Twilight Zoning

Zoning decisions made in the 1960s made pocket ghettoes of some â'non-conformingâ' neighborhoods. Will a seemingly minor amendment to city ordinances fix the problem?

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Feature Story

by Jack Neely

This week Knoxville City Council passed an ordinance that didn't sound any more interesting than most of the ordinances recited in the customary municipal monotone: â“An ordinance to amend Article 6, Sections C and F and associated sections of the Knoxville Zoning Ordinance.â” And the amendment itself is very small, the insertion of one uninspiring phrase: â“With the exception of houses or duplexes.â” But it may make a significant difference in how the city grows over the next few years.

Central Knoxville is a weird place. Downtown, on Gay Street, a single floor of an old office building, converted for residential space, may go for more than one million dollars. But a few blocks away, a whole freestanding house with a yard may be for sale for as little as $20,000.

From Park Ridge on the east side to Mechanicsville on the west, old neighborhoods in a 180-degree arc across the north side of downtown have been slowly renovating and repopulating. Parts of Fourth and Gill look like idyllic neighborhoods from a movie set, perhaps a particularly lush, Southern, eccentric version of Pleasantville. Others aren't there yet, but all these neighborhoods seem to be in appreciably better shape than they were 20 or 30 years ago, as peopleâ"many of them young professional couplesâ"have moved in with money and ideals.

There are exceptions, though, big wedges of town that remain stubbornly shabby, as if devoted to the premise, popularized in the postwar years by author John Gunther, that Knoxville is still the ugliest city in America. Some houses are vacant, some literally caving in. More are altogether absent. Some plots of city land within a mile of downtown appear to be unused for any purpose, squares of rubble and weeds, in spite of the walking proximity of homes valued in the mid-six figures, and the so-far unmet demand for residences in the historic core of the city.

Many of the most neglected old housesâ"it may be no exaggeration to say most of themâ"are residential plots in areas the city stopped considering â“residentialâ” some 40 years ago. Though some of the houses have been residential in daily use for a century or so, they're in districts zoned â“commercialâ” or â“industrial.â” They've been allowed to remain, grandfathered in under certain strict conditions, and they can be soldâ"but not with any sort of conventional mortgage. At least, not until this week.

It's been a significant problem. Realtor Jennifer Montgomery had a particularly frustrating encounter with the phenomenon several months ago. A prospective homebuyer, affluent but not rich, was willing to take a chance on a bungalow in a transitional area a few blocks north of downtown. â“The buyer was really, really excited. It was a really great house. It could have been a great thing for the buyer, and a really great thing for the house.â” The problem, as she discovered researching it, was that it was in a commercial zone. After exhausting options, the buyer eventually looked elsewhere.

â“It's disappointing to explain that unless you have cash, you can't buy it,â” Montgomery says. â“And even then you know that when you go to sell the house later, you're going to have the same concerns.â”

Zoning, introduced in the 1920s, came to the fore in the '50s and '60s. Much of it seemed a logical response to conditions at the time. Gasoline was cheap, and so was suburban land; the city was dirty and noisy. It was assumed that no one would ever want to live near a factory or even a commercial area, and that everyone would move to the suburbsâ"as many did.

At the same time, Knoxville's old-line industries, especially the old textile mills, were closing. Political leaders were convinced the city needed new industry to survive, and moved aggressively to attract new industry and commerce by dedicating large tracts of urban land, especially urban land with railroad and interstate access, to industries To Be Announced.

The mass evictions and city-sponsored demolitions that came with urban renewal displaced large segments of the black community, on the east side of town, but ordinances written to affect areas dominated by working-class whites were worded more like a firm nudge, maybe the equivalent of turning on the lights in a bar at closing timeâ"or a longtime war of attrition against impertinent homeowners. A house suffering major damage in a fire or flood, assessed at 50 percent or greater of its original value, could not be rebuilt as residential, and had to shift to conform to the zoning. Likewise, a house left vacant for six months or more would lose its grandfather status, and be permitted only by the commercial or industrial status of its zone.

As Metropolitan Planning Commission Assistant Manager for Rezoning Ken Pruitt explains, â“In the 1960s, large swaths were zoned to industrial standards for something that never happened.â” The industry never came to occupy some of the arbitrarily outlined industrial zones. Pruitt says some of the industrial zoning was accomplished in hopes of earning Johnson-administration federal grants, but the Vietnam War and other distractions sidetracked the programs . New industry did come to Knox County, but MPC Comprehensive Planning Manager Mike Carberry says it was partly the complications of dealing with multiple property owners, as is usually the case when acquiring factory-sized patches of urban neighborhoods, that pushed industry toward green-field development in the suburbs.

In any case, the residents never left. No one's ever done an inventory on how many houses are considered â“non-conforming structures,â” but one MPC staffer's estimate puts the total at 300-400 houses.

Galvanizing some interest in the liabilities of this grandfathered housing in commercial or industrial zones, and perhaps the urgency of doing something about it, was one particularly horrific crime, the rape-murders that occurred in January in and around a house on Chipman Street.

The house where it happened technically isn't even supposed to be there. This whole area along Chipman and Mitchell, about two miles northeast of downtown and just west of the northern section of Cherry Street, was designated an industrial zone back in the 1960s. There were already factories nearby; many of the houses on Chipman Streetâ"named for an executive in the nearby Holston Millâ"were originally built for factory workers who didn't necessarily own cars. After the war, even factory workers started driving their own cars and living in more remote suburbs, and as some industry declined, the city began eyeing these old milltown sections, most of which were near rail and highway access attractive to industry, as industrial zones.

According to an official Community Improvement Program signed by former Knoxville Mayor Leonard Rogers, all these houses were to have been torn down to make way for industry. â“Residences south of Cecil Avenue are adversely affected by industrial and commercial development along the Southern Railway tracks. The residential structures in this area, a high percentage of which are substandard, should be replaced as the area is industrially developed.â”

The report went a little farther than that, recommending that the city â“remove residential uses and redevelop as [an] industrial area â" [and] provide buffer zone to protect residential area to the north. Industrial development is located in areas served by interstate and rail access. The partial redevelopment of these areas requires relocation of residential uses,â” especially those between I-40 and the Southern tracks, including the Chipman and Mitchell streets.

That report was published in October, 1970. The plan was that it would all be accomplished by 1976.

But it wasn't. Major industry never moved in, and people stubbornly kept living in the old houses. Ever since then, Chipman Street, Mitchell Street, and several other streets in this area have existed in a sort of twilight status. Residential in fact, but not in the ideal; â“industrial,â” theoretically, but not yet.

The Mitchell/Chipman Street area is just one example. Several residential areas closer to downtown have been surviving in comparable predicaments.

One, much more heavily trafficked area is alongside Central, west to I-275. Old North, east of Central, is thriving, and new businesses, partly supported by adjacent residences, are popping up along Central itself. One large residential condo project facing Central on the east side is under construction. The other side would seem to be a natural for spontaneous redevelopment, but isn't. In fact, one run-down Victorian house on the west side of Central was physically moved across the street, at major expense, to put it in a residential zone.

Back when Zayre's and the Mill Outlet were thriving, it might have seemed obvious that major commercial development would be the fate of this strip alongside the interstate. But the commercial-zoning era has witnessed only decline here, in both commercial and residential development.

â“Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time,â” shrugs architect and sometime developer Charles Richmond. â“Knoxville was looking for business, and looking for a distressed neighborhood to put it in. But nobody seemed to do anything about it. Nobody cared about Central until about 10 years ago. I mean, really. They couldn't have cared less.â”

Things have changed. Richmond recently bought three small houses along Baxter Avenue, near Central, in an industrial zone. He has an option to buy two more. He and another developer, Virginia Douglas, will own all the houses on the block. He's fortunate in that he was able to pay cash for them, without dealing with the mortgage quandary. He means to fix them up for either office or residential use. Some of them are long, narrow frame structures, the classic â“shotgun-styleâ” houses popular with working-class families a century ago.

The MPC's new I-275/North Central Street Corridor Study cites the particular commercial zone to the west of Central as a â“vastly underutilized resource in the Heart of Knoxville.â” The plan, which MPC suggests is realizable by 2015, recommends improving road connections, greenways connecting North Central to World's Fair Park via Second Creek, and enhancement of the area's commercial and residential potential.

Another industrial zone with persistent residential use is on the west side, south of Sutherland Avenue. Several smaller spots remain here and there, on the fringes of Old North or Mechanicsville of Park Ridge: not industrial or commercial, and not wholly residentialâ"at least not residential with much hope for the future. People who wanted to buy houses, or make a major repair or addition to a house, would go to the bank and be told, sorry, it's in an industrial zone. It's not really even supposed to be there.

Jeff Talman, a community firebrand from way back, is a former president of the Fourth and Gill Neighborhood Association, and still lives with his family in that section of mostly well-renovated Victorians, which is located between a couple of these residential â“industrialâ” zones. He knows most of them, partly through his profession as a Wells Fargo mortgage banker specializing in renovations.

In his nimble red Mini Cooper, he zigzags through the old neighborhoods like Br'er Rabbit. Most of us have visited destinations in Knoxville's historic neighborhoods one at a time, along the familiar axes. Talman knows them laterally. Ride around for half an hour with him, and you're in Park Ridge, then you're in a part of Fourth and Gill you've forgotten about, then in an industrial/residential fringe of Old North, then a corner of Mechanicsville, then suddenly you're in Lonsdale. The neighborhoods vary widely in terms of apparent value, in relative maintenance, in racial makeup, in number of vacant housesâ"but the striking thing is how much alike they are in other respects. The streets and blocks are all of comparable size, almost all of the blocks have sidewalks, and the houses are mostly of an era, built roughly between the introduction of the electric trolley in 1890 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They have front porches and the architectural ornamentations of a prouder era. Talman says he admires the â“simple eleganceâ” of even the smallest homes, the underappreciated shotgun houses.

Those that are in industrial or commercial zones are â“permanently marginalized,â” he says. â“Because of zoning, residential isn't considered the highest and best use. Even though they are residences, they have been residences, they were built to be residences. But somebody thought , Nobody in their right mind would live there. Or, No nice people would want to live there .

â“So you can pay cash. Or you can live there as a renter. But you can't get a mortgage on it.â”

The irony is that people who are able to pay cash, even on a very cheap house of $50,000 or even $20,000, tend to be people who are too affluent to want to live in it. They tend to be neighborhoods dominated by absentee landlords who are holding onto the houses either as an income source, or in speculation of the day when major industry does finally move in. The murder scene on Chipman Street, as several residents of neighboring North Hills are quick to point out, was owned by a resident of Sequoyah Hills.

Most of the residents of these marginal neighborhoods tend to be renters. â“Nothing against renters,â” Talman says. â“Everybody needs a place to live. But when people own their own home, they're stakeholders. They come out on a Saturday morning and plant flowers. If something happens, they call the police.â” He slows in front of a house on Baxter, east of Central, in a commercial zone. It stands out sharply from its unkempt neighbors. â“I love that home!â” Talman says. â“I love how they take pride in home ownership. Look, the grass is cut, it's painted, they've got the American flag flying. He's a stakeholder.â”

But his example is a rarity over here. He blames the state of things, in large part, on simplistic or outdated zoning, which he says implies â“an ethnic purity of use. â‘Don't get that business next to me!' But I'd like to have a shopkeeper who lives over his store in my neighborhood. That's what I like that about the city, the mixed-use environment. You get a little more funky. Zoning is set up to deprive us of what we want to see more of.â”

On the edge of Caswell Park, he points out a whole row of houses that seem not as well kept up as those in adjacent Park Ridge.

Talman drives down Chipman Street. It's a sunny Saturday morning, and a teenaged girl walking down the street and talking on a cell phone smiles as he drives by. Talman says he was working on the zoning frustration before the murders, and is reluctant to blame it directly on neglected zoning issues.

â“I think there's a correlation,â” he says. â“It's what happens in fragile neighborhoods.â”

He stops in front of a once-attractive early 20th-century wooden house on West Fourth, on the highway edge of Mechanicsville. It seems to have suffered a fire at some point in the past. Part of the roof is caved in. It's alongside other apparently occupied houses, but has been vacant for several months; like its neighbors, it's in a C-3 zone. â“Now I can loan on that house,â” Talman says.

Talman is optimistic that the amendment he championed before City Council two weeks ago will fix the practical problems. It's sailing through Council, in part, because it doesn't change the zones. The industry that is in the industrial zones isn't worried about it, because it's not affected by the change.

We polled a few home-loan officers who were unfamiliar with the changes, and they couldn't offer an answer about whether they'd offer a loan for a residence in a non-residential zone after the amendment.

â“There are some mortgage products that are still going to have an issue with that zoning,â” says Talman. â“But as far as the FHA is concerned, this is a solution.â”

If some planners have their way, the near future of Knoxville's industrial-zone purgatories may go beyond this amendment, and be among the first beneficiaries of a new type of zoning.

Form-based zoning, which has gotten some publicity in the last couple of years as the likely zoning style for the Southside development, uses the form of the existing streets and buildings as its premise, and allows a multiplicity of usesâ"residential, office, commercial, perhaps even light industrial on the same blockâ"based more on the potential of the structures than on blanket homogeneity.

Carberry points out that the MPC's I-275/North Central Street Corridor Study recommends that form-based zoning be at least considered for the failed commercial and industrial zones of near-North Knoxville.

â“ Create a new zoning code and improvement program for North Central Street which addresses a wider mix of uses and includes a form-based code,â” the study recommends. â“Form-based codes can address mixed use in buildings, such as shops or offices at ground level with housing above, and the relationships of the buildings to the sidewalks, yards and transitional spaces.â”

Richmond, would-be developer of five houses on Baxter Avenue, is a fan of that idea. He'd like to see more mixed-used development and â“a lot of flexibilityâ"not the rigid control of the system we have now.â”

As for other sections that are zoned industrial or commercial but still have a large number of â“non-conformingâ” residences, rezoning plans aren't necessarily imminent. However, asked about the Mitchell/Chipman industrial section, Pruitt says, â“We do need to really reappraise some areas.â” Public attendance at MPC and City Council meetings can help let representatives know about various neighborhoods' problems and evolving realities.

â“Should people follow the plan?â” asks City Councilman Chris Woodhull, himself a resident of a historic neighborhood that might be affected by the alteration. â“Or should the plan follow the people? People don't just vote for political office, or by showing up at public meetings. People also vote with their habits.â”   Citizens now want to live in areas where urban planners assumed they never would. â“The renaissance of downtown, not just here but around the country, has shown there are gaps in policy,â” says Woodhull, who supports the amendment.

Talman's amendment breezed through City Council with no opposition. The people who pushed through the rigid industrial-zoning codes of the 1960s have mostly passed from the scene. Everyone seems to realize that the city's dynamics are not what they used to be.

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