Inner city ’hoods offer cheap, chic housing
by Matt Edens
Downsizing, it seems, is suddenly all the rage. Hummers are out; hybrids are in. And even in housing there are lots of folks trading their McMansion for something more manageable. Well-heeled empty nesters, for example, comprise a surprisingly strong segment of downtown housing markets across the country.
Just the other day I was reading about a West Coast couple who ditched their five-bedroom house on a Los Gatos, Cal., cul-de-sac and bought a place downtown for half as much. It’s the same dynamic that’s occurring on an increasingly common basis in downtown Knoxville, but with one big difference. Los Gatos is in Silicon Valley, so the numbers involved are shocking. The couple’s 2,300 square foot suburban home sold for a little shy of a million—$980,000. And they shelled out $545,000 for their downtown digs, which might seem like a bargain for the Bay Area but consider this: their charming Victorian dollhouse of a home in downtown Los Gatos was originally built as a chicken coop and measures a minuscule 544 square feet. Crunch the numbers and that comes out to approximately $1,000 per precious square foot.
Homes are cheap here, compared to the belly of the housing-bubble beast. The latest figures I could find cited the average cost of a home in the Knoxville MSA (based on a 2,400 sq. ft. new home) as $198,497—approximately $82 a square foot. Downtown prices, recently running in the $165 a square-foot range, essentially double that. Expensive? Maybe. But not at all out of line with other parts of town. Downtown’s price per square foot compares pretty closely with the non-boulevard or waterfront parts of Sequoyah Hills (Interestingly, downtown just happens to be zoned for Sequoyah Elementary). Fourth and Gill prices, pushing $100 a square foot, are on par with other, less blue-blooded West Knoxville ’burbs, while Old North Knoxville lags only a little behind.
It’s sort of a chicken or egg situation, as downtown, Fourth and Gill and Old North draw an increasing number of middle and upper-middle class homeowners who increasingly have to shell out middle and upper-middle class money in order to live there.
That has, inevitably, led to some grousing about gentrification. Although generally, the complaints I’ve heard are over people being priced out rather than pushed out. Buying in Fourth and Gill or tackling a building downtown used to be a bohemian thing, but not anymore.
“The process of spontaneous gentrification,” according to founding New Urbanist architect Andres Duany, “begins surreptitiously.” The first wave, according to Duany, constitutes “a social rather than an economic or physical gentrification,” consisting of people who may be poor, but are often of middle and upper-middle class origin: students, artists and gays. The second wave, he says, are “those who crave the bohemian lifestyle while actually being as securely employed as the conventional old bourgeoisie… They like the place to look rough and edgy, even as it becomes more expensive.” The final, more mainstream wave likes a little less edge. According to Duany, they “smarten up the buildings through…physical renovation, improved maintenance, and organized security. Their clientele has been characterized by Manhattanites as ‘dentists from New Jersey.’” Or, by Knoxvillians, as attorneys from Sequoyah Hills.
But where does that leave the bohos and bobos? Seeking the next “edgy” neighborhood, naturally. Lucky for them, Knoxville offers lots of options. Loft buildings abound in Emory Place and are scattered along Broadway, Central and even Magnolia. And there are still plenty of inexpensive but cool old homes in places like Oakwood/Lincoln Park and Mechanicsville to the north and west, Old Sevier to the south and Parkridge to the east.
So if you’re intrigued by the idea of buying downtown, but have been put off by the prices, why not check out one of these ’hoods? This Sunday, Oct. 2, from 1 to 6 p.m., Parkridge is hosting its third annual home tour (itself a sure sign that the ’hood is heading up). Starting from the new softball complex at Caswell Park, this glimpse inside 10 different bungalows and Victorians offers a unique opportunity to sample one of Knoxville’s oldest neighborhoods. And one of its most affordable: with sale prices hovering in the $50-$75 per square-foot range, a roost in Parkridge isn’t just cheap by Knoxville standards, it’s mere chicken feed compared to the going rate for Los Gatos henhouses.