—mind you—whose report also sounded the death knell for WW's proposed glass menagerie over Henley Street. "The proposal to bring Market Square into a single ownership and to modernize the surrounding buildings in a single effort appears to be the only viable choice if the Square is to once again become the focal point of downtown Knoxville," RTKL's report states.
Before proceeding with redevelopment, however, the city needs to articulate a vision and a set of values for the square that transcend the catch phrase "festival marketplace." These need to supercede the objectives set forth in an abortive 1997 redevelopment plan that myopically focused on fostering a multimedia industry cluster.
It's easier for yours truly to verbalize what the objectives shouldn't be than what they should. They shouldn't be, as some would now have it, to maximize the square's appeal as an entertainment district for visitors to the city's new convention center, or mall-like maximization of retail sales per square foot. Rather, they should build on the city's heritage and stress diversity that includes an eclectic mix of shopping, dining and entertainment venues along with loft residential and other business uses. The appeal should be to all Knoxvillians as well as to visitors from near and far.
It's unfortunate that no such goals are set forth in the PBA's recommendations to the city. The PBA's administrator, Dale Smith, insists he presently has no authority to do so and that a commitment from the city is a prerequisite to fleshing out developer plans that need to be taken into account. Smith acknowledges that all of this may sound circular after a year's go-around between the PBA and WW that has also involved WW's apparent choice of a Market Square developer, Memphis-based John Elkington.
"We're trying to get out of circular into linear, but the only way [to do so] is to support the idea of the city moving forward, because until they do, none of the unknowns will become knowns," Smith insists, in a context that applies to terms on which the city would gain control over Market Square property.
While Elkington and his firm, Performa, Inc., are best known for Beale Street in Memphis, it's unfair to characterize him as a nightlife developer. In a presentation to property owners and other downtown devotees last fall, Elkington had the talk right as far as yours truly is concerned. Whether he, or anyone, can deliver on a square-wide revitalization is subject to question. Certainly, it's a daunting challenge—especially in the absence of other WW heralded attractions that have so far proved elusive.
But destination attraction or no destination attraction, Market Square revitalization begs to proceed; indeed, it's long overdue. The $7 million in city outlays that Smith has recommended for property acquisition and renovation and for enhancing square-wide infrastructure and aesthetics is no small sum. But it pales by comparison with the $102 million recommended for public garages to support WW's office, hotel, cineplex, and apartment ventures. Moreover, the $7 million would not get spent until Elkington has committed to a fully fleshed-out development plan that adheres to city-set objectives.
The stickiest set of questions surrounding the development have to do with the basis on which the city should gain control over Market Square property on behalf of the developer. Outright acquisition is only one of several ways to allow for orchestration of the redevelopment as a whole. Others include long-term leases and restrictive covenants, and Smith's recommendations allow for flexibility.
"These are not one size fits all deals," he says. "They've got to recognize the personal circumstances and financial interests of each owner, which may differ widely, and also the condition of each building.
"There are only two predicates to making something come together to be fair to everybody. One is psychological willingness to work with us, which maybe not all of them will have, and in that case nothing else matters. In those cases the city has got to be prepared to move forward to acquire them under eminent domain. Second, they have got to be realistic in terms of their property value. While I don't want to be unfair to any property owner, I also don't want to be unfair to the taxpayers of the city of Knoxville."
During his year in Knoxville, Smith has earned a reputation for developmental acumen, sensitivity to urban values and above all else forthrightness. Once its goals are set, the city should name him as its point person, if not plenipotentiary, in all Market Square negotiations. Mistrust of city government is one of the biggest impediments to getting revitalization underway, and Smith can do a lot to overcome that.