Monday evening, the city’s World’s Fair Park Working Group met at the Foundry to hear some partially fleshed-out presentations of what to do with the park’s South Lawn. Not really a problem, and a popular place for a few festivals and Frisbee-chasing dogs, the South Lawn (located right between the constantly building university and the rapidly reviving downtown) has been envied by several planners of Big Projects since the ’90s. The current task force includes several World’s Fair Park honchos and is co-chaired by the city’s Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons and Jan Simek, UT anthropology professor and sometime administrator. Most of City Council was present in the room, watching with interest. But the questions came mainly from the Working Group itself.
Private businessman Harry Sherrod, of Sherrod and Associates, opened with maybe the most unusual proposal, a mixed-use project including a large (1,000 cars!) parking garage, a good-sized hotel, and space for UT expansion. If we understood him correctly, Sherrod means to build a good portion of the project underground, and restore the South Lawn itself, above his building proposal, 24 feet above the current grade. “If you flew over, you wouldn’t know the difference,” he said.
He’s working with William S. Denton, “the Sunsphere’s architect of record,” who was present in the room. For those of us in the gallery, Sherrod’s diagrams on paper were small and hard to discern.
Clarence Brown Theatre Artistic Director Cal MacLean, who’s actually a member of the aforementioned Working Group, followed with the most detailed of the proposals, with high-contrast color slides. He wants to move the entire theater department from the center of campus to this more-public place. The first of two options he presented showed a five-story building that would be functionally a small-scale performing-arts center, with multiple theaters, the major storage space required by a theater program, and classrooms. It sounded as if the theater space proposed for the South Lawn would almost precisely duplicate their current arrangement. Of the three theaters he described, one would approximate the current Clarence Brown in size (500-560 seats), one would be sort of like the Carousel (and called “the Carousel”), and one higher up in the building would be a “black box” theater, perhaps like the present lab theater. The advantages, he said, would be the immediate adjacency of theater classrooms (as it is, theater students have to walk outside to get to the theater), and better access for patrons. Clarence Brown has found itself surrounded by pedestrian space. “That’s good for the university,” he said, but has left some traditional theater patrons with the perception that it’s hard to drive to and park at Clarence Brown. The new site, he said, would also provide an architectural link between downtown and the university.
“We need a theater center,” he said, “something we have longed for ever since the first Clarence Brown Theatre was built.” MacLean continued, with something that sounded like an Act Now challenge: “If we can’t find it here, we’re going to pursue it elsewhere.” He offered two versions of the plan, one of which would take up more of the South Lawn, but which would be only four stories in height. UT’s plan leaves a substantial portion of the South Lawn untouched. Option 1 would leave green space south of a line approximating White Avenue. It might be enough for picnics and Frisbees, but not nearly enough for a beer festival or major concert.
Sherrod had emphasized parking, but MacLean said the existing parking, which includes UT’s 11th Street parking garage, which is usually mostly empty in the evenings, would be plenty, especially considering that many prospective patrons might just be ambling over from downtown.
Then Ashley Capps, concert wizard and a member of the Working Group’s “staff,” stood and offered the shortest presentation of the evening. He didn’t have an architectural plan so much as a graphic demonstration. What he’d like to see on the South Lawn isn’t a dramatic-arts complex but another, much larger, amphitheater. He got a schematic drawing of the Charlottesville amphitheater, which holds 3,000 and strikes Capps as ideal for what Knoxville needs, and superimposed it on a map of the South Lawn. Such a facility would cost $7-8 million, he said, assuming it included bathroom facilities. It was moved farther south than the UT proposal, leaving some green space, but on the Clinch Avenue side, which Capps said could be used for overflow crowds.
One task-force member brought up the adjacency to the existing Tennessee Amphitheater, which the larger amphitheater would resemble in some ways. Capps said the new building would make the older, smaller one easier to program.
Capps handled one question in character. Would the current parking be sufficient for what he wanted to program there?
“Hopefully not,” he said.
Of course, no one was there to represent the fourth option, which is to leave it alone. That was the conclusion, after weeks of discussion, of the top-flight national consulting group the Urban Land Institute in 1999. They happened to be there the weekend of a John Fogerty concert, in the grass and under the stars, and perplexed some convention-center promoters when they concluded they could not think of a better use for that space. So the convention center was built a few hundred feet away, on Henley Street.
Lyons’ closing remarks about whether these proposals might be considered on their own or as part of a World’s Fair Park master plan suggested that no decisions about the proposals are imminent. Their next meeting, he said, will be next year sometime.