Redrawing the Lines of Fort Sanders' Neighborhood Conservation Overlay

How the proposed removal of NC-1 zoning in Fort Sanders is at the center of a debate over what the neighborhood can be

Redrawing the Lines of Fort Sanders' Neighborhood Conservation Overlay

Photo by David Luttrell

These empty Victorian houses in Fort Sanders are at the center of a debate over the future of the neighborhood.

Photo by David Luttrell

These empty Victorian houses in Fort Sanders are at the center of a debate over the future of the neighborhood.

I.G.AID ME: Since an electrical fire in 2010, the 18th Street IGA has stood abandoned. It is currently in violation of several blight ordinances, according to the city.

Photo by David Luttrell

I.G.AID ME: Since an electrical fire in 2010, the 18th Street IGA has stood abandoned. It is currently in violation of several blight ordinances, according to the city.

Late last month, Knox Heritage held its annual preservation awards ceremony at the historic Bijou Theatre. There were hors d’oeuvres from Martha Boggs at the Bistro next door, and there was wine, and everyone smiled as photos were snapped, and everyone cheered as awards were presented.

Still, there were dark undertones to the festivities. It’s been an inconsistent year for preservation in Knoxville—two downtown buildings demolished, a third threatened, and even though the city now owns the McClung warehouses, there’s no guarantee they can be saved.

Then there was the news about Fort Sanders. As Jack Neely first noted in our Nov. 7 issue, the city has been in talks with Covenant Health about amending the neighborhood conservation overlay district to allow Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center to tear down four buildings and expand to the corner of 18th Street and Highland Avenue. The same city that worked to save South Knox High School, the McClung Warehouses, and the Kern Bakery. The same preservationist mayor who was on hand at the Bijou to present an award.

As attendees mingled, chatting about current events, you could hear one word over and over: “unprecedented.” Remove part of a conservation overlay? Allow demolition of four historically significant properties that could be restored to their original glamour by an owner willing to spend the time and money? Has that ever happened? Isn’t it unprecedented?

As it turns out, it is. It’s never been done, according to Metropolitan Planning Commission staff. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be, as Mayor Madeline Rogero told us at the soirée.

“There’s a process in place to where that can be done. Whether it would be approved or not, it’s a process that you go through. But there is a process in place to do that in the rules,” Rogero says. “And are we purists? No. Can we save every single structure? No. But we are committed to historic preservation, and [just] because we disagree on this doesn’t mean that we don’t support historic preservation.”

Nobody, not even Knox Heritage’s executive director Kim Trent, thinks every building can or should be saved. But there are a lot of people who think these four could. More importantly, there are a lot of people concerned about the precedent that could be set by the removal of a historic overlay.

“Many of my neighbors are concerned,” says Lauren Rider, the president of the Old North Knoxville Neighborhood Association, which has an historic H-1 overlay. “We depend on the city to enforce the overlay. And when the city is ready to tear down buildings because an owner wants it, that’s upsetting.”

Yet the city is convinced that its plan—in return for amending the zone to allow for the hospital expansion, the city would receive a hospital-owned lot on which to build a parking deck, and one historic house would be rebuilt across the street on a different hospital-owned lot—is a successful compromise.

“We just wanted to get by the conflict, which is not healthy for the neighborhood, or anybody in our opinion,” says Bill Lyons, the city’s chief policy officer. Besides, Lyons stresses, after this one demolition, the hospital would commit to expansion in a defined zone from here on out.

But as longtime Fort Sanders resident Randall De Ford points out, Covenant has already done that.

“That’s what we have now. We have a plan that they committed to, that the city committed to, that was voted on and approved by MPC and City Council in 2000,” De Ford says.

Covenant denies this is the case. But documents and interviews with multiple people involved with the Fort Sanders Forum indicate De Ford is correct. And while discussions with the city and Knox Heritage remain ongoing, and demolition is far from a sure thing at this point, questions remain about the process involved.

Does the city believe the interests of the hospital and Cumberland Avenue businesses outweigh preserving houses in a mostly transient neighborhood? Or do four buildings even matter in a neighborhood already struggling to maintain the little historic character it has left?

FORT HOME: Architect Randall De Ford, left, and Stanton Webster, pictured with his family, have been representing the permanent residents of Fort Sanders in discussions with the city.

Photo by David Luttrell

FORT HOME: Architect Randall De Ford, left, and Stanton Webster, pictured with his family, have been representing the permanent residents of Fort Sanders in discussions with the city.

The Forum, the Plan, and the Overlay

It’s hard to imagine now, but there once was a time when Fort Sanders was considered “West Knoxville.” It was during that era the neighborhood’s most striking Victorian homes were built, even if the majority of them don’t still exist today. As the city expanded, so did the university and the hospital. And as they expanded, so did the need for housing. Single-family homes became multi-family units, and other houses were torn down so apartments could be built. Fort Sanders is now the highest-density neighborhood in East Tennessee.

It was development pressure in the late 1990s that led to the creation of the Fort Sanders Forum. Spearheaded by Ellen Adcock, of then-Mayor Victor Ashe’s administration, the forum included stakeholders from all of Fort Sanders—developers, residents, businesses on the Cumberland Avenue Strip, Fort Sanders Regional and Childrens’ hospitals, the University of Tennessee, and Knox Heritage, along with MPC and city staff.

Over 18 months, from the fall of 1998 to the spring of 2000, the group met with three facilitators—Jon Coddington from UT’s school of architecture, John Doggette from the Community Mediation Center, and John Leith-Tetrault from the National Trust for Historic Preservation—to hammer out a plan for future development in the neighborhood that everyone could live with.

At a City Council meeting on Jan. 26, 1999, after the Forum had met several times, Coddington said the goal of the meetings was to provide “clear community expectations regarding what is and is not acceptable” for future development.

“The goal would end up affirming that whatever decisions are made do not seem arbitrary or capricious but a result of sound policy based on a open participatory process,” Coddington said in a recording of the meeting provided by the city.

Later in the meeting, Councilmember Carlene Malone asked him if there was an effort “to come up with a Fort Sanders plan that would provide guidance for decisions in the future?” Coddington replied, “We certainly hope so. I don’t think anyone would have bought into the process if that wasn’t going to be the end. I don’t think the hospital, UT … was in this just for this single episode.”

On May 15, 2000, Coddington and other Forum members returned to Council with their official “Fort Sanders Neighborhood Plan.” The document includes a “Land Use and Development Plan,” a map that delineates what type of development should go where in the neighborhood, block by block. It states, “Two residential districts are proposed, each with a density that reflects the historical patterns of development and zoning. An office district surrounds the hospitals, allowing for expansion onto existing hospital property and toward the warehouse district.”

The document also has a “Core Area Conservation Plan,” a map of a proposed neighborhood conservation overlay (NC-1) district. The four buildings on the corner of 18th and Highland are included in the district.

At the meeting, Mike McClamroch, a Fort Sanders resident, told Council, “We realize no one is 100 percent satisfied, but it’s a good compromise.” He said the Forum had reached a consensus on the plan. With little discussion, Council adopted it unanimously.

After Council’s adoption, plans for the overlay’s creation moved ahead. According to De Ford, stakeholders and MPC staff went block by block, property by property, to determine which buildings to include in the overlay. The overlay defines contributing properties as “those which, even though they have been altered, still possess the architectural detailing and massing that typify their particular architectural style.” The properties at 1802, 1804, and 1810 Highland Avenue were all deemed contributing, as was the IGA building at 307 18th Street.

On July 20, 2000, the Historic Zoning Commission—whose members included current Councilmembers Finbarr Saunders and Duane Grieve—passed the NC-1 overlay unanimously. One of the few people to speak against the zoning was Roger Harb, the son of the owner and landlord of the rental properties on the corner of 18th and Highland.

MPC also passed the overlay unanimously on Aug. 10, 2000. Again, the only people to speak against the plan were landlords, represented by lawyer Arthur Seymour and commercial Realtor Mark Bunch.

According to minutes from the meeting, MPC Commissioner Mike Edwards (now the head of the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce and also a member of the Forum via his position at the Public Building Authority), told the dissenters, “The area has been under pressure. Dirt that the building sits on is far more valuable than the building sitting on it. As a result of MPC staff providing technical assistance we brought around a whole lot of residents, the hospital and UT. … Right now you have those pressure. [sic] So instead of having remodeling, you have deferred maintenance. A lot of property is falling into distress because it does not make sense to renovate. This will allow them to go back into those buildings to bring them into compliance.”

When Ashe announced to Council that he had scheduled a special called meeting to vote on the overlay, he told them, “I’m delighted that it’s been endorsed by the University of Tennessee [and] Fort Sanders Hospital.” The called meeting was held on Sept. 15, 2000, at De Ford’s house—he even served homemade cookies. Seymour and Bunch again dissented, but Council passed the ordinances unanimously. Included in the agenda packet were letters of support from both hospitals.

Richard C. Rose, the president of FSRMC, wrote in a letter to Ashe, “In our review of the plan, we find many positives for our neighborhood and appreciate the broad scope of input from both the public and private sector in the planning process. … As a member of the community and a provider of health care services, we appreciate your efforts to ensure the future of the neighborhood. We also appreciate considerations made for the future growth of our neighborhood that will enable us to continue in our mission to provide quality health care.”

Bob Koppel, the president of Children’s, was even more specific. “Children’s Hospital is in support of all aspects of the proposed plan. In particular, I believe the land use and development proposals represent a balanced and comprehensive plan. The office area designation, which incorporates Children’s Hospital, is in keeping with Children’s long-range plans. I also support the neighborhood conservation overlay (NC-1) district for the core area plan … Again, I am very supportive of the Fort Sanders Neighborhood plan. Implementation of this plan will promote a vibrant environment and balanced approach for this unique community.”

Jim Burkhart was FSRMC’s representative on the Forum. Now the president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital, he declined to talk to us. Children’s also declined to answer questions sent to Rudy McKinley, who was that hospital’s representative on the Forum. But when we asked Max Shell, the former Senior Vice President, Marketing & Community Relations for Covenant (he retired last Friday after 36 years), why Covenant had purchased those properties knowing there was NC-1 zoning on them, he said the hospital “did not agree to anything.” (Shell, we should note, was the only representative from Covenant who agreed to speak to us.)

In an e-mail, Shell clarified, “We did not agree to the buildings being included in the 2000 overlay. Long before the 2000 overlay was arbitrarily imposed to include them, substantial portions of those blocks bordering 18th Street were already occupied by Fort Sanders parking lots and other buildings, including several Fellowship Center buildings that date back to the early 1980s. It has always been our understanding that these blocks are an area in which we can continue to operate. Our understanding of the eastward boundary is the same today as it was in 2000 and earlier.”

However, every member of the Forum we interviewed has the opposite recollection—that the Fort Sanders Neighborhood Plan and the NC-1 overlay as set out in the Fort Sanders Neighborhood Conservation District Design Guidelines were intended to set a footprint for future hospital expansion.

Insurance agent Nic Arning, a former longtime member of HZC and the president of Knox Heritage at the time of the Forum, states, “It is my recollection that all the parties involved agreed to the plan, setting the footprint for the hospital.”

Coddington, now a professor at Drexel University, recalls, “My memory was that [the hospitals] were supportive of the plan.”

Mike Carberry, the MPC staff member in charge of the project, says, “That was part of the discussion—where the most historic buildings were that you’d want saved. That core area on the map is pretty much the same as the National Register boundary. I recall there was general consensus.”

Ashe says the boundaries of future eastward expansion were “agreed to by the hospital.” His former aide Adcock is more explicit. “It was my understanding that all the parties agreed and had a binding agreement,” she says.

Adcock was at every single Forum meeting, she says, and even 13 years later, she still remembers a lot.

“I do not remember a protest from [the hospitals]. They made it clear that it was tight and there would be need for expansion, but this is what they agreed to.”

When we asked Bill Lyons if the NC-1 zoning doesn’t in fact already set the hospital footprint for expansion, at least as far as expanding to the east, he replied, “That’s a reasonable inference to make—I wasn’t there for that dialogue. But that was 13 years ago, and the hospital … feels that with changes in the medical world … that things have changed, and they purchased that property as these things have happened with the idea of having a larger footprint to plan for them.”

This is what irks De Ford the most, he says.

“To me, it’s not just about preservation—and this has not really been said—this is about integrity, and keeping one’s word,” De Ford says. “I think it breaks the public trust, and it says whoever’s breaking this has no integrity­—their word doesn’t mean much.”

FORT HOSPITAL: Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center has been in the neighborhood since 1919, with expansions nearly every decade since.

Photo by David Luttrell

FORT HOSPITAL: Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center has been in the neighborhood since 1919, with expansions nearly every decade since.

The Houses, the Hospital, and the Compromise

The current conflict started when Covenant purchased the buildings on 18th and Highland in 2008 from Mary Harb. Her husband Easa died in 2001, and Harb, then 76, and her son Roger decided they couldn’t handle the renovations anymore.

“They just went downhill. They were no good for nothing,” Mary Harb says now. “Every time we’d fix one place up, the other place would get something wrong with it.”

The Harbs bought the properties in 1971, 1975, and 1987, for $34,050, $25,000, and $30,001, respectively. Mary Harb sold the buildings to Covenant for $850,000. She has no regrets.

“I hope they tear them down,” Harb says.

Shell says that at the time of the sale, “the buildings were in terrible condition, filled with trash, animals, and vagrants, and not habitable. We cleaned and stabilized them and have attempted to keep out vagrants by regular security patrols and boarding the windows, but it is a constant battle to keep them out.”

But Jacquie Mayhorn, a recent UT graduate who was living in 1810 Highland at the time of the sale, tells a different story. In a comment posted on Neely’s column on metropulse.com, Mayhorn states, “These properties were beautiful. Our house had such character. Most of the furnishings were still original when we left and the hospital fenced up the properties and gutted them. We still had an old claw foot bathtub, and nearly every room had a fireplace with beautiful marble mantles. Living there was like stepping into a page of history; how the better half lived a century or two ago.”

Knox Heritage first listed the four properties on its Fragile 15 endangered properties list in 2009. Trent says she met with a number of Covenant representatives and board members about the future of the buildings, suggesting they could be restored and used as employee housing, as a new Fellowship house for families of patients to stay in, or sold via an RFP.

“All of those scenarios were rejected or never responded to,” Trent says. Shell declined to comment.

The 18th Street IGA remained in operation until 2010, when an electrical fire forced its closure. Fareed Nasser ran the market there from 1993 until the fire, and he says the building had been “neglected for years and years.”

“If the buildings were up to code, the fire wouldn’t have happened,” Nasser says. “The Harbs did the best they could, but everybody in Fort Sanders believes the hospital or university will buy their property eventually, so it’s not kept up. If you see that happening, why would you spend money on a property?”

Nasser now owns his own market on Sevierville Pike, but he says he originally wanted to repair the IGA after the fire. A contractor gave him an estimate of $60,000 to fix the damage and bring everything up to code. When Nasser presented this to the hospital, they told him it would cost $150,000. He was given no reason for the discrepancy. We asked Covenant about the estimates; they declined to respond. Nasser says he got the feeling the hospital just didn’t want to bother.

“I hope they could preserve that building, but history tells us the hospital gets what it wants,” Nasser says. “If they tear it down, it would be a tragedy.”

It was concerns over these buildings (and the Victorian houses on White Avenue that the university wants to tear down) that led Knox Heritage to list the entire Fort Sanders neighborhood at the top of its endangered list in May. Shortly thereafter, Trent scheduled a meeting with Rogero and Lyons for June 5 to discuss the non-profit’s concerns.

Coincidentally, according to Lyons, the city was approached by officials at Covenant at the same time. On June 4, Rogero, Lyons, the city’s COO Christi Branscom, and Vice-Mayor Nick Pavlis met with Covenant president and CEO Tony Spezia and Danny Edsell, the president of Covenant’s for-profit subsidiary, the Fortress Corporation. Lyons says Covenant expressed its concerns about a number of things during the meeting, including the Cumberland Avenue redevelopment. Then, he says, “they reiterated their desire, as they say, to square off their campus for future planning. … And that was it. It was basically a listening time.”

In an e-mail, Shell confirms this account: “That timeline is generally correct, but we stress that our primary and immediate concern in meeting with the city in June, and our willingness to continue in dialogue with the city and neighborhood today, is to address our serious concerns about the impact of moving forward with the Cumberland Avenue project without addressing the traffic and parking issues.”

Lyons says that after the mayor’s office met with Covenant and Knox Heritage, they discussed similar neighborhood concerns on June 28 with De Ford and Stanton Webster, the president of the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association—a meeting originally prompted by the neighborhood’s concerns at being excluded as a stakeholder from the World’s Fair Park Working Group.

“After that it was clear that that whole situation with the houses, the future of the Covenant footprint, the concerns with Cumberland traffic and parking all started to converge,” Lyons says. “And then we decided—the administration, the mayor and I, basically—let’s see if we can find some solution about what appeared to be a stalemate.”

Lyons says that over the summer, he and Rogero, working together, came up with the “compromise”: Allow Covenant to tear down the houses and expand, save one house and move it, build a city parking deck on a hospital-owned lot, and create a zone for future hospital expansion. And it’s the last point both Lyons and Rogero stressed in our interviews with them—when we asked Rogero if the parking deck was the trade-off for the demolition, she replied it wasn’t.

“The proposal is that then there would be a defined hospital zone, there would be some future clarity as to where the hospital would expand. And therefore efforts to preserve other parts of the Fort would be strengthened because they’d know where to expect—where the boundaries would be,” Rogero says.

Lyons gave the impression in our interview that the hospital zone was the city’s idea.

“The very important thing that Covenant would be doing here is, in public, which doesn’t exist to this point at all, having a public document as part of a process that would have to go through Council and be on the record … and Googleable for eternity that they have committed to this zone as part of this. Any further expansion would have to take public action. … The NC-1 would have to be amended again.”

We asked Lyons if that wasn’t the same thing that was happening now.

“What would prevent that from happening later for a very long time is the public statement here that they would have to overcome before a political body of the future,” Lyons says.

But Covenant presented the city with a map of a “Proposed Medical District Boundary” at the June meeting, a map that was updated in July with boundaries for Children’s and sent to the city again. The proposed expansion footprint—a document, the city says, it has not committed to support—would have the hospitals expanding west to 22nd Street, taking over the block that houses Knox County Schools’ Fort Sanders Educational Development Center, and expanding north to Forrest Avenue, taking over the two blocks between 21st and 19th Streets. (One of those blocks is a surface parking lot, but the other is lined with several historic homes.) To the east it would knock down the buildings on Highland and 18th Street and also expand east by two lots on White Avenue, squaring off a parking lot it already owns.

Trent says that when she met with Lyons on the afternoon of July 3—just five days after his initial meeting with De Ford and Webster, that’s when he “indicated they would not oppose the hospital” wanting to tear down the buildings.

On Aug. 14, Rogero, Lyons, De Ford, and Webster met at Chesapeake’s for lunch. During this lunch, the mayor and Lyons presented her full plan. De Ford said the plan was unacceptable. Lyons says that Webster later told him he was fine with the plan; Webster disputes that.

“I agree very much that we need a parking garage,” Webster says. “But when he mentioned removing the NC-1 zoning, I told him that was just a bad idea.”

Lyons called Trent shortly thereafter and explained the concept. Trent says she told him Knox Heritage was unlikely to support it.

On Oct. 14, Lyons met with Spezia at Covenant’s corporate office to discuss the proposal. The mayor was not present. Rogero, Branscom, and Lyons met with Trent and the rest of the Knox Heritage executive board’s members the next day. Rogero and Lyons then gave a presentation to the entire KH board over lunch, again at Chesapeake’s, on Nov. 1.

In a list of suggested talking points for the meeting, Lyons writes, “[W]e have worked effectively with Knox Heritage and supported most initiatives. We would like to request that you work with us to [sic] as we move to finding effective approaches to Fort Sanders and the city core. That includes ending the standoff at 18th and Highland and identifying realistic steps the City can take to strengthen the neighborhood.”

The board didn’t take action at that meeting, but on Nov. 18, it voted not to support the city’s plan. In the meantime, Rogero met with both Trent and De Ford, on Nov. 7 and 11, respectively.

Still, to date, no one from the hospital has met with anyone from the neighborhood or anyone from Knox Heritage to discuss the proposal, nor is a meeting scheduled for all parties to meet together.

POLICY FIRST: The city’s chief policy officer, Bill Lyons, remains convinced the plan he and the mayor have come up with is the best for all parties involved.

Photo by Frank N. Carlson

POLICY FIRST: The city’s chief policy officer, Bill Lyons, remains convinced the plan he and the mayor have come up with is the best for all parties involved.

The Precedent and the Fight Against Blight

If you talk to preservationists like De Ford, they’ll tell you it’s not just about saving the houses, even though one is thought to be designed by George Barber. Even if that one house is moved across the street, De Ford says it’s not worth weakening the overlay.

“They’re some of the finest examples of Victorian houses in the city,” De Ford says. “But the fact that they’re in the overlay zone—I think demolishing houses that were just fine when they were purchased, and they were already in the zone … to me, it weakens overlay zones throughout the city and maybe even the county and the state.”

MPC’s historic preservation planner, Kaye Graybeal, confirms that an overlay has never been removed in Knoxville.

“There is no record at MPC of an H-1 or NC-1 zoning designation having been removed from a contributing (meaning historically significant) property within a Neighborhood Conservation District (NC-1) or Historic Zoning District (H-1),” Graybeal writes in an e-mail.

Lyons points out that zoning changes all the time.

“There are zoning changes made when circumstances change,” Lyons says.

When asked how circumstances have changed, given that the preservation situation in Fort Sanders is even more dire than it was 13 years ago, Lyons replies, “Well, I think I’ve explained what the logic is—why we sought to find this compromise, because the situation that exists now is not a situation that’s good for anybody. That’s why we’re looking for a way to get by it. In doing so, there’re compromises on all fronts. And adjusting the zone—it’s still quite large—is what the element of the compromise was.”

De Ford says he does not believe this is a true compromise.

“To me, a compromise really means all parties give and all parties get. Obviously, the city is giving tens of millions of dollars for a parking garage. I don’t see Covenant as giving anything, and I don’t see the neighborhood or preservation or Knox Heritage as getting anything, so that’s not a compromise,” he says.

Ashe is more blunt.

“That’s not a compromise. It’s a takeover,” Ashe says. “From a city perspective, they can get away with it because most Fort Sanders residents are transitory and don’t vote. … This could not and would not happen in Sequoyah Hills or Holston Hills or Fountain City. It’s laughable—except it’s not funny. It’s almost as though the hospital is more important than the residents, and that’s who city hall will listen to.”

In the years since the Fort Sanders Forum, the city has come under criticism in its dealings with the hospital, notably in 2008, when it allowed FSRMC to permanently close part of 19th Street to make way for a $78 million expansion. In 2010, the hospital quietly demolished two historic houses on Laurel Avenue that weren’t in the overlay, without notification to Knox Heritage.

Covenant could do the same thing on Highland—the fine for demolition in a historic overlay is only $50 per building—but without the overlay’s removal, it would be hard for them to build anything on the block. Covenant still won’t say what it plans to build on the site, only that it needs to expand.

“If Fort Sanders is to remain viable and continue to exist as Knoxville’s only downtown hospital, it must have the flexibility to expand as needed within previously agreed upon boundaries. Our goal is to make sure the Fort Sanders neighborhood does not have to deal with a similar situation to that of the St. Mary’s neighborhood,” Shell writes in an e-mail.

But De Ford, an architect, says taking up the whole block is just poor planning.

“In this particular case, because the hospital’s campus is already squared off in the location, this is actually a projection into the neighborhood,” De Ford says. “Right now, because the transition from hospital to residential is mid-block, from a planning standpoint, that’s a stronger place for a transition, because you have a buffer.”

There’s also the issue of the historic battlements thought to be on the site. Historical archaeologists Charlie and Terry Faulkner say that after four years of research, they are confident the corner of 18th and Highland is “the only remaining unmodified land surface which still exists in the area of the fort and the 1863 battle site” and that the land probably holds archaeological remains.

“Union and Confederate soldiers were on that spot. Union soldiers dug rifle pits in the large sinkhole there. Every ground surface in the fort and battlefield area has been destroyed or modified but the area of the site. For this reason alone it should be preserved, documented, and featured as an important addition to the Civil War sites preserved south of the river,” Terry Faulkner writes in an e-mail.

The city says it didn’t know of the archaeological importance of the site, and it’s unclear how concerned it is about it.

Another question that has been raised is how much the properties have been allowed to deteriorate, especially considering the city’s fight against blight under Rogero. But the city says the houses are far too structurally sound to be saddled with a demolition-by-neglect order.

“They’re not structurally falling down, there are no holes in the roof,” says David Brace, the city’s director of public service. “I could show you, like, 150 or 200 properties that are so much worse.”

In August 2011, someone did make a 311 call about the shoddy condition of the houses on Highland, citing “major deterioration on exterior building.” But no action was taken on the city’s part, and the files were closed in January 2012.

Brace says this was “an oversight on our part.” One inspector was on sick leave, the complaint got passed around, and it fell through the cracks.

“We have such volume. Every once in a while, that will happen,” Brace says. “Nobody said not to inspect it.”

On Monday, after seeing photos of the four buildings, Brace says, “There appear to be minor violations (paint, siding) on the houses facing Highland. As for the 18th Street Market, the graffiti on the front, the failing awning and the non-historic addition on the back all need to be inspected and will warrant owner notification. I’ll enter a complaint into our system for the inspector to look into these issues within the next 48 hours.”

The Future

The mayor and Lyons met again with members of Knox Heritage on Dec. 3. No one’s saying what was discussed, but Trent, at least, seems hopeful.

“It went well. Discussions are continuing,” Trent says in a text message.

De Ford, too, is taking the controversy in stride.

“We should consider this an invitation to negotiate and to find a compromise. If we didn’t understand that was an option before, now it obviously is, so let’s compromise. Let’s find something that really is a win-win. Because what’s been proposed is not,” De Ford says.

If the plan does move forward, it would first go before HZC. If the overlay were not removed and FSRMC was only asking for permission to demolish the buildings, HZC has the final say. If they decided not to approve the demolition, its decision would have to be appealed to Chancery Court, according to city attorney Crista Cuccaro. But if the city continues with its plan to remove the overlay for those properties, the issue would move through HZC, then MPC, and finally Council—which has three members who originally voted to approve the overlay in 2000. (Pavlis was actually on Council for the first time in 2000.)

HZC commissioner Andie Ray says she hopes she won’t have to vote on the matter.

“I would hope both as a commissioner and a person who lives in a neighborhood with a historic overlay, this idea won’t progress,” says the Old North Knoxville resident. “But if it does, we will go through a lengthy, deliberative process before making a decision.”

Rogero insists nothing is set in stone.

“This is about a conversation, about trying to weigh those interests. There’s not a final decision,” Rogero says.

But De Ford says the city’s lack of concern for Fort Sanders residents is distressing.

“Actually, the city should pay more attention and be more protective of this neighborhood, because what the city does or allows to happen in this neighborhood basically is a sign of what it’s willing to do or not do or allow anywhere,” De Ford says. “They should stand up to protect those who are weaker. If the city is serious about finding balance, it means standing up for the residential and historical character of this neighborhood, because that’s not been done for 60 years probably. The only winners have been the university and the hospitals. They get whatever they want, and it’s all been at the sacrifice of the historical and residential character of the neighborhood.”

Coddington, who’s worked with several other cities, including Chattanooga, to preserve and redevelop historic neighborhoods surrounding institutions like universities and hospitals, says Covenant could benefit from such preservation.

“In the long run, it’s to the benefit of the institution … to have a stable neighborhood surrounding it.” He points to universities that have given incentives, like $20,000 towards a mortgage, to encourage home-ownership in neighborhoods.

“There needs to be a clearer understanding of how institutions can co-exist with neighborhoods and gain strength from them without always being at loggerheads,” Coddington says.

Trent agrees.

“I am hopeful we can come to a resolution,” Trent says. “We really feel they can benefit the entire neighborhood by being restored. There’s plenty of room north of the hospital for it to expand. Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it, too.”

Correction: The original version of this story stated that HZC has the final say on overlay removal. That's actually only the case with demolition in an overlay—an overlay change, like all zoning changes in the city, ends up before MPC and Council.

© 2013 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

calvinbama writes:

What's new? I've lived in Knoxville for 3 years and this seems like the normal pattern. A large institution such as a hospital or UT does exactly what it wants to our city regardless of what the locals want.

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