The Case for North Central

Exploring the northwest passage of urban renewal

North Central

223 E. Baxter Ave. 2,324 sq. ft., 3 bdrm, 2 bath $204,900 1114 Stewart St. 1,476 sq. ft., 2 bdrm, 1 bath $119,900 Jennifer Montgomery Coldwell Banker 693-1111

Scientist and space exploration advocate Robert Zubrin starts his 1996 book, The Case for Mars, with a comparison between two historical expeditions into the arctic. The first, Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to the Northwest Passage, organized at outrageous expense by Britain’s Royal Navy and embracing such cutting-edge technology as steamships and canned rations, ended in catastrophe. All 128 members of the expedition died, iced in and ravaged by lead poisoning caused by solder in the cans. The second, Robert E. Peary’s North Pole expedition of 1908, was a shoestring affair. Peary reached the pole by dogsled, traveling with a total of six men, four of them Inuit guides.

Zubrin’s point—that it’s better to travel light and live off the land than go big and loaded for bear—applies to urban revitalization almost as much as it does to the arctic, or Mars. It’s also a lesson that Knoxville’s civic leadership has learned the hard way. Here’s hoping that, before the Knoxville Convention Center is paid off, citizens don’t have to resort to cannibalism like Franklin’s ill-fated crew.

Since sinking more than $100 million into the convention center, the city’s redevelopment efforts have had to get leaner, more cost-effective, and more dependent upon private dollars. Downtown’s condo boom was mostly private money, tweaked here and there by Tax Increment Financing that cost the city little up front. Even the sum spent on the cinema project pales in comparison to the convention center.

But the city’s new “Downtown North” initiative may come the closest to Zubrin’s ideal. Like Peary’s expedition, the budget’s a shoestring. The key component, pursuing more urban and pedestrian friendly form-based zoning, is akin to Peary’s dogsleds in conforming to the reality of the environment. And, perhaps most importantly, the city’s following the lead of more experienced guides. Private investment is already percolating along North Central Street, creeping in from nearby Old North and Fourth and Gill.

These two houses, a couple blocks off Central at the corner of Baxter Avenue and Stewart Street, are pretty good examples. For years, renovation and restoration in Old North mostly followed the ridge tops. But as the neighborhood’s revitalization matures, investment is spilling down the hill onto the “flats” along Central and Broadway.

The big Victorian at 223 E. Baxter Ave. is an imposing place, one that would look equally at home along Scott Avenue or Armstrong. Totally renovated, it comes loaded with hardwood, tons of original trim, and multiple fireplaces. The small cottage on Stewart offers similar interior fit and finish, including built-ins and a clawfoot tub, but at a bargain of only $81 a square foot.

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