Marble Alley 2.0: Buzz Goss' Residential Project Looks Like a Boon for Downtown, if not the Landmark Once Proposed

The press conference at the blank corner of State and Commerce last Friday drew an impressive convention of mayors, commissioners, councilmen, and other conspicuous Knoxville boosters, affirming that architect-turned-developer Buzz Goss' Marble Alley project is huge. With construction to commence as soon as the end of this year, to be completed in 2015, the project for most of the space between State and Central is the first new-construction residential project downtown in several decades, the only exception being the small addition to Market Square's parking garage a few years ago. It's big by downtown standards, 238 units; the only bigger apartment building in downtown's history may be Summit Towers, which is a subsidized facility reserved for the disabled.

The Marble Alley project will remove a particularly blighted wasteland, an underused surface lot left by the demolition for Knox County's abortive Justice Center project. It puts that property back on the private-property tax rolls. It'll help revive moribund State Street, which hardly half a century ago was still a major residential street.

And it will bring in, credibly, more than 300 new residents where city and county government both need them most, dining, shopping, and entertaining themselves downtown. With no requirement of major investment of public money, except for sidewalks—which should have been rebuilt years ago anyway—Marble Alley looks like a win-win-win.

It has to be acknowledged, though, that it's not much like the Marble Alley Goss was touting four years ago. That more ambitious project looked like a miniature city within a city, including a variety of architecturally distinctive buildings and multiple uses, including retail, office and residential, arranged along a new street that would, in one curvaceous swoop, connect the Market Square area with the Old City area. As Goss' idealistic drawings portrayed it, $91-million Marble Alley could have become an attraction in itself, the sort of development people might visit downtown just to behold.

This project is not that one. Goss' partner, Murfreesboro-based TDK, makes nice big apartment buildings, handsome enough maybe, but not architectural statements. The style is what's sometimes known as the "Texas wrap," apartment buildings built around a parking garage discreetly hidden within. TDK has taken on big residential projects from Lenoir City to Lubbock. Partner Kent Ayer, an MTSU alum originally from Indiana, said his firm did a survey and found that Knoxville was the South's biggest metro area that lacked a large new urban residential development like this. The buildings will be three to five stories, with lots of amenities, lounges, club rooms, a swimming pool. Single-bedroom rental units will probably start at $850.

A Department of Housing and Urban Development program will help finance the project—but, as Goss asserts, not fund it. Except for sidewalk improvements, this is a privately funded project. The project, reckoned at $15-20 million, looks functional, and probably popular.

But it blocks any possibility of Goss' original curved street. The TDK project takes up more than two-thirds of the whole site, with nothing but residences, not the mixed-use vision Goss pictured in '09.

Goss is reserving more than an acre along State Street for likely commercial development, and says he's already working deals on that. But it sounds like Phase II in an overall project in which Phase I is the main thing.

"You never know, when you start with these things, where you're gonna end up," says Goss, mentioning the recession, which inconveniently coincided with his original dream. "There won't be that sweeping retail alley. It changes that. But it'll accomplish the same goals."

The simplified, more conventional Marble Alley will certainly be a boon to both the Old City and Market Square, both of which are just about two blocks away, but it won't connect the two quite as obviously as that unusual chute model promised to. These are on the conventional rectangular city blocks. However, Goss thinks the activity of the apartment building, its lounges and entrances, with some "transparency" in the design, should make the walk from State or Gay to the Old City more pleasant than it is now.

Moreover, as two speakers noted during the on-site presentation on Friday, it may nudge some neighbors to do something about the genuinely historic Cal Johnson building, the large, three-story industrial building built by a man who was raised to be a slave. Few cities have a building with that kind of provenance, with Johnson's name, and the date, 1898, high on the front. The building, invisible to most downtown visitors, has been used only for storage in recent decades. Its deteriorating condition worries preservationists and keepers of African-American heritage.

Goss hasn't given up on all of his ideals. The monumentally broad "Cal Johnson Steps" that were to connect Gay Street with State, mid-block, via the big gap alongside Mast General Store may still happen.

"That's all still in the works," Goss says. It's connected to his working out a commercial/retail deal for the State Street properties. Despite downtown's apparent revival, it's still very hard to get financing for retail. Goss and other developers say despite its much-heralded resurgence, downtown still hasn't cleared certain credibility hurdles; financiers who might approve comparable projects in Nashville or Atlanta are still skeptical about Knoxville. He's confident that last week's announcement of 238 new middle-class residences will make adjacent retail seem more realistic.