Despite rumors of recession elsewhere in the nation, downtown Knoxville continued to grow and change. More than 100 new upscale residential units opened in the downtown area, and most are sold or occupied at this writing. Here’s an overview of downtown renovation action for 2008:
The long, low, Daylight Building on Union, a ca. 1930 fashion-coordinated ottoman for the much-taller Pembroke across the street, has been considered a likely demolishee through several projects that never quite happened. Ten years ago, for example, it appeared to be in the way of a major office tower. Three or four years ago, its several tenants, including the Union Avenue Barber Shop, were summarily evicted. But nothing happened, as some discussed the block as a likely location for the elusive new main library. However, in 2008, David Dewhirst, who has never demolished anything, bought the Daylight, with an idea to turn it into an apartment building with rental units; it probably won’t be done before 2010.
Dewhirst’s company just finished the biggest downtown redo ever, the 95-year-old, 13-story Holston Building, with 43 luxury condos, many with balconies overlooking Krutch Park, all but one of them owner-occupied or spoken for at year’s end. Early in the year, Dewhirst also opened the once-imperiled Cherokee building at Market Street and Church Street, with 11 more modest condos. His company also began construction on the 1905 Arnstein Building, Knoxville’s first steel-constructed building on Market Street at Union Avenue, which Dewhirst calls “the best building in East Tennessee.” He says he’s going to take his time on that one, to do it right, and means to keep each floor intact as a big unit, regardless of the vagaries of the economy.
For most of the year, construction on apartments in one of the old JFG coffee buildings on Jackson Avenue was underway; they’ll be different from most Dewhirst projects in that they’re rental units. Across the street is a freshly completed 12-unit condo redo of a JFG warehouse, an older Victorian-era wholesaling building, to be known as the Jacksonian. The Testerman family, including former Mayor Kyle Testerman, owns the building, which is handled by Terminus Realty. Four are already sold. Both projects, unrelated except that the city’s been pushing to see them link development on the 100 block of Gay and the Old City, as well as points north, are expected to be finished in 2009.
The Old City underwent a zoological mutation, losing Blue Cats, but gaining a Crown & Goose. Developer Jeffrey Nash’s homage to his London youth is an upscale “gastropub” opened in two adjacent old saloon spaces with a surprisingly picturesque beer garden. (As we went to press, it was announced that the former Blue Cats space would be occupied by the new Catalyst.) Meanwhile, across the street, the Knoxville Cigar Co. expanded extravagantly, spreading its gentleman’s club motif across two storefronts and opening a veritable speakeasy in its own upstairs; and an interesting new used-and-rare bookstore opened around the corner on Jackson. Taken together, all the changes would seem designed to attract philosophers, professors, and Boer War veterans in derbies and waistcoats. The whiff of urbanity, boosted by the ever-rising number of middle-class residences on Jackson Avenue and on the nearby 100 block of Gay, seems to have changed the complexion of the neighborhood’s patronage, once composed about 90 percent of kids under 24 who show up after 10 p.m. to drink, dance, and holler in the streets. Now that proportion is down to about 70 percent.
Maybe the most astonishing downtown preservation project completed in 2008 was Four Market Square, by the nonprofit and Christian group Cornerstone Foundation. The century-old three story building opened in December with a stylish restaurant and coffee house, plus a big acoustically designed performance space called the Square Room, plotted to fill a long-discussed void to accommodate audiences too big for the beerhall and not big enough for the Bijou. Though the upstairs will house dormitories for students of Christian education, and the Square Room will host some church services, most of its schedule will be secular. And the restaurant does serve alcoholic beverages.
The once grand art-deco S&W cafeteria, closed and unused for 27 years, is finally going places. After dozens of rumors and failed plans to redevelop the cavernous landmark, interior demolition started in May, and in December developers announced actual tenants, who will open not another cafeteria, but an S&W Grand Cafe, which will renovate or, more properly, reconstruct the cafeteria’s once-famous interior. Two older, smaller adjacent commercial buildings to its south, also targeted for demolition at various times, will also get a total makeover.
The huge Farragut Building, the 1919 hotel which has somehow resisted the rehab fever, was sold to a California firm which intends to convert it for mid-income residential. It’s been a strangely underused office building for years, and the plans, assisted by venerable local architect Glenn Bullock, would be great news, except for the matter of its rather brusque treatment of the handful of current tenants, including Knoxville’s first creperie, The French Market, which opened only a few weeks before they were ordered evicted by the end of December.
Knox County, which acquired a downtown tract of about two square blocks for Justice Center use some years ago before clearing and paving it for surface parking, has announced it’s selling the property. It might have gone quickly, 10 years ago, when several interesting historic buildings stood on the property, some of which had backing for condo development. But they were all torn down, and now it’s just a big underused parking lot. And nobody much wants that.
And downtown lost its last major industry, and one of Knoxville’s most hallowed ones: famous White Lily Flour, a premium baker’s flour developed in Knoxville and manufactured at the same address on the northeast corner of downtown since the 1880s, was bought by Smuckers who moved it to the Midwest. Sorry, but that just sucks.