Just about three years ago, with the city's backing, the Public Building Authority issued a request for developers to submit proposals for downtown redevelopment (including the World's Fair site). The firm selected, Worsham Watkins International, worked initially as a consultant to the PBA but then submitted a grandiose $370 million plan of its own. After many months of review, the PBA in February recommended that the city proceed with a scaled-back version of the WW plan, thus putting the ball back on Mayor Victor Ashe's court.
Today (May 31), after more than three months of review on his part, the mayor is due to make his own recommendations on how the city should proceed with this most heralded of undertakings. And what's expected to be his point of departure? Issuance of a request for developers to submit proposals for downtown redevelopment.
The cynical view of this progression is that all the city has succeeded in accomplishing is a three-year loop around Robin Hood's barn, leading right back to square one. Certainly, the city has little to show to date for all its expressions of resolve and urgency about making Knoxville a more attractive destination to support its $162 million investment in a new convention center, along with vows to make downtown a more attractive place to live and work. So what's the basis for believing that Ashe's renewed expressions of resolve and urgency—sure to accompany his announcement today—are any more likely to bear fruit than those that went before?
Numerous critics of the way in which the WW plan was seemingly imposed from on high upon the citizenry might be expected to say bravo at the prospect of a fresh start. But the prevalent view among the urban activists who head the critic list appears to be that a new RFP process will just repeat the mistakes of the last one. Developer-driven definitions of what's good for Knoxville are abhorrent in these circles. What's needed instead, they contend, is an inclusive master-planning process that lets the public have more voice in shaping the city's future. But Ashe has dismissed appeals for master planning as a wheel-spinning exercise.
A new RFP, in his view, will create traction for what's become the focal point of redevelopment efforts: namely, the revitalization of Market Square. By affording an association of Market Square property owners who have been resisting subjection to an outside developer an equal opportunity to come forward with a plan of their own, Ashe believes he can overcome opposition to a comprehensive overhaul of the square. It's probably not so much the resistance of the Market Square Association that concerns him as it is the groundswell of protest that would arise throughout the city if it appeared they were being denied an opportunity to control their own destiny.
Under the terms of the RFP that Ashe is expected to announce, all comers would have 90 days to submit proposals either for Market Square or for the entire redevelopment area that was the subject of WW's original proposal. This area, as defined by a redevelopment plan adopted by City Council in 1998, extends from Gay Street on the east to Locust Street on the west along Union Avenue. (WW's plan actually extended further west across Henley Street into the World's Fair Park.)
The developer-selection process pursuant to the RFP as envisioned would almost amount to a referendum of Market Square's property owners. Whichever developer is able to get the most property owners (however defined) in its camp would be the likely winner. But in order to be a player, any prospective developer would have to have a comprehensive approach to bringing most, if not all, of the property on the square under common control where its ground-floor commercial uses are concerned. Under this approach, Memphis-based developer John Elkington would appear to have a long leg up in terms of being able to offer more attractive lease terms to more owners because of the long list of prospective tenants he claims to have lined up.
The dirty word "condemnation" doesn't figure in the RFP. Developers would have to line up property owners on their own, but the city would hold out carrots, not sticks, to help them do so. Owners who came into the fold would get their buildings refurbished by the city at its expense. Those who didn't would presumably have to make any needed structural, roof, facade and core improvements on their own or else face condemnation, but this is not spelled out.
Indeed, what's presented by the mayor today figures to paint a pretty picture in broad-brush fashion. Yet as everyone involved knows, the devil is in the details, and few of the details appear to have been worked out. A linchpin is the amending of the 1998 redevelopment plan that was promulgated by Knoxville's Community Development Corp. All questions about the terms under which buildings would get renovated by the city, or otherwise, were referred to the city's bond attorney, Mark Mamantov. But he is out of town this week and could not be reached prior to Metro Pulse's weekly deadline.
For well over a year, the redevelopment process has been pointed toward establishing the terms of a public-private partnership under which the city and WW would collaborate on building everything from a new convention-center headquarters hotel, an office tower and a cineplex to facilities for a prospective Scripps Cable TV center. So Ashe's decision to reopen the developer-selection process rather than make long-sought commitments to WW might be expected to cause Messrs. Worsham and Watkins to say the hell with it and walk away. Indeed, they've recently been threatening to do so as frustrations have mounted over stretch-outs of the city's timetable for making any decisions.
But Worsham's reaction to the mayoral maneuver, at least for publication, is surprisingly conciliatory. "We've made a proposal and haven't had a response. If they want to do an RFP, we'll take a look at it...We're committed to Knoxville and we're going to hang in there," Worsham says. One reason for his posture could be hopes that the selection process will anoint WW as the master developer for the entire redevelopment area including Market Square. That would enable WW to reestablish hegemony over Elkington, whom they consider to be a renegade for having attempted to stake out Market Square as his own fiefdom.
Ashe, for his part, says a new selection process is needed because, "If I just go hand it to someone, then I'm subject to vituperative criticism of a sweetheart deal." But in his next breath, he's quick to throw a bouquet to WW. "We wouldn't be where we are today without Worsham and Watkins. They were the first local developers of substance to come along and say we want to participate in this. They deserve a pat on the back."
Because all of the other elements of the WW grand design (the exception being Market Square) have proven to be elusive, it seems unlikely that any other developer would want to take them on. So WW can be reasonably confident of re-selection and content to wait on city commitments to provide moorings for ships that haven't come in yet.
Ashe is holding for his Thursday announcement any indication of how much more money he's prepared to commit at this time, in addition to the $1 million that's included in his budget for the fiscal year ahead. A city garage to support Market Square as a visitor attraction would appear to be the biggest-ticket item, followed by renovation and infrastructure work on the square itself. But preparations for these projects might take most of the next 12 months, so the big outlays wouldn't hit until the subsequent fiscal years.
Ashe's announcement will, of course, be vintage Victor ebullience. "I'm excited about where we are and where we're headed," he enthuses. "This is something the entire city has a stake in, and I plan to be active in promoting its acceptance."
All that's missing at the moment is a definition of what "it" is.