Thinking Outside the Square

Both of the respondents to the city's request for proposals (RFP) to redevelop Market Square have placed a lot of emphasis on development that extends beyond the Square.

"Redevelopment of Market Square will not be successful unless a comprehensive approach to downtown planning and redevelopment that includes Gay Street is implemented," states the proposal submitted by Chattanooga based Kinsey Probasco and Associates, which is working in concert with Knoxville developers Brian Conley and David Dewhirst.

"The RFP was asking what should be on Market Square. But Market Square needs to link to the rest of downtown, and people need to reach a consensus on what their downtown ought to be," says Kim Trent, spokesperson for another group that responded just prior to Monday's deadline. This group includes a list of participating firms so long that just identifying all of them might take up half this column's space. The point person locally is architect Jennifer Martella, and the other key players at this stage would appear to be Ray Gindroz of Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates and Charles "Chuck" Fancher of Fancher-Kaser Partners, based in Newport Beach, Calif.

For a long time, I've preached the need for comprehensive redevelopment of the Square in order to restore its commercial vitality (in a mixed-use setting, mind you). But I'm now persuaded of the need to look outside the Square as well for contributions to its proverbial critical mass. Universe Knoxville can help if it comes to fruition; so can the new convention center. But there's probably a need for more by way of anchors, magnets or whatever to pull people into our languishing downtown that centers on the Square.

The big difference between the Kinsey Probasco, et al response and the Martella, Gindroz, Fancher, et al, response is that the former gets specific about what the "more" should be, whereas the latter only proposes a further planning process.

A sine qua non of Kinsey Probasco's proposal is a cineplex. It states: "In order to achieve the critical mass of people needed to sustain retail and restaurant establishments on Market Square and Gay St., a multi-screen cinema complex should be constructed on the 500 block of Gay Street between the Fidelity [Bankers] Trust Building and the Farragut Building." That's the site Knox County acquired for the court component of its abortive justice center, and which County Executive Tommy Schumpert is reportedly receptive to making available. It's also the site of the nostalgically remembered Riviera Theater, and the new cinema's entrance would be another Knoxville landmark: the restored façade of the S & W Cafeteria.

Given the overextended state of the cinema industry, prospects for landing new screens downtown anytime soon have appeared dim. But Jon Kinsey, who was instrumental in bringing a cineplex to downtown Chattanooga a few years back, has a letter of intent from Carmike Cinemas that states, "we are very interested in finalizing an arrangement for the Gay Street location." The proposal calls for the city to build the 10-screen or more, $6 million facility (not counting any land cost) and lease it to Carmike for a low base rent plus a percentage of a projected $3 million in annual revenues. The facility would also include a 200-plus-space garage. Based on his Chattanooga experience, where he reverted last year to being a developer after a term as mayor, Kinsey insists that weekday parking, lease, sales tax and derivative revenues will produce a positive return to the city on its cinema investment.

To provide for easier pedestrian access between the cinema and the Square, the Kinsey Probasco proposal calls for extending Krutch Park through to Gay Street at a cost of $1.2 million. To make the Square more accessible from the TVA Towers (as well as the Radisson Hotel) a new set of steps connecting them directly is envisioned. These Spanish Steps, as the proposal terms them, could also serve as an amphitheater for concerts and other events on the Square. And the proposal asks the city for a 150 percent increase to $250,000 annually in its support of such events.

Around the Square itself, the proposal calls for commercial development on the ground level with residences or offices on the upper floors. The developers plan to invest $8 million on improvements to the 46,000 square feet of space in the former Watson's Department Store that is owned by Dewhirst. They've got letters of intent from several prospective tenants including Kristi (a high-end women's apparel store), Donna-mite Shoes, Stir Fry Café and Big River Grille, a chain based in Chattanooga. "We have also had encouraging discussions with a major regional bookseller that would serve as a key anchor for the square," they state. It's rumored to be Davis-Kidd.

As for the Square's public space, a three-month planning process with public participation is envisioned, with a preliminary estimate of $2.6 million in city cost for infrastructure and improvements. The city is also being asked to build a $5 million, 348-space parking garage just to the west of the square and to spend $4 million on structural and façade improvements to buildings whose owners are not prepared to renovate them on their own and would therefore become subject to condemnation. That brings the total public cost associated with their proposal to $18.8 million. Developer fees are also contemplated for the project as a whole—but not for the public space planning process, which would be conducted by UT urban design professor Stroud Watson.

In contrast, the Martella, Gindroz, Fancher, et al, proposal consists solely of a planning process to be conducted primarily by Gindroz. Fancher would serve as a development consultant, but there is no developer involved. Gindroz's renown as an urban designer and champion of participative processes may make him an ideal candidate to lead the sort of three-month public input process that Trent envisions. But where that would lead, in turn, is anybody's guess. "At the end, our goal is to have a plan that would be appealing to local developers," she says. It's also anybody's guess what the process would cost. Martella says the consulting fees of all involved would depend "on the scope of the work, which would have to be worked out with KCDC." (Knoxville's Community Development Corp. is the city's redevelopment agency under whose aegis the Market Square redevelopment plan is proceeding.) In a recent posting on the k2k network, Martella estimated that a downtown master planning process would cost on the order of $250,000. She says what's needed on the Square is "a mini master plan."

A third prospective respondent to the RFP, the Historic Market Square Association, dropped out last Friday. The association's president, Bill Ambrose, announced that, "Since the RFP was issued, a number of us researched a number of potential developer partners, met with five different candidate groups and worked toward a coordinated response with a select few. All have been quality people but ultimately the unusual design of the RFP itself placed both parties in such unnatural positions that we were not able to be comfortable submitting a response."

What's missing in the Kinsey Probasco, et al, response is provision for tying all the property owners on the Square into a comprehensive redevelopment plan. The City Council-approved plan under which KCDC is operating calls for selection of a "coordinating developer" to "facilitate the comprehensive redevelopment of the Market Square as a whole while permitting a meaningful opportunity for the existing property owners in the Market Square area to participate in the development." The plan further stipulates that, "KCDC expects that the comprehensive development...will require covenants and restrictions to be recorded that would govern the operation and maintenance of the Market Square area" while allowing for the possibility that "the same goal could be achieved through restrictive zoning."

However, the Kinsey Probasco response states that, "We believe that all property owners who expressed their willingness to redevelop their own properties be allowed the absolute, unfettered right to do so, subject only to the Square's existing H-1 Overlay [historic zoning] and the requirement that all floors of the buildings be renovated in a timely manner. Our model for the Square's redevelopment hinges upon unique, indigenous development of these properties by their owners, sparked by the new anchor tenants delivered by the Coordinating Developer." All but two of the Square's property owners (exclusive of Dewhirst) have expressed their intent to go it alone.

This posture on Kinsey Probasco's part poses a dilemma for KCDC in selecting a coordinating developer. KCDC's chairman, Bill Lyons, has appointed an advisory board to evaluate responses to the RFP and to make a recommendation to KCDC's full board. The advisory board has adopted a matrix of evaluation criteria that take respondent capabilities for satisfying all of the redevelopment plan's mandates into account.

One of the members of the advisory board who has come to the fore is former City Council member Carlene Malone, who opposed the plan while on Council as unwieldy if not unworkable. "I can't criticize Kinsey or anyone else for having the wisdom not to step into quicksand, but it leaves us struggling to provide coordination," Malone observes. She believes that standards applicable to all property owners are needed governing maintenance and appearance of their buildings, perhaps extending to regulating the types of commercial tenants and their hours of operation as well as imposing common area maintenance fees. She further believes that all of the above can be accomplished through application of the city's recently adopted Town Center (TC-1) zoning.

In response to questions, Brian Conley isn't as categorical as his consortium's formal submission. "If we're selected as coordinating developer, we will address the issue of creating a property owners' association or other means to achieve development of the Square in a comprehensive and coordinated manner," Conley says.

This issue could become moot unless the city commits to building (or otherwise backing) the proposed cinema on Gay Street. Conley is categorical that his group's entire proposal is contingent on the cinema's becoming a reality.

What are the chances of it getting city funding? Mayor Victor Ashe's initial response is guarded. "That's something we'll look at carefully," he says. But Vice Mayor Jack Sharp waxes more enthusiastic. "I take a very positive view of some city support to help developers with things that will bring people downtown," he says.

A cinema on Gay Street is also outside the ambit of KCDC's evaluation/selection criteria that focus on the Square alone (while making some allowance for a "holistic assessment.") The time has come for the city, KCDC and all concerned to start thinking outside the Square in the interest of maximizing chances for restoring vitality to Knoxville's distinctive hub.

© 2002 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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