commentary (2005-34)

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A Low Blow to South High

A chance to restore the lovely building lost

A Low Blow to South High

by Barry Henderson

The conditions leading up to the South High School debacle that occurred Monday at County Commission were a long time a-stewing. And the outcome was a shock to those who love the old school’s features and who recognize its potential to be restored as a South Knoxville landmark that enhances the whole community. It’s taken three years of campaigning by Knox Heritage to come up with a reasonable way to rehabilitate the architecturally and historically significant building, which has been ignored since the school was closed in 1976.

Three decades without maintenance left the building in decrepit condition, but there was a plan in place, supported by the South Knoxville neighborhood, to restore the building’s exterior and convert its interior to condominium residences. The plan was contingent on the sale of the property by the Knox County School Board to developer Leigh Burch. That sale required the approval of County Commission, which at first approved it, then rescinded its approval for no justifiable reason. Commissioners Paul Pinkston and Larry Clark, who represent South Knoxville, sunk the plan on the supposition that the county might be able to get more for the school property than Burch was offering. How did they expect to get a better bid?

Here’s why their last-minute opposition, which they convinced eight other commissioners to join, was not only shortsighted, but patently ridiculous.

First, the building is worth preserving. Preservation will be very costly, but it is a Charles Barber design that made it a model high school in 1937, the year it opened. It is a beautiful piece of brick architecture, but an engineering estimate of the costs to fix its maintenance deficiencies and bring it up to today’s codes was $2.3 million in 2002, the year that Knox Heritage took it under its wing.

The school board had decided to raze it and replace it with a metal storage building, and the neighborhood was up in arms against that idea. Hundreds of people signed a petition supporting the building’s preservation, and citizen suggestions circulated that would have converted the school to a community center, a medical center, a seniors’ center, or some other adaptive reuse that would save the structure and serve the neighborhood around its site along Moody Avenue at Tipton Street.

Kim Trent, the executive director of Knox Heritage, says the group tried all sources in exploring those neighborhood center suggestions and came up empty. The reuse option came back to a residential adaptation, and the neighborhood was okay with that, at first. So was the school board, but it wanted to retain ownership and lease the property to a residential developer for 40 years, so a request for proposals was issued, and Burch responded. The upshot was that rents would not support the necessary rehabilitation unless they were subsidized for low-income occupants. No one was satisfied with that option, so Trent went back to the school board, urging that the school be sold, and the board finally agreed.

A second RFP was issued, and Burch responded again, after the city agreed to consider tax-increment financing to give any approved redeveloper a tax break for the first few years following the rehabilitation. Burch proposed 26 condominium units, and almost everyone involved seemed pleased with his concept.

The trick was that he could only pay $100 and closing costs to afford the restoration and conversion expense, an investment of $3 million. Burch acknowledged that his scheme posed significant risk to his company and that the project would be difficult to consummate, but he was willing to give it a go. He had experience with tough conversions to residential uses, including successes with the Sterchi Lofts and Lerner Lofts, constructed from vacant business buildings on Gay Street downtown. County Mayor Mike Ragsdale spoke in support of the project.

But Pinkston and Clark, backed by East Knox Commissioner Mike McMillan, balked, saying they thought the county could get a better deal. Clark suggested the property could be auctioned off. An auction might well bring more than $100 and costs, but it might also bring with it a new owner/speculator who would let the building languor in disrepair, or who would tear it down and replace it with something that would serve his or her own purposes without bringing anything of real community use back into the neighborhood. Losing the building and control of its reuses isn’t an option to the people who have worked hard to preserve it.

“I’m not giving up on it,” says Trent, who says her initial response to the Commission vote was that she and her organization had wasted three years of work to come up with a viable rehab offer. She says she’s committed to keep after the County until the school building is saved and the community gets it back into use for the betterment of the neighborhood. Good for her and her group. The marvelous old building is worth it.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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