Redressing Jackson Avenue Blight
The blighted stretch along Jackson Avenue between Gay Street and Broadway finally appears poised for redevelopment. Cityscape Development is moving ahead with plans for 90 Jackson Flats condos (in two or three stages) on what was formerly barren Norfolk-Southern property just west of Gay. Knoxville’s Community Development Corp. is due to act within a month to require rehabilitation of the eyesore McClung Warehouses that line much of the block—through KCDC acquisition and resale unless their mercurial owner Mark Saroff can come up with a viable redevelopment plan of his own. And the properties at the corner of Jackson and Broadway have recently been acquired by financially strong new ownership groups for mixed-use development.
Yet Jackson Avenue itself remains a blighted street, and the city has no firm plans for providing the public infrastructure needed to support private redevelopment of the historic warehouses and the new buildings that are planned.
The sidewalks along Jackson are narrow and crumbling, the street lighting is deficient, and the poor condition of the ramp connecting Gay and Jackson poses a challenging set of replacement or realignment issues. Yet no city funding has been allocated for any of that work, and officials claim there’s not even any money in the budget for streetscape design that would at least enable developers to show prospective condo buyers that attractive environs are envisioned.
“We’re going to have to come up with infrastructure, but we don’t have a plan for streetscapes right now,” says Mayor Bill Haslam. Then, in chicken-and-egg fashion, he adds that, “It’s hard to get excited about spending money there until there’s a plan for development.”
In fact, this year’s city budget does earmark $525,000 for Jackson Avenue redevelopment, but no one in the city administration is clear about how this money may be spent. “It’s there just because we needed some money and that’s what we felt we could spend. We have to wait and see if it means the city needs to purchase something to help make things happen,” Haslam says.
But the mayor acknowledges that $525,000 isn’t nearly enough to acquire, via condemnation or otherwise, the four buildings that collectively constitute the McClung Warehouses if Saroff is unable or unwilling to restore or sell them on his own. Fortunately, and apparently unbeknownst to the Haslam administration, KCDC’s president Alvin Nance believes his agency can finance their purchase on its own—if need be—with a bridge loan from Fannie Mae. Developer David Dewhirst is known to have made a rejected offer of about $1.3 million for two of the buildings that Saroff placed on the market earlier this year, and there’s good reason to believe that offer is in line with the appraisal that KCDC is obtaining on the property. So, as Nance envisions it, a bridge loan for its purchase could readily be repaid from the proceeds of its resale.
The $525,000 that’s presently in the budget is by no means the only prospective source of funding for Jackson Avenue streetscaping and other infrastructure. For the past year the city has had a grant application pending with the state Department of Transportation for a $1.6 greenway connecting the World’s Fair Park with the Old City via Jackson, with funding expected to come from the cornucopia provided by recently enacted federal highway/transportation legislation. The greenway could take the form of a sidewalk, but it’s unclear how it would traverse Gay Street in a pedestrian-friendly way. At the same time, TDOT has recently advised the city that $4.3 million is now available for needed replacement of ramps that have connected Jackson with Gay since the latter was elevated when the Gay Street viaduct was erected over the railroad tracks in 1919. But, rather than replace the ramps, the city could let Jackson run underneath Gay, facilitating the greenway connection but raising other connectivity issues. Or, it may be possible to replace the ramps and still allow the greenway to run underneath.
What’s needed now, albeit belatedly, is a comprehensive planning process pulling together all of the seemingly disparate city departments involved, as well as all sectors of the public that have a stake in the outcome. Greenways, for example, are the province of Donna Young in the Department of Community and Neighborhood Services; ramp and street work is an engineering matter; and the Finance Department will have a major say in how funding gets provided. (The city must assume 20 percent of the cost of greenways, but there’s understood to be a $400,000 reservoir of unused greenway funds carried forward from prior budget years.)
The city’s chief operating officer, Dave Hill, says the process “brings a lot of transportation connectivity things into play that need analysis, and urban design people need to be involved as well.” He’s looking to Jill Van Beke, whom Haslam recently named deputy director for downtown, to pull together a team to address all of these interrelated issues.
But Van Beke doesn’t convey much of a sense of urgency or coordinative effort. “Until we have the greenway money, we don’t know how quickly we can proceed,” she says, adding, “We don’t have any design money, so nothing is being designed or engineered.”
Nothing could contribute more to downtown’s residential resurgence at this point than development along this barren stretch of Jackson. And residential growth is, in turn, a key to retail revitalization that can do a lot to bolster the city’s budget by way of recaptured sales tax revenues.
It’s hard to fathom why the Haslam administration hasn’t been proactive in redressing Jackson Avenue blight.