citybeat (2005-45)

Gaps in the Forest

Circling the Square

Theater company pitches for a permanent home

For more than three years, residents of the Cherokee Trail area have been concerned about various proposals for development of a large wooded tract along the river bluffs known as the Rose Property. The densely wooded property of more than 100 acres straddles Cherokee Trail, and includes a couple of small lakes, wildlife habitat, and trenchwork believed to date from the Civil War and a little-understood 1863 skirmish known as the Battle of Armstrong’s Hill.

Development has seemed inevitable, on this, perhaps the biggest never-developed patch so close to downtown, as riverfront condos are already under construction nearby, and other adjacent developments at Log Haven and elsewhere are in the works. But neighbors hoped that residential development would preserve large parts of the woods and historic sites within it, and say they received assurances that that would be the case. Athens, Ga.-based developer David Mulkey, of Dovetail Development, a company known for building high-density student housing, told neighbors he would leave as much as three-quarters of the property alone.

However, Robbie Pope, an attorney who’s a member of the board of the neighboring Cherokee Bluffs condominium association, says the wholesale timbering and grading he can see from Cherokee Trail is far afield from what Mulkey had promised. Pope is one of about 20 area property owners who have banded together to challenge the development proposal.

“They’re already scraping the top of what is believed to be Armstrong’s Hill,” Pope says of the presumed battlefield. “They’ve done significant damage to it. They’re moving rapidly.”

Dovetail reportedly wants to build about 250 units on the 86-acre northern part of the Rose Property, which overlooks the river. In spite of what looks to some like the remains of trenches, Dovetail’s local attorney, Arthur Seymour Jr., is skeptical about the site’s Civil War heritage. “I don’t think it’s determined there was any Civil War action there that’s evident today,” he says. Seymour says what’s happening this week isn’t preparation for the yet-to-be-approved development on the north side, but gathering fill to use on the south side. “Everything has been permitted,” he says.

It raises the question of whether the tree-cutting and grading required for gathering fill might be tantamount to construction prep work for the same site. Metropolitan Planning Commission staffer Ken Pruitt said this week that he wasn’t aware of any violations, and that gathering fill on private property isn’t necessarily illegal, even if it were equivalent to site-prep work for an unapproved project.

Plans haven’t been made public, but Knoxville developer Dan Culp, hired to study the proposal, is reportedly recommending Dovetail build multi-story buildings on the bluff which would be clearly visible from the UT campus. Seymour says Culp is leaning toward “high-dollar condominiums” for the site.

“He is sensitive to the area,” Seymour says of Mulkey. He says much of the property isn’t conducive to development anyway, and that units will be clustered in the areas that are. “As the developer says, the biggest amenity would be the open space.”

There’d been some disagreement between Dovetail and MPC about the issue of density. MPC originally recommended two units per acre; the developer favored five. After insisting on 3.5 units per acre, Dovetail and MPC appear to be settling on three.

MPC was set to consider the issue for recommendation to City Council this Thursday, but on Tuesday Dovetail attorney Seymour had the matter put off until the Dec. 8 meeting in order to have the Culp study completed. If approved by the MPC, the Dovetail proposal should go before City Council in early 2006.

Considering zoning for the property hasn’t yet been approved, Pope says, “The site prep they’re doing may or may not be legal.” Pope is concerned that Dovetail, as an out-of-town developer, may have little concern about the project’s impact on the city; he says Dovetail has a “not extremely flattering” reputation for environmental sensitivity in Georgia. Seymour insists Dovetail has been issued only one Notice of Violation in Georgia, and had it “immediately corrected.” Seymour adds, “Anybody who hasn’t received one NOV hasn’t done anything.”

Pope says they’re considering legal options to check any work discovered to be inappropriate. “We’re not really anti-developer,” he says. “We want good development, in character with the lay or the land and the surrounding community.”

Dovetail is already proceeding with clear-cutting whole sections of the woods on a smaller portion of the property, on the south side of Cherokee Trail, an 18-acre site that has already been approved by the county. Though hardly more than a mile from downtown as the crow flies, that area’s not even within the city limits. For years, most of that area between Chapman Highway and Alcoa Highway has had a rural flavor, and for some residents, that’s its charm. That seems to be changing rapidly, for better or worse.


Circling the Square

Call them paranoid if you must, but the Tennessee Stage Company feels it unwise to count their chickens before they hatch in the case of securing a permanent home on Market Square.

“A presence in the square 365 days a year would be a dream come true for us,” says TSC’s Brandon Daughtry Slocum. In addition to the annual New Play Festival and Timeless Works series, the non-profit theater company produces a yearly summer Shakespeare festival, which relocated from the World’s Fair Park and interim locations to Market Square two years ago.

The group currently has two offers on the table to move its operations to a property on the square; it’s just a matter of which one works out best, says Slocum. One space is that on the corner of Wall Avenue and Market Square, owned by Scott and Bernadette West. The Wests, who have their hands full running and developing the Preservation Pub, Earth to Old City, Oodles and the soon-to-open World Grotto, have offered the theater company a two-year, rent-free lease on the space.

“Basically, we have agreed verbally with the Tennessee Stage Company and other performing arts organizations,” says Scott West, naming as possible additional tenants other non-profit and charitable groups whose presence on the square would enhance its artistic energy. “We’re very interested in giving them space.”

One hitch, however, is that inspectors have informed the TSC that the space, whose façade has been improved, is compromised.

“We met with the city inspectors and fire inspectors, and they went through the building with us,” says Slocum. “They are telling us that the building has structural issues.” Talks between TSC and the Wests have been postponed due to the group’s current production of The Foreigner at the John T. O’Connor Senior Center.

A third party in this conversation is the City of Knoxville and its development partners, who, in West’s plan, would assume financial responsibility for the property’s build-out costs.

“We’ve met with the mayor and Brian Conley [president of Cardinal Construction and publisher of Metro Pulse ] and Kinsey Probasco and Bill Lyons,” says West. “They’re all very happy and excited about the idea of being able to provide a home” for the groups being displaced from the Candy Factory.

West envisions the Wall Avenue space functioning in multiple ways for maximum community benefit. First, a completely refurbished property would serve as a gateway connecting Gay Street and Market Square. (Right now the building’s north side is palette for a wide range of graffiti artists, including well-known painter and plywood-doodler Cynthia Markert.) Secondly, with an active community theater group as a ground-floor tenant in an area the city is making efforts to fill with viable businesses, the city achieves two goals at once. And, West admits, he and his busy wife and partner would get to hand over construction duties.

“We have just expended so much time and energy and money, we’d like a bit of a break,” he says.

West estimates that additional development of the building’s upstairs floors will begin in a year or so, but he’d like to see the TSC move in quickly, “with limited headaches.”

In any case, Slocum says the merry band of players has another option. “We may have another space on Market Square if this one doesn’t work out,” she says with cautious optimism. It’s impossible to tell, but she might be crossing her fingers when she adds, “We are definitely moving to Market Square.”


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Tuesday, Nov. 8

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