Downtown's Upward Surge

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Downtown resurgence would take a big leap forward (and upward) under a proposal submitted to Knox County for construction of a 19-story mixed-use tower on the former News Sentinel site.

The firm proposal on the part of a group led by developers Bob Talbott and Raja Jubran was the only one submitted in response to an RFP for development of the now vacant, county-owned site.   

Doing business as the Devon Group, the developers have offered the county $796,500 (its appraised value) for the one-acre site. They are committed to investing $56 million in the tower and adjacent building that would include:

⢠59 residential condominiums plus a penthouse on the tower's 16 upper floors.

⢠38,390 square feet of retail and office space on its lower three floors.

⢠  A six-story garage with 207 parking spaces.

⢠Five additional townhouses in a very differently designed three-story building that would go on the northern perimeter of the site adjoining Church Avenue.

â“The context of our proposal development is a transitional area with tall modern glass skyscrapers to the south [recessed from State Street], and three- to four-story turn-of-the-century office, commercial, retail and residential to the north and west,â” the Devon Group proposal states. â“Our design, therefore, serves both as a visually commanding icon and one that introduces appropriate linkages along Church Avenue and State Street.â”

The proposal is now under review by a 10-person county selection committee, which is expected to make its recommendation within the next week or so. But the county's director of purchasing Hugh Holt, who oversaw the RFP process, views it with enthusiasm. The only contingency in the proposal would appear to be county and city approval of a TIF that would allow the developers to apply incremental property taxes resulting from the project toward its financing for a period of 20 years. TIFs have been almost routinely granted to nearly all of the residential restorations of older downtown buildings that have proliferated over the past few years.

The Sentinel Tower, the new building would be named, dwarfs any of these restoration projects in scope and cost (though in the aggregate they bring nearly 500 new dwelling units to downtown). It's also much bigger than the one new condominium construction project that's now underway: namely, the five story, 24-unit Residences at Market Square, which is actually just west of the square on Union Avenue.

The tower would also represent the first skyscraper to go up in Knoxville since the Butcher banks (now known as the Plaza and Riverview Towers) were built more than a quarter century ago. The Devon Group states its intent â“to advance this project in as expeditious a manner as is practical. During the first 180 days after execution of our sales agreement [with Knox County] our team will initiate pre-sales and pre-leasing, secure financing and retain geotechnical-engineering servicesâ

â“Design and pre-construction services phaseâis expected to last 11 months. Construction is anticipated to take 28 months, beginning approximately midway through the design and pre-construction phase.â” Barber McMurry is the architect; Jubran's firm, Denark Construction, is the general contractor; and Conversion Properties headed by Joe Petre is the sales and leasing agent.

As imposing as the Sentinel site plan is, it could soon be outstripped by development on another, much larger State Street site that is also owned by Knox County. That would be the four-acre site to the north that was originally acquired in the mid-1990s for a Justice Center that never came to pass and then made available to the city for a Transit Center that has since been relocated.

Holt says, â“We want to have something decided on the Sentinel site before we start the wheels rolling on the other.â” But he anticipates that an RFP seeking development proposals on the larger site (that's now a parking lot) could be forthcoming by the end of June. A previous request for proposals on the site drew no responses, but that presumed building on air rights above the vagabond Transit Center. Holt says he's had expressions of interest from three developers in acquiring the site for ground up, mixed-use development.

One thing that's missing from the picture is any provision for a new main library that County Mayor Mike Ragsdale proposed to build on one or the other State Street sites three years ago. But even when scaled back to $25 million from an original $40 million, it got nixed, and the county is far more strapped for funding now than it was then.

Library officials and boosters are known to have had discussions with Talbott about locating on yet another downtown site he owns: namely, the Daylight Building block to the west of Market Square. Friends of the Library has formed a foundation in contemplation of trying to raise money privately toward covering the cost of a new library; but public sector funding will no doubt be needed, and it's not likely to be forthcoming anytime soon.

For now, the Sentinel Tower represents as big a new downtown building block as I can imagine, and I will be pleasantly surprised if there are any others of like size in the near term.    

â" Joe Sullivan

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