Smarter Than EverSee Biscuit, Eat BiscuitPark to the River

Veteran redevelopers buy the J.C. Penney Building Dogwood event rewards early birds Creekscape greenway may be restored Seven Days

One mystery is whether the original facades are in good shape; since the urban-renewal era 40 or 50 years ago, the building's upper floors have been covered with bland cream-colored tiles. Buzz Goss, who's a preservationist architect, says old photographs make it look as if the covered part of original building had two distinct facades, "both of them quite ornate." However, Goss is pessimistic about how much of the facades survived the attempt to make the building look modern. "I'm not expecting to find a whole lot of architectural detail."

Agreed.

One of the last empty buildings on Gay Street has been bought by some of the most aggressive preservationist developers downtown: David Dewhirst, Buzz Goss, and Cherie Goss, have signed an agreement to buy the old J.C. Penney building from downtown businessman Jack Dance, who was representing a group including former County Executive Dwight Kessel. Dewhirst and the Gosses are responsible for much of the recent commercial and residential development on the 100 block of Gay Street and on the west side of Market Square.

Closing is scheduled for May 4. Buzz Goss will only say that they paid "a whole hell of a lot more than we wanted to. Prices are going way up, all over downtown."

The J.C. Penney building, a four-story, 50,000-square-foot structure spanning the addresses 410 to 416 S. Gay, would seem a prime spot for redevelopment potential, sandwiched between a restaurant, bar, coffee shop and residential development in the Phoenix, Woodruff, and Hope Brothers buildings on the south side—and the prospective Mast General Store expected to go into the former White Stores building immediately to the north.

It looks something like the last piece of a puzzle. With this sale and anticipated development, all of the once-problematic 400 block will be occupied with retail on the bottom floors and a mixture of office space and residential on the upper floors. Almost all of the traditional business district of Gay Street south of Jackson is now occupied, or in redevelopment. However, some new development, like Mast, reportedly hinges on the much-anticipated downtown cinema, to be built in the next block to the south.

Known as the J.C. Penney Building for decades, it's been empty since that department store left it about 20 years ago. J.C. Penney opened its first Knoxville store at 412-14 S. Gay in 1935; founder J.C. Penney himself visited the store on more than one occasion. However, as is the case with many downtown buildings, it has a deeper history; the J.C. Penney Building is actually a combination of older buildings, most of them built in the years just after the catastrophic fire of 1897. Within it was one of the first Sterchi Brothers Furniture stores, but the first to combine buildings within the space was German immigrant Max Arnstein, who operated his successful department store here before building his own edifice at Market Square in 1906.

Over the years, Penney's expanded its original space to incorporate two neighboring buildings, including, in 1966, the unusual metal-front Federal Bake Shop on its northern end—which was once considered part of another building to the north.

One mystery is whether the original facades are in good shape; since the urban-renewal era 40 or 50 years ago, the building's upper floors have been covered with bland cream-colored tiles. Buzz Goss, who's a preservationist architect, says old photographs make it look as if the covered part of original building had two distinct facades, "both of them quite ornate." However, Goss is pessimistic about how much of the facades survived the attempt to make the building look modern. "I'm not expecting to find a whole lot of architectural detail."

Structurally, he admits the building does have some problems, like a failing column. It's clearly going to take some work.

"We expect to have commercial on the ground floor, hopefully vibrant retail," Goss says. "It would be nice if there was an office market for the upper-floor space, but there are not as many calls for that as residential." He anticipates that it will be developed as lofts, but hasn't decided whether to offer condos or apartments, sale or rental.

One surprise in Goss's plan, only because it hasn't been done much in Knoxville lately, is to add two additional floors to the top of the building to meet the still-growing demand for downtown living space.

By the time you read this, you may have already missed the chance to partake of free homemade biscuits and gravy on Market Square.

Now in its third year, the White Lily/Home Federal Biscuit Bake-Off isn't the contest it sounds like. Not so much a race among proficient bakers, it's rather a challenge to determine who has the requisite patience to wait in line without whining, shoving or eyeballing ravenously the large metal trays full of small white circles of dough as they are borne from table to oven and back by flour-dusted, apron-wearing volunteers.

The event, which takes place on the first Thursday of the Dogwood Arts Festival, serves as a kind of culinary kick-off, like a secular and populist version of the ancient Prayer Breakfast. It's also a well-intentioned publicity stunt and a work of community activism geared toward early-morning downtown denizens who need a free breakfast or who aren't lucky enough to make time with biscuit-bakers.

After a somewhat anonymous first year—Dogwood PR agent Ruthie Kuhlman recalls pacing Gay Street toting a sign bearing the come-on "Free Biscuits"—last year's event found dozens of giddy office workers queuing up in a maze-like configuration in the square. The collective twinkle in their eyes was either glare from the brilliantly sunny morning or a sign that everyone involved was preparing to subvert the anti-carb will of the Atkins diet.

Kuhlman reports that this year's Biscuit Bake-Off will be staffed by White Lily's Belinda Ellis and her entire nine-member staff, whose responsibilities include starting the baking process at 4 a.m. to get a jump on the day, and showing the event's VIP guest bakers how to keep dough from sticking to their fingers. Donning aprons for the morning will be Dale Keasling of Home Federal, Brett Aldheim of White Lily's parent company, Knox County finance director John Warner, ORNL president John McKittrick, plus Dogwood festival co-chairs Rip Creekmore and Susan Wyatt. All will receive a crash course in the fine art of biscuit preparation under the watchful eyes of their White Lily tutors and anxious biscuit-eaters.

The event begins at 7 a.m. "We hope to feed the downtown masses," says Kuhlman, who tempers her hospitality with the rightful caution of one who understands the bewitching appeal of biscuits. "Not too many of the masses though."

The Lower Second Creek stream that emerges from beneath the World's Fair Park south of Cumberland Avenue and meanders toward Neyland Drive and the Tennessee River will be the centerpiece of Knoxville's newest "old" greenway soon, if a $2 million federal grant to the city can be augmented this year and the University of Tennessee gains approval for a long-term property lease arrangement with the city.

The creekbank path, passable today, was a lovely greenway at the time of the 1982 World's Fair, connecting the exhibit areas and pavilions with the fair's midway, but it has been ignored and debased since then, left to languor in virtual disuse.

A $2 million Federal Highway Administration grant to be funneled through TDOT for the project is already in the bank, and an additional $685,000 "enhancement grant" has been applied for by the city, according to David Harrell, Knoxville's chief civil engineer. The approved money is in the form of a Transportation and Community and System Preservation grant. Harrell says 95 percent of the city's greenway system has been funded mostly by such highway-administration grants. The "enhancement" would require a 20 percent match from the city, or $137,000, that is being sought in the 2005-06 city budget proposal.

Containing 7.5 acres and lying in the quiet valley between Maplehurst and the UT campus, the greenway would constitute an extension of the World's Fair Park. About a half-mile of paved paths would connect the park with the Waterfront Greenway along Neyland Drive.

The city's investment would seem a bargain in the restoration and relandscaping of the creekside greenway. UT's property would also be improved in the deal, which is understood to have been agreed upon by the city and the university, but not yet approved by the UT Board of Trustees and the state's building authority.

Harrell says besides parklike grounds, the greenway would be flanked by parking areas of roughly 100 spaces each at its Cumberland and Neyland ends. That's tentative, he says, but the parking represented in conceptual drawings would replace a surface lot used by UT and its boathouse and the Tennessee Grill restaurant along Neyland and would lend better access to the greenway system at both ends. UT doesn't need the spaces it held in the area as much since the opening of the parking garage at Cumberland and 11th Street, opposite the west border of the greenway, Estabrook Road, which is essentially a UT campus access road. The east border will be along the Norfolk-Southern Railway tracks.

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