Everybody Says They Want to Save the Christenberry House—But It's More Complicated Than That

The ca. 1907 Christenberry house may well be preserved after all, but a developer’s proposal still alarms a community concerned about density and traffic safety.

The ca. 1907 Christenberry house may well be preserved after all, but a developer’s proposal still alarms a community concerned about density and traffic safety.

The Christenberry house at 3222 Kingston Pike is another development controversy concerning a plausibly historic old house and a probably lucrative development deal. But it’s different in several regards, upending some of the usual developer-vs.-community paradigms.

In this case, the developer wants to preserve and restore the historic house. The city had already approved a previous developer’s proposal to demolish the house, but that’s not in developer Paul Murphy’s plan. What he wants to build is 26 additional condo units on the riverfront slope behind the house, nearer the riverfront, and, he says, invisible from Kingston Pike.

However, the Kingston Pike Sequoyah Hills Neighborhood Association fiercely opposes the development. That organization, reportedly founded in reaction to the La Rue condo development on Kingston Pike, a few addresses west of the Christenberry site, is unanimous on the subject. Within the whole membership, KPSHA president Sallie Namey can count those who favor the development on her fingers. More than 1,000 have signed a petition opposing it. They have basic objections about the precedent set by changing zoning density and about traffic safety—objections that might be less than obvious to the average motorist who passes the site at an average speed of 42 mph. That traffic, and its customary speed, is a major part of the issue, and is likely to be the primary concern when the project goes before City Council on June 10.

Both sides have hired both attorneys and public-relations professionals to help them make their cases. Meanwhile, a surprise third-party proposal by a prominent real-estate professional waits in the wings, with a plan to purchase the house for a lower-density solution.

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Some opponents say they’ve never met Paul Murphy, who lives in a restored historic house a couple doors east of the site. Murphy’s best-known local project is a recent 296-unit complex called The Preserve at Hardin Valley; he was also behind the short-lived Western Plaza restaurant known as Sequoyah Grille. He’s a dapper, soft-spoken fellow with prematurely white hair.

“To get the word straight, I am saving the house,” Murphy says. He seems proud of the five-bedroom home, its mahogany details, like a sliding door in the living room, and its big-window views.

The house may date back to 1907, as some sources have it, when most of the traffic out front was horse-drawn. The Craftsman bungalow with clay-tile roof looks like it was built for ceiling fans and comfortable summer afternoons. Although the family that owned it for decades approved a potential developer’s proposal to tear it down, Murphy says he wants to rehab it as a single-family home. He has committed to including an H-1 overlay on the house. Most historic buildings in Knoxville do not enjoy H-1 protection, which means it could be torn down only after rigorous discussion and approval of governing bodies like the Historic Zoning Commission.

Murphy says he was surprised by the backlash. “I thought the neighborhood would be behind my development,” he says. “I’m saving the house.” (He says he had been a dues-paying member of KPSHA, and until recently thought he still was, but apparently he’d let it lapse.)

During our visit, the more assertive Mike Cohen, public-relations pro and former official spokesman for both city and county administrations, does most of the talking. Cohen says he has reason to believe that many of the approximately 1,000 who signed the petition opposing Murphy’s development did so believing they were signing to save the house.

The property sits on 4.8 acres between two churches, First United Methodist and Calvary Baptist. The back yard, which shows the contours of long-ago terracing, has an old empty swimming pool and a decrepit barn-like structure, which would go. The lower half of the property is overgrown. Murphy’s working with preservationist architect Faris Eid, who would design 26 new units on the slope behind the house toward the river. A terrace of 20 condos—about 2,200 square feet each, designed to be harmonious with the craftsman style, with parking underneath them—would be partway down the slope. There would be a community swimming pool. At the bottom, would be six larger waterfront townhouses. (The total of 27 units, counting the house, is one less than previously stated.)

Much of the concern about Murphy’s proposal is that it’s a “precedent” for higher-density development in a previously low-density neighborhood. As Cohen points out, there are already exceptions, old and new, from the historic Nicholas apartment building down the street, to the neighboring La Rue, another generation’s controversy. In all, he says, there are already about 500 residences in multi-unit structures in the Sequoyah-Kingston Pike area.

Under current zoning laws, Murphy says, he could build 15 homes on the property by packing it with small-yard houses, akin to nearby Boxwood Square. He emphasizes he’s proposing only 12 more residences than that.

Cohen mentions La Rue. “It didn’t exactly open the floodgates” for multi-unit development on the Pike, he says. He also mentions how the Christenberry property is “contained,” hemmed in by two large churches. The high walls of Calvary Baptist, on the east side, dwarf everything they have in mind.

Still, KPSHA was founded, Namey says, “to maintain the integrity of the single-family home,” and they mean to do that.

Members say passing this development will make it difficult to say no to others in the future. Rich Tierney has been the owner and principal broker of Sequoyah Hills Realty for 14 years. “How can you say no to the next guy that comes along? Once you open Pandora’s Box, how do you shut it?” he asks. “I think we’re much safer fighting the good fight now, rather than wait 20 years and wish we did.”

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Much of that’s speculative—and raises issues of whether, in a county that has almost doubled in population in the last 50 years, it’s sustainable to maintain without exceptions a large low-density neighborhood so near the urban core. The issue of most concern to City Council next week may come down to safety.

Some of the city’s oldest and finest homes are along the strip of Kingston Pike. Several are valued in the millions. But it’s not the most convenient place to live. Unlike most affluent historic neighborhoods, it has a narrow, busy, and rather fast four-lane road running through it. Residents know that getting in and out of their own driveways in a car is not always a simple thing. Turning right from your own driveway can mean waiting several minutes. Turning left may be nearly impossible, depending on the time of day. The stretch is home to multiple churches and synagogues, several of which require police to stop traffic, before and after services, to let parishioners come and go. Many neighbors have memories of fatal accidents.

Just how dangerous Kingston Pike is has become a point of contention, and assessments of its danger vary. The largest image in a KPSHA newspaper ad opposing Murphy’s proposal shows a memorial cross by a dented utility pole.

Cohen has a study reporting there have been 53 accidents with injury, over a period of 10 years, along the six-block stretch of which the Christenberry house is the center. It’s a figure that can sound ordinary for any stretch of four-lane. His understanding is that none of those injuries were fatal. He notes that traffic along that stretch of the pike is down significantly, and he predicts that it will decline further with the opening of University Commons, which will reduce the number of students driving to Bearden and points west for groceries, hardware, and other basic necessities.

However, in its advertisement this week, the KPSHA states, “The planned development will exacerbate traffic on an already heavily congested section of Kingston Pike, which has been the site of over 40 fatalities.” That estimate came from former KPSHA president Jim Bletner, who says it’s a decades-long view of the unsignaled stretch from Neyland Drive to Cherokee Boulevard. He says there have been at least 17 deaths on that one stretch since 1987. After a spate of 13 deaths in eight separate accidents between 1987 and 1993 on the Pike between Neyland Drive and Scenic Drive, there was some discussion of widening Kingston Pike to include turn lanes and wider driving lanes. But the accident rate wasn’t enough to qualify it for emergency federal funds.

Chris Cherry is a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and an expert on transportation we’ve referred to on several unrelated issues in recent years. He lives in Sequoyah Hills, and strongly opposes the project for only one reason, its potential traffic danger. The increase in traffic is not the issue, he says. He acknowledges that another couple dozen households is a drop in the Kingston-Pike bucket.

“Given the poor safety performance of this section of Kingston Pike,” he wrote in a report on the subject, “it is my opinion that largely increasing density on this parcel will ultimately result in severe injury and/or death over the live of the development, directly attributable to this decision.”

Cherry’s not personally opposed to changing zoning density on Kingston Pike, and says he might be happy to see this development anywhere else. “I like infill development. I like density, I like building in the core instead of in the suburbs. If that project were somewhere else on Kingston Pike, some would object. I wouldn’t. The big issue is getting in and out of that particular parcel,” he says. He’s done the math, based on national safety standards, and says it simply doesn’t pass. The main problem is visibility to the east, and the fact that westbound traffic won’t see cars waiting to turn into the parcel, or cars that have just exited it turning left.

Murphy has offered to pay for a traffic signal, though the amount of traffic generated by his development alone would not ordinarily call for one. Cherry says that wouldn’t work, because visibility, and rear-endings, would still be an issue.

“A left-turn lane would solve a lot of these problems,” he says. “But that’s a big land-acquisition project.”

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Cohen, who says they’re ready to work with the city to solve the traffic problem, sounds weary of the naysaying. “Aside from Paul’s plan” to save the house, “what’s Plan B?” he asks.

Rich Tierney thinks he has that answer. He wasn’t much involved in the issue until he attended the MPC meeting that approved the project. He found it “demoralizing,” he says.

“I was expecting a lively debate,” Tierney says. “They never pass this stuff. It always gets shot down at MPC. I thought, ‘Something’s going on.’” Murphy’s plan, approved by MPC staff, passed the commission with only one “no” vote. Tierney says Murphy’s plan was framed as the only way to save the Christenberry house.

“I didn’t like the binary choice,” Tierney says: accept the Murphy development or go back to the status quo—and the already-approved demolition. “I wanted a third option.”

He says he doesn’t know anyone who likes Murphy’s plan. For the record, Murphy’s attorney, Arthur Seymour, has filed letters of support from 13 neighbors, including some prominent Kingston Pike residents like former Knoxville first lady Joan Ashe, and Trust Company chief Sharon Miller Pryse.

Tierney says he woke up in the middle of the night with an idea. He thinks a low-density option is workable. He’d come up with a counter-offer and sell shares, at $10,000 each, to make it happen.

Assuming Murphy is turned down by City Council, and assuming he then relinquishes his rights to the property, Tierney’s group would buy the house for $1 million, fix it up for an estimated $500,000—all that paid for, in part, by selling two riverfront lots behind it for new owners to build on. So, instead of 27 units, the plan would render just three. He’s meeting with potential investors this week, and believes he has commitments to cover half the necessary money, and though he expects to close that gap, he’s confident he can get a bank loan to fill it out. Investors would stand to make a modest profit, up to 5 percent, but anything beyond that would be donated to Knox Heritage. He says he’s making that case just to demonstrate that this effort is mainly for the common good.

That preservationist non-profit, which recently relocated its headquarters to the 1890 Westwood house, very near the Christenberry house, has declined to take sides on the issue, beyond a conviction that the house, which appeared on KH’s most-recent Fragile 15 list, should be saved.

Tierney says he recently met with Murphy personally about his own idea. “We had a pleasant conversation. He seems like an upstanding guy, a nice guy,” Tierney says. But he declined to participate. Murphy still likes his own plan.

Tuesday’s City Council meeting promises to be well attended.

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