Crossing the River: Knoxville's South Waterfront Plans

The southside development has lots of friends, lots of potential, and some very big questions

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The southern bank of the Tennessee River downtown has always been one of our handiest dilemmas. It's right there. It always has been. We've stared at it as long as we can remember. It dominates the view from the windows of the highest government officials in the City County Building. We gaze at it from the decks and broad windows of several of our most popular restaurants. Every fall, it's the background of a thousand tailgate parties.

Nothing ever happens to it much. A lot of it's covered with kudzu and home to groundhogs of impressive size; it was, until the downtown boom, just the other side of the river, described mainly in terms of how it looks from the north side.

- Well, that kudzu's sorta pretty. But not so much in the winter.

- What can they do about those big tanks; they don't do much for the view.

- Have you ever noticed those cute little houses across from the stadium? Some of them have, like, little docks.

For decades, the southside waterfront just was. But it's almost certain to change; some of it's already changing: where the shore gives way to sheer stone bluffs just across from UT, there's a six-story condominium project is under construction. Another project seems likely to go into the long-underused Knoxville Glove Factory, just west of Chapman Highway; Atlanta developer Camden Management Partners has an option to build it into 220 condominiums, with a marina and boathouse, and at least one restaurant, plus a 110-room hotel attached. Though it's said to be predicated on the city's actions, an application for a permit with the Corps of Engineers suggests construction may start as soon as this August. It's all a three-to-five-year project, but half of the condos, and 4,000 square feet of riverfront restaurant space, may be completed as soon as next year.

These two projects may be a small fraction of what we'll see develop over there in the next few years. With more development opportunity than Neyland Drive and other constraints on the north side, the south side may one day seem like Knoxville's main waterfront.

"If the southside waterfront is not our best underdeveloped asset, it's one of our two or three best," says Mayor Bill Haslam. His office window almost perfectly frames the south shore. He speaks of the necessity of infill development for the city to thrive. "The city's growing at two percent, while our costs are growing at four to five percent. We've got to find opportunities to grow. You go where the opportunities are."

To some, this opportunity is especially rich because of its potential to expand and enhance downtown. Careless highway construction over the last half-century has boxed downtown in a postage stamp less than a square mile in size, geographically smaller than downtown Knoxville was a century ago. To Knoxville's Chief Operating Officer Dave Hill, the southside development is an opportunity to redefine downtown Knoxville. "The southside can be viewed as an expansion of downtown, rather than being viewed as two separate things, isolated."

Earlier this month the city released a request for qualifications and proposals for phase one of a "South Waterfront Implementation Plan." These proposals to work on specific plans for land use, environmental analysis, economic development, design, and engineering will be open and read aloud in the City County Building on July 15. The RFQ/RFP emphasizes "the preferred approach...an aggressive implementation-oriented strategy" laid out in a document called the "Knoxville South Waterfront Redevelopment Feasibility Study," by Fregonese Calthorpe Associates.

They're another firm out of Portland, Ore., which is regarded as the American Florence of New Urbanism; we might assume it's bursting with urban-design firms with exotically euphonious two-name titles, like Crandall Arambula, the firm that a couple of years ago made some grandiose master-plan proposals for Knoxville that so far haven't gone anywhere much.

The city hired Fregonese Calthorpe in January to start sorting out the complicated situation. Today, the southside waterfront embraces railroads, factories, warehouses, barge docks, vacant old commercial buildings, low-income housing, medical facilities, seedy shacks, vacant lots, jungle—nearly every known style of development, or non-development known to Knoxville—everything except, maybe, upscale condominiums, restaurants, offices, and retail. Which happens to be the sort of development boosters want to see dominate the riverfront as soon as possible.

When word came of the Fregonese Calthorpe study, it brought a reaction of mock disgust from a chamber executive:

"Fregonese? This ain't gonna be friggin' easy."

***

Haslam is aware that several other mayors have had exactly the same view that he has; some tried to get something working over there in the kudzu, but failed, often facing community or industry opposition. Still, he seems optimistic. "We need to find opportunities to grow that don't affect the quality of life, take away the sledding hill or the ball park," he says. Historically nearly everything in South Knoxville is controversial, but he's heartened by the reception. So far, he says, "Nobody's saying, 'No way.'"

If there's anyone more optimistic about the potential of the development, it's the south district's councilman, Joe Hultquist. On a walk from Gay Street down Sevier to the fringes of Island Home, he imagines a neighborhood completely changed.

Hultquist has assembled a group called the South Knoxville Foundation; assembled under the rubric of the East Tennessee Foundation, it's meant to facilitate—and, emphatically, not pay for—progressive change on this side of the river. Paraphrasing a Haslam campaign line—"South Knoxville's Time Has Come!"—the group proposes improvements all over this often neglected part of town, but it's clear that the first item on the agenda is the riverfront.

Hultquist and Haslam announced the Foundation about four weeks ago to a gathering of more than 100 assembled in the hot sun on the shore near a decaying industrial dock. The crowd was an unlikely kaleidoscope of business and political characters, liberal and conservative, newcomer and old-timer, a party we're not likely to see anywhere else. There was Ron Emery of Emery's Five and Ten, Monte Stanley of Stanley's Greenhouse, progressive architects like Glen Bullock and Frank Sparkman, some members of the political Pinkston family, Ashley Capps (there as a neighbor, purely—he says he has no intention of ever scheduling big live music shows on the south side; "I have to live here," he says).

Among them was one famous South Knoxvillian who ran a spirited campaign against Bill Haslam in the last election. Madeline Rogero wasn't there to heckle. She's an enthusiastic supporter of the mammoth project. Haslam appointed her to the evaluation committee that is currently reviewing RFP/RFQ candidates.

"We have a good relationship," she says of the mayor. "He's been quite gracious. I'm very pleased that he asked me to be on the committee. What I hope it does is bring some good positive development in South Knoxville," she says. She shares Haslam's assessment that, so far, nearly everyone favors it.

But what they favor is pretty vague. Fregonese Calthorpe's Knoxville South Waterfront Redevelopment Feasibility Study, released in April, paints with a very broad brush. Completed in a short time, it lays out county growth data, which may or may not be very relevant to riverfront development downtown; much of the county's recent growth has been suburban, appealing to people who may not be tempted by the idea of living near downtown. On the other hand, if riverfront development is successful, it may turn out to be much more than a county-growth issue, especially if it's the only development of its kind in the metropolitan area or the broader region.

The report's more interesting passages are those that outline three "scenarios," conservative, moderate, and aggressive, ranging from 900 units of residential development and 230,000 square feet of new commercial development to 2,600 new units and 1.5 million square feet of commercial construction.

***

"One of the key lessons learned is that the South Knoxville Waterfront area is really quite large," states the Fregonese Calthorpe study.

As one developer or politician has noticed over and over, especially during the last 20 years, there's actually a lot to the southside riverfront, with potentially much more room for development than the north side's tightly constrained Volunteer Landing project allowed. The area under study to be redeveloped is a total of 186.6 acres, most of it arguably underused by the standards of river frontage in an urban area. It's all within walking distance of the restaurants and nightclubs and tall office buildings of downtown, but parts of it seem downright rural: overgrown lots and one-lane trestle underpasses.

On the eastern side of the Gay Street Bridge is Sevier Avenue, once a bustling streetcar business district. Sevier still hosts some interesting urban buildings, like the South Knoxville Baptist Church, with its unusual flat-topped steeple—it's been the site of some neighborhood meetings about the southside proposals—and the Model Laundry Building, still proudly and a little puzzlingly announcing what may be construction and expansion dates—1914, 1926—in engraved marble. Today, several of the buildings are vacant or just missing; Sevier Avenue looks something like the business district of a forgotten Carolina mill town. The Fregonese Calthorpe study pictures it restored to its role as the south side's commercial district. Hultquist wants to restore the handful of historic brick buildings along Sevier to create something like a little downtown South Knoxville.

Branching off between Sevier and the river, and beyond, toward Island Home on the eastern stretch of the project site are a couple dozen blocks of residential neighborhood that embraces a variety of older residences, mostly prewar 20th century. They're on streets we aren't used to hearing the names of: Jones Street, Claude Street, Barber Street.

Some houses are handsome and well kept, with lush well-tended gardens. Others look like beachcomber's shacks, displaying peculiar odds and ends in the front yards: perhaps some are. Several, suffering codes violations, have been condemned. About half a dozen houses have been torn down this year alone.

Several lots are now vacant. The fact that they're so close to the riverfront and impressive views of downtown Knoxville's skyline—and their adjacency to the comfortable, perhaps even stylish middle-class neighborhood of Island Home—seems to suggest something amiss.

Hultquist points to homes owned by people who support the project. Some like what they've heard about improved river access; other homeowners, he says, would be happy for the opportunity to sell.

To the west, closer to the Gay Street Bridge, there's some industry, which may be a big reason why much of the housing in this neighborhood is low-income. The industry most Knoxvillians can name is Holston Gases, because its signs advertise to the river. But the great big steel containers, the Top O' the World, Ma! tanks, which some assume also belong to Holston, are actually asphalt tanks. They belong to Marathon Ashland, which needs to be on the river somewhere due to the company's reliance on barge transportation.

People who aren't actually in the asphalt business don't like the looks of those giant tanks, but the smell of them may be a bigger factor. On the southside, streets are crumbling. You get the smell of new paving without any actual new pavement.

Packed tightly between the Gay Street Bridge and the Henley Street Bridge is Baptist Hospital, touted as the highest-rated hospital in the region. Hospitals are rarely architecturally appealing places to look at, but Baptist, with its sandy brick, is at least not an unpleasant one. It's been here for more than 50 years, but some doubt that, due to the shifting demands for hospital beds in the center city, it will be here for another 50.

And west of Henley is the long-underused glove factory, and beyond it, along the riverbank, the eccentric community called Scottish Pike. Neither a true pike nor especially Scottish, it's actually a mile-long dead-end street visited by few who don't live there—but in fact there are plenty who do. The western end of Scottish Pike, past the one-lane railroad-trestle underpass along the riverbank—the second one you'll encounter coming from Chapman Highway—may be the most whimsical neighborhood in all Knoxville; tiny houses fly American flags and some others of obscure nationality; in various yards concrete figurines gather promiscuously, as if for a party. The place seems elfin, and it's not just the proliferation of elves. Scottish Pike is like a diminutive vacation resort, Elkmont on a bender.

These are rare people who are comfortable in their skin; they don't worry about what passersby think, because there are hardly any of those. Whether there's a place for a street like Scottish Pike in a reimagined southside development is a question for urban designers, but maybe a moot one. Scottish Pike's protected eccentricity is not likely to last much longer.

At the very dead end of Scottish Pike, earthmoving equipment has flattened a large area on the riverbank, and a crane is moving large objects around. There's a six-story condominium project under construction. River Towne Condominiums will feature 50 units, each $259,000 to $299,000; the boat slips are extra. Prices like that might have seemed flabbergasting in this neighborhood a few years ago, where the typical house with yard is generally valued about one-fourth of that. It's due to be finished in the summer of 2006. Putting something so upscale on what was for many years regarded the wrong side of the river, might seem a big gamble, but the fact is that, a year before completion, most of the units are already sold.

For the time being, developer Rick Gentry says, condo owners will just have to deal with the narrow-gauge underpass. "Development always precedes infrastructure," he says, citing the days in the '70s when Cedar Bluff was a burgeoning two-lane road.

With the river's newfound respectability and demand for upscale residences downtown going through the roof, southside development seems inevitable. Something's going to happen here, with or without the city's help and guidance. But most agree it would be better with.

***

For most of the 19th century, the south bank and the rest of South Knoxville were so remote they were known as South America. It was so remote that merchant-prince Perez Dickinson built his second home, his "Island Home," over there near Dickinson Island, hardly one mile from his first home on Main Street. Rarely have a first and second home been so close, but his "island home's" location on the south side made it seem like a remote retreat.

A promotional bird's-eye-style map of Knoxville in 1886 shows a bustling, dense city sprawling to the north, with thousands of buildings and more than 50 different major factories and institutions, but nothing on the south side except for a small and unidentified factory and a few modest houses.

One bridge after another collapsed until they built the current Gay Street Bridge in 1897, but still the southside seemed remote. None of it was even incorporated into the city of Knoxville, not even the southern piers of the Gay Street Bridge, until 1917.

By then, there was some appealing residential development, on the hill above the south end of the bridge, and east, at Island Home. Phillips, one of the streets under consideration for redevelopment, was the childhood home of Paul Y. Anderson, the Pulitzer-winning Washington newsman of the Teapot Dome era.

It was the site of a riverside park called Luttrell Park, which seemed to have been well used for only a few years around World War I (see Secret History). In the 1940s, it gave in to the construction of Baptist Hospital without memorable protest. People built the sort of industry other neighborhoods didn't want, an asphalt plant, a big gas tank farm.

The Henley Street Bridge rose at about the same time national interest in the Smoky Mountains was gaining momentum, and Chapman Highway served for 40-odd years as the nation's favorite way to get to the nation's most popular national park. But few tarried long near the southern bank of the Tennessee. Down there were drowned cows and boats awash and disreputable-looking people down there, going to and from the tavernboat. The place stank, because the whole river stank.

In the Cormac McCarthy novel, Suttree, the South Riverbank is the site of several interesting scenes. The ragpicker lived beneath the south end of the Henley Street Bridge. In the novel, the streetwise guru's home seems as remote as a mountaintop in Nepal.

Partly it was the flood control wrought by TVA dams in the 1940s, partly the major environmental successes in improving the river's appearance and stench, partly it was just the trendiness of waterfront life reported in Southern Living—but by the 1980s, people were looking at the river differently. Riverfront restaurants, bike trails, and condominiums, unthinkable to generations of Knoxvillians who feared the river, began springing up. But only on the north side.

The south side languished. The riverbank was the subject of an abortive attempt to make it an urban-renewal district in 1992. Then, in 2001, MPC came up with a South Sector Plan.

None of these plans ever annoyed the groundhogs much.

***

The neighbors are justifiably skeptical. Some of them fiercely opposed earlier plans; others felt let down when nothing came of them.

"It all sounds real good," says resident Emmalou Huskey. "But how many times do you think we've heard this?" She adds that she feels better about it this time. "I think this mayor tries to deliver what he promises," she says. "It's gonna take time. But if they don't do anything this time, it's a wasted, golden opportunity."

Huskey, who lives near Scottish Pike, adds, "I think they need a developer in here to do something. You can't just do a little bit on one end, a little bit on the other end. You need to make a plan, and go through with it."

She's one of those who will be happy to sell out and find somewhere else to live. "Stay? Lord, no. They can have mine, if they're gonna build some condos or apartments. I'm old, so it doesn't matter to me."

Helen Taylor is old, too, but it does matter to her. One of the fiercest opponents to Ashe-administration initiatives on the south side, she's not crazy about this one, either. "I fought that a whole lot, and I think I would again," she says. She admits that poor health has kept her from attending the public meetings, and that she's not necessarily up to snuff about this process. "I don't think it's right for them to come in and take our homes. I've lived here since 1944. It's home. We raised our kids here."

Mrs. Taylor is famous for her garden, which has been featured on the news. She grows flowers: day lilies, gladiolas, coneflowers. "I have poppies, the old-timey orange and the pink. I have a lot of old-timey flowers. I enjoy doing it, because it's my therapy."

"I don't think I can start another one. I'm 85. My husband is 85. We've lived here so many years, it's just home."

The Fregonese Calthorpe suggestions are vague about how much of the neighborhoods might be saved. If anyone else has a very clear idea of a preference in that regard, they're keeping it to themselves.

"One thing that becomes clear when we talk about the James White Parkway is that many people in South Knoxville feel as though they've been ignored for many years," says Dave Hill, who has been Knoxville's Chief Operating Officer since last August. The former MPC director is the point man for the southside development initiative. "People want to see some attention paid, with the expectation that they get to participate." Repeatedly he emphasizes that the mayor's initiative is an "open, participatory process." It's an attitude strongly encouraged by the Fregonese report.

It's still early. The city doesn't even have a handle on the number of people who live in the development zone, those who would be affected and in many cases displaced by a comprehensive development. That's part of an upcoming MPC project, but the Fregonese-Calthorpe study doesn't even hazard a guess. Census blocs don't help much; one MPC employee suspects the entire population of the study area is in the hundreds, but not thousands.

***

One uncomfortable irony of the whole riverfront-development trend is that the land that seems to be commanding top dollar from people who want a conspicuous place to park a cabin cruiser is that this same property is also some of the easiest property for poor people to live on. From Scottish Pike to Sevier Avenue, locals don't have to worry much about rising gas prices; some claim they don't really even need a car. They can walk downtown to the courthouse or banks; they can walk to Baptist Hospital or to a couple of convenience stores. And some, for better or worse, fish in the river.

Upscale new development would maximize the tax-collecting potential. However, the apostles of new urbanism have emphasized that a diversity of incomes can add much to the diversity of offerings of a downtown that can make it more appealing to visitors: by broadening the range of lunch options, for example.

However, as currently pictured, low-income or even affordable housing may not be something the future southside development is known for. "Not right on the water, anyway, but in the general vicinity, affordable housing would be part of the mix," says Hultquist. "As for low-income housing, I don't know. South Knoxville's problem has not been a dearth of low-income housing. The other end is the problem."

Madeline Rogero expects the new development to accommodate "a variety of lifestyles, a variety of incomes—that doesn't push out folks of more modest means." She emphasizes the developments openness to the small landowner.

Haslam seems sympathetic. "Maybe we pay them a lot for their houses. But then what do they do?"

***

Water's also more traditionally appealing to industry, chiefly for the heavy-duty transportation options it offers. Factories and warehouses have dominated much of the southside riverbank for decades. It has been a good place for industry over the years, partly because of its barge and railroad access, but partly just because until lately the land's been cheap.

Joe Hultquist says he doesn't expect the redevelopment area to make any room at all for industry, long term. Chamber Partnership chief Mike Edwards agrees: "Downtown Knoxville doesn't need to be an industrial site," he says.

Dave Hill is not quite as committal. "I don't know that I would go to the extent of saying we want to move all the industry out," he says, adding the city's budget partly makes the question moot. "Wholesale acquisition and relocation is not likely to be feasible. It needs to be voluntary-based."

Jane Jacobs is the philosopher and prophet of new urbanism; in her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she anticipated much of the new life in American downtowns in the early 21st century. Her book is a manual for what makes a city center work. She believes downtowns should support every sort of human endeavor, and she believes industry should exist cheek-to-jowl with residential development. "The notion that reek and fumes are to be combated by zoning and land-sorting classifications at all is ridiculous.... Regulations specifically aimed at the smoke and the reek are more to the point."

She describes happily living near a glue factory. However, she doesn't mention asphalt.

The Fregonese report allows that "manufacturing uses are not severe constraints," but that "several heavy industrial uses...notably the asphalt plant, the gas-storage area, and the propane storage tanks can have a chilling effect on non-industrial uses located in proximity."

Some neighbors say they're so used to Marathon Ashland's asphalt plant that they hardly notice it, but their guests do.

Marathon Ashland did not return calls for comment on this article, but Haslam and Hultquist say company officials seem cheerful about the prospect of moving, if they're found another place on the river, and are compensated for their expense. The price tag for such a relocation is reportedly about $5 million, which might have to be paid largely by the city.

The removal of the asphalt plant would stand to increase the value of all the land between the Gay Street Bridge and the Island Home neighborhood. The largest landowner in the area is Mike Conley, who owns at least 20 acres (some published reports say 40 acres) of industrial and residential property. Though it's a small percentage of the whole southside redevelopment study area, much of Conley's prime property sits right on the river. Mike Conley is the older half-brother of Brian Conley, who owns Metro Pulse and about five acres of the study area. (See disclosure statement.)

If everything works as planned, the Conley family, especially Mike Conley, stands to make a windfall profit out of the deal.

"Everything over there is worth a lot more without the asphalt plant there," says Haslam. "How we capture that value is the question."

One answer is tax-increment financing, the diversion of taxes on increased value of property, to build infrastructure: as Hill says, "Not to siphon off, but to reinvest back into the community."

Fregonese Calthorpe estimates a total of $45 million in public investment over 20 years, from rebuilding railroad trestles to building a parking garage to building the east-west Blount-Sevier boulevard; but would allocate $71 million over the same period. "Of course the problem is that the revenue is maximized at the end of the project," warns Fregonese, "while the costs are needed at the beginning."

"By the time the debt is retired," Hill says, "you have a thriving economic development that's an asset to the city."

Some, even in the Haslam administration, are skeptical of whether TIFs will be nearly enough to do the job.

"There's mention of TIFs in the Fregonese report, but it's no panacea," says city Finance Director Chris Kinney. "They don't create this new bucket of cash that didn't exist before. TIFs should be considered, but I wouldn't give it more weight than anything else." At this early stage, he says, he's not ruling out any potential funding sources.

Kinney says he doesn't expect the city to try to get a piece of the action, in terms of sharing in private development's profits on the project. The city's benefit, he says, will come only with increased property-tax revenue.

However, Kinney says, when it comes to a value-enhancing project like moving an asphalt plant or other improvements, the city might well consider partnering with private developers to share the expense. He expects private development to shoulder most of the burden of riverfront development.

Though public investment will be limited compared to prospective private investment, there's much to pay for in terms of public infrastructure improvement. Haslam speaks of the asphalt plant as the biggest challenge at the present time, but there are bigger ones down the road, so to speak, and one very big one is transportation.

Getting across the bridges is one thing: the recently renovated Gay Street Bridge is much improved, especially for pedestrians, but Henley's still trafficky and unpleasant for walking; one proposal has one of the less-used railroad bridges converted into a pedestrian bridge, or one carrying light rail.

A bigger problem, though, is lateral transportation. For any urban area, east-west routes are pretty weird for both cars and pedestrians. Coming east from Island Home, Sevier Avenue dissolves into a Y of two awkward one-way streets, one with no sidewalks, just east of Gay; Blount Avenue takes up its halfhearted cause like a bad bone graft at Baptist Hospital, and runs it through an intersection with Chapman that's intimidating to drivers and dangerous for pedestrians, before diving through a one-lane railroad underpass of a sort we're more used to seeing in Karns. (Another even narrower underpass is ahead on Scottish Pike.)

"The South Knoxville Waterfront site has poor access from the region's roads, has poor visibility from the roads, and has poor internal circulation...." It goes on to say that "accommodating this traffic will be one of the major challenges." While some modest developments could be taken care of with mere improvements to the current streets, in the more ambitious scenarios, "the current street system will be inadequate."

Fixing the narrow underpass problems, though costly, seems essential to Fregonese Calthorpe. They bring up an interesting prospect: the Norfolk Southern line, the one closest to Chapman Highway, carries only two trains per day. They were here long enough to cite a long-held wish that that line, which also goes through the World's Fair Park, could be bought and converted to other uses, perhaps even passenger rail.

They recommend "two to six lanes of east-west roadway capacity," a total of 4,000 feet of new roads. The improvements they describe make old cranky Blount and Sevier sound like the Champs-Elysees: "with wide sidewalks, street trees, pedestrian lighting...."

Some picture a sort of boulevard from the Scottish Pike area to Island Home, with broad sidewalks.

Hultquist also imagines South Knoxville's answer to the riverwalks on the north bank: a riverfront promenade that would link the area east to west right on the water. He cites Chattanooga's success in building such riverwalks largely with federal funds.

***

"Waterfront property is the best opportunity for a downtown to revitalize itself," says Mike Edwards. "Water sells."

The specifics of the attractions are as vague as proposals for downtown attractions always are. Riverfront restaurants, certainly. Directly across the river, three large and popular restaurants are crowded along a narrow strip. People like to eat by the water. As for other big draws?

"Not a clue," says Hill. "Fort Dickerson is a diamond in the rough, a resource we ought to be using," he says. The 1863 Union earthworks crest a steep wooded hill immediately south of the study area, and commands impressive views of the city. It could theoretically be a walking-distance attraction from the western stretch of the riverfront.

Mike Edwards talks about the Fort Dickerson hill's potential to become "a great Appalachian park" that would adjoin the riverfront development. "You could be on top of Fort Dickerson and look down on City Hall."

Another attraction mentioned by Hultquist and Fregonese is the prospect of developing the old quarry near Fort Dickerson, long enjoyed as an illegal swimming hole, as a legal, safe resort, "a refreshing escape for South Waterfront urban dwellers and Knoxville visitors."

Hill mentions the San Antonio Riverwalk, an unusual urban development that supports scores of restaurants and bars, as well as other urban waterfront developments in Kansas City, Cincinnati, San Diego, Boston, and Baltimore as places which, though very different from Knoxville's south side, might offer interesting clues.

Hill does know what he doesn't want. "Sometimes things begin as quaint, then yield to Planet Hollywood or those Arnold Schwarzenegger things, big, corporate entities."

***

If industry is unlikely in the long-range prospects for the south side, office buildings are a different story. Just a five-minute walk from the courthouse, several banks, and the region's largest public library, the south bank would seem a natural for several sorts of business offices.

Though the Fregonese Calthorpse study emphasizes residential and retail development above all else, all three of their recommended scenarios include significant office space as well.

"I think it'd be a great place for a corporate headquarters," says Mike Edwards.

Haslam has some hopes for downtown-style office development. "I really hope there's an office piece that makes sense," he says. "A corporate campus, maybe." He admits family business Pilot, which recently expanded their national headquarters on Lonas Drive in near-West Knoxville, is probably not among them. "But other folks. People who bring a lot of visitors into their headquarters."

Haslam is reluctant to talk specifics, but others talk of Brunswick, the national boat-building company that already has its headquarters offices downtown, might be a natural fit for a shoreline headquarters.

Probably the biggest jaw-dropper in the whole Fregonese Calthorpe study is the suggestion, in the most aggressive of the three scenarios, of evicting Baptist Hospital in favor of something sexier, like a corporate headquarters. Some have wondered whether Baptist, facing competition from three other major hospitals in the center city—UT, Fort Sanders, and Baptist are all within a mile of each other, and St. Mary's is not far out of that radius—might actually choose to move on its own someday. But it's not likely to happen any time soon, and no one's betting on the city to force the issue.

Relocating Baptist Hospital is not taken very seriously at any level. "I can't see that ever being something that we'd do," says Haslam.

***

For the near future, we're not likely to see anything dramatic, other than the six-story condos at the end of Scottish Pike, and possibly work on the glove factory on Blount. Haslam and others say the city is likely to concentrate on one side of Chapman Highway or the other to begin with, but won't hazard a guess about which one that might be.

"Don't look for an overnight sensation," warns Hill. "It's a slow, gradual process. It'll be two to three years before you can actually begin to see results." (Fregonese Calthorpe picture it as a 20-year buildout.) Hill repeatedly uses an unusual metaphor to describe the city's role: they're "setting the table" for development.

Hill and Edwards emphasize the complications of the situation. Success will entail satisfactory negotiations with two railroads, the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, TVA, a large hospital, and at least two existing industries. Under a heading titled "Bureaucracy," the Fregonese report warns that dealing with the overlapping authorities is likely to be "very challenging" and may result in unanticipated delays and expenses. As someone said, it's not going to be friggin' easy.

A first step may be an archaeological assessment. The south bank is not known to be a site of prehistoric habitation, but then again, you never know. It does involve some significant Civil War sites, but mostly up on the hills overlooking the river.

Once it gets going along the riverfront, Haslam thinks, development will march south on its own, rendering more-affordable housing within walking distance of downtown.

Despite all the problems they saw, Fregonese Calthorpe seemed impressed with the potential, and with the fact that nobody has already exploited it.

In its most-aggressive scenario, "the total development program would absorb all of the Knox County growth in the condominium market for the near term, and a substantial amount of the rental, office, and retail demand. While this is possible, it is not the most likely of occurrences."

Even the more modest scenarios will make a major impact. "The South Knoxville Waterfront is one of the best places in the region for condominium development...."

"I've worked in municipal government for 20 years," says Hill, who has previously worked in urban planning in Binghamton, N.Y., Buffalo, N.Y., Winston-Salem, N.C., and Denton, Texas. "This is the kind of project that comes along very seldom. It could be one of the most wonderful things to happen to Knoxville in a very long time."

From his office, Bill Haslam points toward the south shore. "Go over there and turn back and look this way. It's really the best view in town." He breaks into his disarming grin. "The other good thing is I can see it all from my window."

The redevelopment of the southside waterfront may turn out to be the biggest development of his administration, seen as his legacy. For the time being, at least, several in public and private life seem ready to sign up for a piece of that legacy, too.

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