Inner-City Neighborhood Revitalization
Downtown revitalization has been a recurrent theme in this column to the near exclusion of adjoining neighborhoods that are equally in need of it. Fortunately, the city administration has not been neglecting those neighborhoods as this columnist has tended to, and there is a lot of encouraging development to show for the attention they’ve been getting.
I’m not talking here about the neighborhoods immediately to the north, Fourth and Gill and Old North Knoxville. Their gentrification has become self-sustaining, with property values rising to approximate those of many western suburbs and historic zoning in place to protect the character of further development. Nor is this column about the South Knoxville waterfront, which has become the ballyhooed focus of what could turn out to be the city’s most ambitious redevelopment effort, though it’s still in a formative stage.
Rather, the focus here is on inner-city neighborhoods that have been more impoverished and blighted: the Five Points area to the east of downtown and Mechanicsville and Lonsdale to the northwest. Close to $100 million in mostly federal dollars has been committed to their revitalization over the past decade—most recently including City Council’s adoption of a Lonsdale redevelopment plan last month with scant media attention.
The fact that most of the money has come from Washington may redound more to the credit of federal than local officials. But it took some doing on the city’s part to get the two biggest federal grants involved.
A transforming master plan shaped by Knoxville’s Community Development Corp. led to its obtaining a $42 million grant from the department of Housing and Urban Development in 1998. It went to razing the dilapidated College Homes public housing project and replacing its 320 cramped apartments with 255 single-family dwellings on an augmented site.
What seemed to loom even larger at the time was Knoxville’s highly competitive selection by HUD that same year as an Empowerment Zone city that was supposed to carry with it $100 million in federal appropriations over 10 years. Job training and enterprise creation as well as residential and commercial development were all within the ambit of eligibility for EZ funding in 16 low-income census tracts. However, the Bush administration moved to cut off the program after taking office in 2001, and $26 million was all that Knoxville got.
There’s been no cutback, though, in two other HUD programs known as Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and HOME under which the city continues to receive on the order of $4 million a year. And the Haslam administration has chosen to concentrate its allocation of these funds in the Five Points, Mechanicsville and Lonsdale redevelopment areas. Space constraints permit only a brief look at what the city has to show for all these dollars in each of the areas as follows:
Five Points: A $6.5 million Village Plaza on Martin Luther King Boulevard is the centerpiece of Five Points redevelopment. Its two imposing red brick buildings, attractive signage and ample parking compare favorably to many strip malls on Kingston Pike. While New Urbanists would have preferred mixed-use development of the four-acre site, a purely commercial Bearden look-alike looks mighty good to surrounding residents, many of whom can barely remember when a Cas Walker store once stood on the same ground. A 20,000 square-foot grocery store is due to go in one of the buildings, and space in the other has been leased to a men’s clothing store, a mortgage loan office, a caterer and a Knox County Clerk’s satellite office. (Knox County contributed $1 million to the project, which is owned by the city’s Industrial Development Board.)
The only thing that’s missing in this picture is an opening date for the grocery store. The former convenience-store owner who will operate it, John Davis, had banked on being open by year-end. But Davis has been in a partnership with the owner of a food store chain, Jim Woods, who has reportedly encountered financial difficulties. The city’s director of community development, Renee Kesler, acknowledges that those difficulties are holding up the works. “Mr. Davis is going to be one of the owners, and we’re working with him to figure out how we can assist, but I’m not sure how that’s going to come out yet,” she says.
Using CDBG funds, the city is also in the process of acquiring some 40 parcels of vacant or blighted residential property, which it will resell for construction of new dwellings, in the Five Points area.
Mechanicsville: The transformation of College Homes into what’s now known as Mechanicsville Commons represents perhaps the single most uplifting development in the city over the past several years (though it was not without some dislocation pains). When combined with picturesque Old Mechanicsville nearby, other infill housing and the creation of Danny Mayfield Park, the result has been a neighborhood of great charm that still retains affordability.
The stress now is on commercial development to complement the residential. With $1.2 million in EZ funds, KCDC acquired and cleared a four acre site along Western Avenue where two major developments are going in: 1.) a $10 million headquarters for Cherokee Health Systems is nearing completion; and 2.) work on a 43,000 square-foot Food City store that will also house a pharmacy and a bakery is set to start as soon as Bell South fiber-optic equipment can be removed from the site.
Lonsdale: This long-neglected neighborhood is now becoming a focal point for city attention. Some $1.5 million in EZ money will go for a new neighborhood commercial center on Texas Avenue; $200,000 is earmarked for sidewalks and screening residential streets from adjacent industrial sites; and the state has contributed $400,000 for a new community park.
Those three neighborhoods will get top priority for the $2 million or more a year in low interest, and in some cases forgivable, home rehabilitation loans that the city provides with CDBG and HOME funds.
Getting the Five Points grocery store up and running should be right at the top of the city’s list of New Year’s resolutions.