citybeat (2005-35)

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Salvation on Church Ave.

Dewhirst buys two of the last vacant buildings downtown

Money Talks

Now, what does it say about Knoxville transportation?

As preservationist redevelopment has swirled around downtown for the last several years, two downtown buildings have remained conspicuously undeveloped. The three-story Cherokee building and the two-story Ely building on Church Avenue at Market are both especially handsome brick buildings, nearly a century old and seemingly ideal for the sort of renovation that has happened in less-likely buildings in seemingly riskier parts of town. However, like the gap left by a couple of missing pieces in the very middle of a jigsaw puzzle, they’ve both remained stubbornly empty for nearly a decade, and have been subject to rumors that their owners intended to demolish them to provide more parking for the Episcopal church nearby.

However, last week the windows on the Cherokee were open, and there came from within the unmistakable sounds of cleaning. Both buildings are now owned by a team led by maverick developer and preservationist David Dewhirst.

Dewhirst and his partners, architect Mark Heinz and Chicago newcomer Tom Grace, who now works with Dewhirst, signed papers on the buildings last month. The 1913 Ely, one of the last townhouses downtown, had been owned by a group called Church Properties, which is connected to St. John’s Episcopal Church. The ca. 1910 Cherokee was owned outright by the church itself. Dewhirst’s group intends to redevelop the buildings for mixed-use retail, office, and residential purposes.

Dewhirst says it all came as a result of a dinner with Kerry Sprouse, a St. John’s member who apparently led the effort to sell the buildings to a responsible developer. That fact may astonish some new-urbanist sorts who think of Sprouse as the suburban developer who’s best known for spearheading the controversial Turkey Creek development in far West Knoxville.

“The folks at St. John’s were really wonderful, to be honest,”  says Dewhirst. “They were concerned that these buildings need to be part of the community. Kerry was really beneficial in getting this presented. He really cares about downtown, which surprised me.”

Buying the two buildings raised a problem; they’re separated by a downsloping alley that was owned by another party, the Nolan law firm. It was long the main access to the restaurant known as the Crescent Moon, which operated in the basement of a third building. Dewhirst determined it was essential to buy the alley, as well as the basement space to which it led.

When it was all over, Dewhirst paid the church groups $500,000 for the Ely and $200,000 for the Cherokee, and the law firm $145,000 for the alley and basement space. Dewhirst explains the discrepancy of paying much less for the larger building by the fact that the smaller Ely Building is in much better shape and is practically ready for occupancy. As for the Cherokee, “It’s a mess,” Dewhirst says. “It needs to be totally gutted.”

Until about 10 years ago, the Cherokee, a former apartment building, housed an optometrists’ office and a rare-books shop on the ground floor; the upper floors were empty. Though he has the impression that there may have been some attempt to use the upper floors for residences during the World’s Fair era, he says it looks as if it hasn’t been occupied in 40 years.

Rumors that the building was problematic because of asbestos were false, he says. “The environmental tests were totally clear,” he says.

He adds in an uncharacteristic note of pique at Knoxville’s Eeyore-ish attitudes toward old buildings. “Every time you look at an old building, there are people who say, ‘The environmental problems are huge! It has structural problems!’” Dewhirst, an engineer by training who has successfully renovated numerous older buildings downtown, says the naysayers are almost always wrong. “These people, they look at something, and overblow the problems. They just don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Before he signed, he says, “I walked through the whole thing. There’s not a problem with this building. There’s a lot to be cleaned up, but it’s a well-built brick, masonry, and joisted building.” His group will be considering architectural drawings this fall, and he expects to begin construction in January to provide retail space on the ground floor and residential space on the two floors above. He’s not sure yet whether they’ll be available as apartments or condos. It will essentially complete a quiet block of Market Street that has had renovated residences for years.

The Ely, most recently occupied by the architecture firm of Ross/Fowler, which moved into larger quarters in a new building across the street in the ’90s, will remain office space for now, probably for a new high-tech firm Dewhirst has been dealing with. Though the building was once residential, Dewhirst says reconverting it to residential use would require major work to suit current codes.

All of which illustrates an irony. In recent years, developers have done astonishing things, turning old warehouse, retail, and office buildings into residential space. But there’s been relatively little residential development of buildings that were originally intended to be residential. While Knoxville has kept most of its office and industrial building stock, for whatever reason, the city has allowed most of the buildings that were originally residential to be demolished. In the Central Business Improvement District, only a handful remain.

Money Talks

The act’s $120 million in funding for 2nd Congressional District projects resulted from influential prodding by Congressman Jimmy Duncan, a senior member of the House Transportation Committee; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist; and Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Maryville native.

Together, they worked to get the money approved by Congress and the bill signed by the president Aug. 10, and the list of projects that affect Knoxville is impressive. Among its big-ticket items, it includes $11 million for the Knoxville Transit Center downtown, $17.5 million toward completion of the Foothills Parkway sections in Blount and Sevier Counties, $8 million for a “Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Highway Cultural and Visitors Center” at Maryville, $6 million for improvements to the Blount Avenue/Sevier Avenue corridor in South Knoxville, and $5 million to make access improvements to the I-275 Industrial and Business Park in North Knoxville.

The list goes on, with $14.4 million to widen parts of Oak Ridge and Maynardville Highways and Campbell Station Road in Knox County, $1.6 million for streetscape improvements along State Street near the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, and $1 million to add a pedestrian bridge to the Buck Karnes Bridge on Alcoa Highway for a greenway connector in the city.

The University of Tennessee’s Joint Institute for Advanced Materials Research gets $20 million, and the UT National Transportation Research Center gets $8 million in the bargain.

The new money, Duncan says, “will create thousands of jobs in East Tennessee while addressing some of our region’s most serious transportation needs,” and Alexander called the highway and infrastructure improvements enabled under the act “critical to economic development in the 2nd District and across the state.”

Mayor Bill Haslam says the jobs, and the attendant opportunities for business growth, will mean a lot to Knoxville. “It’s a lot of money,” Haslam says. “That’s really needed here.” Two of his pet projects, the I-275 Business Park and the South Knoxville Waterfront Redevelopment proposals, got important stimuli.

“Access [to the business park on the site of the former Coster Yards] was the principal limiting feature there,” he says. He says businesses “have shown a high degree of interest” in the city-owned park since its environmental issues were resolved. The widening of a railroad underpass at its north edge and improvements in access to the interstate could represent the last straws to close deals, Haslam says.

The mayor also says that, though the South Knoxville Waterfront Redevelopment is “a big, long-term project,” the “Blount/Sevier spine is one of the key issues” as outlined in the redevelopment’s feasibility study. The federal money will allow for sidewalk and lighting improvements along Sevier and widening of Blount’s one-lane bridge. “These are things that need to happen,” Haslam says.

David Brace, deputy director of the city’s Public Service Division, says money that went from SAFETEA into the state DOT’s coffers will make greenway expansions and improvements, already applied for, possible, “and we’ll be able to apply for some other things, knowing that there’s something in the hopper to pay for them.”

And the Transit Center’s proposed budget of $22 million is now in the bank. “We are very close,” says Melissa Trevathan, KAT’s chief administrative officer. “We have a site. We have the money. We need a design, and we’re ready to go,” she says.

Haslam says the design must work for KAT and for Knox County, which owns the air rights over the State Street site. “We’re working those things out right now,” he says.


Wednesday, Aug. 24

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