Waterfronts have been newly discovered resources in many cities over the last couple of decades, but Knoxville has done about all it can do on the downtown side. That narrow sliver of land between the University of Tennessee and downtown on one side of Neyland Drive and the river on the other has just about every square foot devoted to holding the Tennessee Grill, Calhoun's, Riverside Tavern, the Star of Knoxville dock and a walking-trail park.
The city has commissioned a feasibility study, and the upcoming city budget will make development of the south side of the river a priority. Think of the possibilities:
Unlike the north side of the river, there is room—room for major projects, room for roads to provide access and room for big ideas.
Fort Dickerson is one of the most historic as well as one of the most beautiful places in Knoxville. The city park has never been developed to full advantage or made into the showcase it could be.
Downtown development has taught city government how to do major projects: participatory decision-making, creating conditions that allow private development to occur rather than top-down management. There was an effort to develop the south side of the river years ago, but it was soundly rejected amid such controversy that it's taken more than a decade for the city to come back.
If downtown remains on track to be an attractive draw—with a movie theater, stores, martini bars, brewpubs, concert venues and good restaurants—then the demand for nearby housing will increase. Riverfront condos and affordable houses just across the Gay Street Bridge could produce as big a boom as the Fourth and Gill neighborhood to the north.
The Fregonese Calthorpe Associates feasibility study has revealed that there is already a contract to purchase the Knoxville Glove Factory property for development of riverfront condominiums and, possibly, a hotel. Such a development can be a catalyst for nearby property. There is also a proposal for another condominium project to the west. Those projects
The city's waterfront development study does not envision a massive overnight transformation. The loft apartments that began on the north end of Gay Street started a ball rolling that has now reached the 500 block and the momentum is continuing south. If conditions can be created with a small area on the south side of the river, enterprising people can take it from there.
The city does face some challenges:
The streets in the neighborhoods will have to be upgraded. If any serious growth occurs in housing, daily commutes will increase traffic congestion.
The city has a sizeable debt from the convention center and other downtown projects that makes spending huge sums impractical. It will require careful planning to do what's needed to get projects rolling. Tax-increment financing will be required. Knox County Commission will need to agree to put new tax revenues back into the neighborhood.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation will need to put the James White Parkway extension back on line to get a controlled access highway from John Sevier Highway to downtown. That will take some of the commuter traffic off Chapman Highway and relieve neighborhood traffic. It made sense to scrap the original plan that would have dumped more traffic onto Chapman Highway, but the new proposal by South Knoxville residents to push the road on toward Sevierville is badly needed.
The space on the south side of the river has made it home to commercial enterprises that use the river for transportation. An asphalt plant and a gas company, to name two, are not attractive neighbors for high-end riverfront condos or upscale housing. Perhaps they can be persuaded to move to Farragut, closer to downriver suppliers.
People in South Knoxville have long complained that their neighborhoods, parks and traffic problems have been neglected while the city moved west. People in South Knoxville are very proud of their part of town, and if it's possible to tap into their creative energy, much is possible.
The urban growth plan and the agreement between the city and county put the brakes on Knoxville expansion by annexation. The city now seems focused on improving the tax base within its existing boundaries.
It's not as easy as annexing a shopping center, but for the long term it is much more satisfying, and makes for a nicer place to live.