What was announced this week is the urban-planning equivalent to a fairy-tale ending for an iconic building whose future has been in doubt for at least 20 years.
John Craig, the lead partner of a group of investors known as 500 Block LLC, which also includes developers Mike Hatcher and Tim Hill and publisher Dane Baker, with assistance from architect Faris Eid, announced on Tuesday tenants for the S&W, vacant these 27 years, and a neighboring building. The building’s in the early stages of a $4 million renovation, and if all goes well, this time next year, the old S&W will look astonishingly like it did before its closing in 1981, but it will be occupied by a new restaurant called the S&W Grand Cafe, run by a family already well known for a West Knoxville restaurant, the Northshore Brasserie, an upscale French restaurant run by the Balests.
Their Gay Street project won’t be a cafeteria, but with a philosophy of high-volume, moderately priced food service, it will share some qualities with the S&W, including, as near as is possible with modern materials, its interior decor, most of which had long ago been damaged or removed. Restaurateur Stephanie Balest says the menu will include updated versions of dishes in old S&W menues from the ’30s through the ’50s.
Also announced this week is that an old Victorian building nearby, vacant for years, will host a company called Coolato Gelato, run by local entrepreneur Cherryl Meuret, which will serve the aforementioned gelato as well as espresso drinks and panini sandwiches. It will offer access to an unusual courtyard in back via a new—at least, new to almost anybody living—passageway from the sidewalk which existed a century ago, as disclosed by demolition and Craig’s research. In all, about 60 percent of the property is leased. Craig expects the remaining 40 percent, including the basement of the S&W and parts of two smaller buildings adjacent to it, to be a mix of retail and office space, though he has not ruled out residential. It’s mainly a private project, but its complicated financing is the biggest reason for the long delay in this week’s announcement, anticipated since the opening of the Regal Riviera in September, 2007. In the final mix, Craig says, the bulk of the $4 million bill came through construction lending and the group’s own investments, but that tax-credit equity covers about 20 percent of the total, with a loan tied to tax-increment financing helping with an additional 15 percent. A Central Business Improvement District facade grant accounts for a little more than 1 percent of the total.
However, money was just one hurdle; Craig credits the Haslam administration and the preservationist group Knox Heritage for assuring that there would be a building to preserve. Four years ago, the S&W and its neighbors were slated to be demolished because it was considered to be in the way of the Regal Riviera project.
Basic construction is by Hickman, a company with a good deal of experience in renovations—supervisor Jim Buhl has worked on other successful projects, including the unusual Crown and Goose, opened earlier this year on Central. Contrary to some gloomy early estimates of the building’s soundness, Buhl reports the brick walls and terrazzo floor of the old building were in excellent shape, much better than some other buildings he’s worked on. They expect to be completed in the spring, by April or May, whereupon the Balests will begin moving in, with hopes of opening the big new restaurant in September, 2009.
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