Given all the constraints involved, finding a way to build a new movie theater on the 500 block of Gay Street while preserving most of the block's historic buildings represents a remarkable achievement. Great credit is due to the city administration, Knox Heritage and Regal Entertainment Group for working collaboratively and creatively to achieve this much to be desired result.
Now, the way is clear for work to begin, not only on the theater, but also on restoration of the landmark S&W Cafeteria and other long vacant buildings on the block. The city's Senior Director of Policy Development Bill Lyons voices confidence that both can be completed in time for a fall 2006 opening of a theater adjoined by restaurants and retail shops.
The odds against this happening seemed long when the city, back in January, unveiled plans for the theater that called for demolition of the S&W and other vacant buildings that once housed the studios of radio station WROL, the Athletic House and a Walgreen's drug store. Only their removal, Lyons related at a public meeting, would create a footprint big enough for the 41,000 square foot, eight screen cinema to be built on the single level needed to keep its cost within Mayor Bill Haslam's $9.3 million budget cap. A two-story theater would add $4 million to its construction cost, and that was deemed unacceptable. (Of the $9.3 million, $3 million would be covered by taxpayer dollars, $2.5 million by Regal as the cinema's operator, and the balance by proceeds of a bond issue backed solely by cinema revenues.)
But Haslam granted Knox Heritage a stay of execution, so to speak, to let the preservationist group try to find a way to keep the project within budget. Thus began an intensive analysis of design and financing alternatives that went through so many iterations that the parties involved say they've lost count of all of them. Lyons, Jim Harrison of Knox County Development Corp., two Regal officials and Knox Heritage's executive director Kim Trent formed a core working group along with an architect retained by Knox Heritage, Faris Eid. Each party had criteria that needed to be satisfied.
The city, for its part, was insistent that the cinema's entrance be on Gay Street, rather than to its rear, adjacent to the State Street Garage. "We don't want people entering and leaving the theater in the back somewhere. We want them feeding into Gay Street and contributing to downtown vitality," Lyons explains. Knox Heritage pressed to let the Clinch Avenue sidewalk serve as the pedestrian connector, which would have freed up space in the middle of the block that had been dedicated to a covered walkway. But Regal wouldn't buy that. "The parking challenge was very real to Regal with a cinema open 365 days a year in all kinds of weather," Lyons says.
A breakthrough came when Eid hit upon the idea of channeling the pedestrian traffic through the Walgreen's building, which will remain city property. Lyons can't say how much its renovation will add to the project's cost but reckons it will be offset by savings on averted demolition.
Eid is also credited by all concerned for his creativity in working with Regal on the L-shaped design of the theater itself. One leg of the L will extend eastward from Gay Street through the hole left when the erstwhile Riviera Theater was torn down in the 1980s and the added space created by the demolition of the building just to its south which even the most ardent preservationists agree is beyond reclamation. The other leg of the L juts southward between State Street and the back ends of the S&W and adjoining buildings that will be preserved. Together, the two legs comprise the 41,000 square feet footprint needed for a single-story theater, but getting them to meet demanding standards for cinema construction was anything but easy.
Lyons credits Regal's design and construction team, Ron Reed and John Roper, for their flexibility. And while the bouquets are being tossed about, Trent lavishes praise on Lyons and Haslam for their roles. "Bill Lyons was always the voice saying, 'Let's keep trying,' and when we hit sticking points Haslam would get involved and things would start moving," she says.
With the cinema design and other deal terms completed, attention turns to getting the historic building restored and tenanted. The city plans to issue an RFP for a developer within a month. Lyons says he's confident that developers will be forthcoming and that, with cinema patrons as a lure, so will prospective tenants. "It's very important to Regal and the city that these things open simultaneously, and I believe that's realistic," he postulates.
No one can say with certainty, of course, just how big an attraction the theater will prove to be. And, with more than 40,000 square feet of reclaimed restaurant and retail space now being added to the mix, it's less than clear just how far the theater will go toward fulfilling its original intended purpose, which was to serve as a catalyst for the retail revitalization of Market Square.
When looking at downtown as a whole, however, the boost can already be measured in terms of Mast General Store's commitment to locate in the 400 block of Gay Street, contingent on the theater getting built.
Psychologically as well, the Haslam administration's ability to carry off the undertaking in a way that leaves everybody feeling good has to boost the civic esprit de corps and affirm the efficacy of a participative public decision-making process.
— Joe Sullivan