Whatever you do, don’t call it a convention center hotel. The proposed $78 million mixed-use development on the site of the old State Supreme Court building was announced last week with great fanfare. There were fancy renderings, a statement from the mayor, and a swiftly filed lawsuit (one that, in a refreshing change of pace, didn’t involve County Commission). Instead, the lawsuit has to do with a 2004 referendum prohibiting public funding for a convention center hotel. That may explain why Mayor Haslam and developer Nick Cazana were splitting hairs very carefully when describing the development.
“There will,” according to Haslam, “be no direct appropriation of city dollars into this project.” And the proposed 200 hotel rooms are only a small part of the overall project, according to Cazana. A “boutique hotel,” as it’s known in the business, “in no form or fashion does it become a convention center headquarters hotel,” says Cazana. Instead, according to the developer, it will merely “complement the convention center.”
Who knows, maybe Haslam’s choice of the rather pointed phrase “direct appropriation of city dollars” was simply the first thing off the top of his head, and not carefully chosen to allow his administration substantial wiggle room regarding development subsidies? I’ll leave that for the lawyers to sort out.
So far, most of the buzz generated by the development has focused on how the hotel may or not fit into the city’s budget. Personally, I’m more interested in debating whether or not it fits into downtown. Knoxville’s made surprising strides in the last half-decade or so when it comes to understanding and appreciating urban design, particularly its reversal of a decades-long indifference to the urbanism it already has. Downtown’s recent renaissance has largely occurred through the rehabilitation and reuse of pre-existing buildings that had been all but abandoned years ago. The city, as a result, is livelier than it has been in a long time.
On the surface, the proposed Metropolitan Plaza complex is something of a testament to downtown’s success. The massive $78 million investment is supposed to be financed entirely by the private sector. And, in a development scene dominated by a small group of relative newcomers who’ve made downtown a specialty, Cazana’s primarily a developer of West Knox office parks. Perhaps even more importantly, the proposal continues the slow shift from rehabilitating downtown’s now-dwindling stock of rundown buildings to developing infill on surface parking lots.
For the most part, at least: the old State Supreme Court Building, whose Locust Street façade I’ve always been rather fond of, is slated for demolition. A casualty of Knoxville’s shoulder-shrugging indifference to mid-century modernism, the loss is somewhat regrettable since examples of the era are suddenly becoming rather rare around downtown. It’s ironic, too, since the big, open lofts found in Knoxville’s Victorian-era buildings are often filled with modernist-inspired furniture.
The buildings proposed for the site are essentially modernist, too: glass towers with a parking base, rising above a plaza (the rendering even plops the obligatory abstract sculpture down in the plaza). The glass I’ve got no problem with. It’s entirely possible for a glass building to be good urban design. But I’m not entirely sure that the site plan does much to strengthen downtown’s urban design. In fact, I’m not even sure that the parking garage meets downtown’s recently adopted design guidelines, particularly the requirements to “create parking garages that do not contain blank walls…or provide for retail, residential or office uses that line the garage.” And, speaking of retail uses, the only retail component shown on the plan is tucked into the corner between the towers, almost an afterthought. Therefore, absent well-defined activity along its edge, the plaza stands a good chance of becoming so much dead space in a downtown that can scarcely afford it. m