Knoxville's Old City District: Left Behind the Renaissance?

As Gay Street and Market Square have come into their own in the past few years, the Old City looks, well, like just that—as though its best days were behind it. During the day, the streets are mostly empty. At night, it becomes much livelier; but for those who remember it in the early ’90s, it’s still not quite what it once was. Why?

Many blame the Old City’s decline on a perception—accurate or not—that it’s more dangerous than Market Square or Gay Street. Jeffrey Nash, a developer and owner of Crown and Goose, says the city should devote more police resources to the area and invest in new sidewalks and other infrastructure improvements to counter this notion.

“There is a perception that the Old City has a level of security that is lower than it should be,” Nash says, “and I think we need to give confidence to our visitors that we do care, and that there is a level of security and there a level of policing that they feel more comfortable.

“I do think there’s been an enormous focus on Market Square and Gay Street and Market Square and Gay Street and Market Square,” he adds. “But I really believe the Old City is as much downtown as Market Square and Gay Street.”

Central Business Improvement District Chairman Patrick Hunt agrees the Old City has gotten less attention from the city of late.

“I think it’s indisputable that more city investment has gone into Gay Street and Market Square over the last few years,” Hunt says. “But you know, these things are cyclical.”

He explains that in 1989, when he worked for a non-profit called the Downtown Development Corporation, which helped create the CBID that he now serves on, “one of the first projects I worked on was massive city investment in the Old City,” redeveloping sidewalks, installing light poles and utilities, redoing the intersection. “During that time, zero investment went into Market Square,” Hunt says.

Bill Lyons, in the mayor’s policy and communications office, seems a bit exasperated when the topic of Old City neglect is broached—a bit like a father accused of neglecting his problem child.

“The Old City—gosh! We’ve put a lot of attention in the Old City,” Lyons says emphatically. “We’ve done some tax-increment financing down there, we put a parking lot in there... we run our events through there.”

Bob Whetsel, in the city’s office of redevelopment, chimes in like a supporting parent, “They have the decorative street lights. They’ve got the sidewalks and the down-the-street parking...300 lots.”

But Lyons also points out how well-behaved the Old City’s siblings, Market Square and Gay Street, are—how well they work together to organize events—and how poorly the Old City has been by comparison.

“For a while, frankly, none of them could get along with each other, and there was no common voice,” Lyons says. But he says that’s starting to change.

“A lot of the new folks who have come, like Jeffrey [Nash], David [Dewhirst], Rod [Townsend]—they’re all working together and speaking to us together, and we think there’s no intention to make it anywhere secondary,” Lyons says.

One those developers, Dewhirst, takes issue with the very premise that the Old City was much more active 20 years ago than it is today. “I think [development is] way more substantive now. People just want to compare it to that flash in the pan sizzle that happened for a very few short hours,” from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Now, he says, much more of the square footage available there is being put to use.

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