City Council Candidate Q&A: Duane Grieve, District 2

Our complete interviews with 2009 Knoxville City Council candidates

Duane Grieve, 63, is the founder and principal of Grieve Associates Architects. He was a part of the first graduating class in UT school of architecture in 1969 and has worked as the president of the local, state and regional chapters of the American Institute of Architects, as well as the treasurer of the national AIA. A specialist in historic preservation, Grieve was the chief planner in the restoration of the Miller's Building on Gay Street. He is the president of Scenic Knoxville and has worked on a number of municipal and neighborhood boards and task forces. Raised in Norris, he has lived in Knoxville for 36 years, all in District 2. He is married with three children and a grandson.

Read other candidate interviews at our 2009 Knoxville City Council Election Guide.

On July 14, the city passed an ordinance making it illegal to sit or lay on public sidewalks downtown. One month before that, Judge Stephen Bushong in Oregon ruled that a similar Portland law was unconstitutional. He based his ruling on Oregon state law, but he also told the city's attorneys that enforcement of the law could very well be challenged as a first amendment violation. Similarly, the lawyer arguing against the ordinance and citizens seeking its removal said that it was discriminatory, since it was specifically designed to target the city's homeless population. If you are elected, will you support any action to repeal this ordinance in Knoxville?

Grieve: We have lived with the homeless population down at [Grieve's offices at] Emory Place ever since we've been there, so I'm pretty close to it. We've had situations where we had people sleeping out in the park. From my understanding, first of all, when a law is passed, you first have to make sure it's constitutionally correct. So what I would do is I'd find out and try to get a reading on whether it is correct as it's written. But I would first want to find out why we have the law. Is the law to protect the business owner who has someone sleeping out front, or is the law to help give police the power to do something about a situation that is that way. Before I can say whether I'd vote to repeal, I'd like to find out why we're doing this.

To me there is a problem when you go down Broadway and you have people sleeping on sidewalks and blocking sidewalks. Now, there are two things to this. I have a business on Emory Place, and I have people who want to come into my building. They shouldn't be blocked by someone sprawled across the sidewalk. There ought to be some way to take care of that problem.

But I think it's much bigger than just, "Well, I'm going to give you a $50 fine for sleeping out front." We all know probably the person doesn't have $50 to pay, or they wouldn't be sleeping outside. We have to look into this problem and determine why and who and what does it affect. How can we solve the real problem of people sleeping on the streets, sleeping on the sidewalks. I don't think it's a light kind of answer until you understand the parties involved in it. I know I'm sort of going around the bush here, but that it is why it's not so simple to say yes or know.

Now, I do think that we need to make sure that everything that comes before us as a Council has been checked out totally before we vote on it. Can the law be upheld? Why should we as a Council vote on something if it hasn't been vetted? And there's some issues out there that they're not sure are enforceable. Not only this one but some others.

Converting South Knoxville's Flenniken Elementary School into a supportive housing facility has been a controversial project since its inception. In the candidates' forum on August 27, many candidates said we ought to, so to speak, "spread the burden" of supportive housing throughout the city rather than concentrating it in a few core areas. Do you have any ideas as to places where we could put more supportive housing? What happens when its neighbors almost inevitably have the same concerns? Does the need for this type of housing and the fact that the Fair Housing Act does not seem to permit the city to deny this type of housing simply based on these types of objections outweigh business and political interest here?

Grieve: Number one, I find it difficult to do things piecemeal. As an architect, you look at what the problem is. The problem is housing, and not so much housing as it is getting people off the streets into a type of housing where they can become contributing members of the community. You want to look at the whole city. You don't just go to South Knoxville and say, "Well here's Flenniken School, an empty building that we can use for housing. So we're going to go after that." You need to look at all of the districts because diversity of housing is important. I think it should be spread out. You need to have a master plan that says where we're going to put the housing.

Now, what do we need around this housing? We need buses. We need public transportation. These people need to be able to get to their jobs. Remember transitional housing should not be equated with homeless housing. One of the things we're trying to do is get these people back into society. Once we decide where this housing should go, we've got to make sure we have the caseworkers. We've got to make sure we have the people who can take care of these transitional residents as they go through this process. Once we have that, you have to be cognizant of how many units are you are putting in these locations. So, you tie that all together.

Then what you do is you don't just spring it on these neighborhoods. You don't all the sudden announce in the paper that Flenniken School is going to be used as transitional housing. You go to the neighborhoods, you talk to the neighborhoods. You get the people, representatives from the neighborhoods, and you say, "Folks, here's our master plan. We're going to put up transitional housing here. We're going to put it here, here, here, and here. So that we'll have six, seven, eight, nine transitional housing areas, so that you know where they are." So, this transitional housing isn't going to be any different than the diversity of housing a neighborhood has now. You think about it, we have some areas in town that have some pretty poor housing situations right up close to upper-income neighborhoods.

We need to know what the fear of transitional housing is? What do people fear when they think about it? And we have to address that, because otherwise this can become very emotional.

Still, sometimes you have an issue, and I've run into this with Scenic Knoxville. You have an issue, and you try to be as open and transparent as possible, and we try to bring all the parties together. You're not going to. You're still going to have core groups that are going to be opposed to whatever it is, but all you can do is go through the Democratic process. You try to get people on board, and you try to get the key folks on board.

You just hope you're open, you hope you're transparent, and you hope the neighborhoods are open to the plan. You have to spread this throughout the city. You've got enough apartment complexes throughout the city. For instance, I just now thought of this, but in the 2nd District you have a lot of apartment complexes. Some of them are subsidized housing. What's the difference between subsidized housing and transitional housing? Well, the difference is that those folks who have been homeless, many of them have health problems. They need the help because they need to get work, they need to get their medications. That's why you have the caseworkers.

I daresay that if you took, say, 20 units out of a 100-unit subsidized housing complex and make that a piece of transitional housing you probably wouldn't see the difference. You already have the apartment complex where you can just meld that into it.

Now, in this type of process, we do have to be very careful about the implications of the Fair Housing Act. From what I understand from the city's law department, we do have to be very careful so we don't open up the possibility of a lawsuit.

You'll be coming in to an iffy real estate market if you're elected. Foreclosures continue to be high in the area and around the country, and recently, City Council lowered the property tax rate from $2.81 to $2.46 so as to be in accordance with state tax equalization law. On top of that, a lot of people continue to be unemployed or at least a bit more careful with money, leading to decreases in sales tax revenues. All of this seems to spell potential revenue issues in the future. Given all that, are local incentives, particularly for higher-end projects, a wise idea right now, especially considering the recent foreclosure of a partly TIF-financed project like Cityview at Riverwalk?

Grieve: I think with the situation we have with the economy. I do not think that three years ago that people thought today would be here. I'm very optimistic, though, that we're hitting a low point, and we're going to come back up.

Let's take a condo project as an example. There are those developers who are using these right, and those who are not. If a project is such that an investment from the city is going to increase the investment on a piece of property to where the taxes will go up, and depending on whether we go with a PILOT or a TIF, we have to look at these projects individually. You've got to be fair and you've got to be balanced. Now, when they committed that money to Cityview, did they know that project was going to go under? No. In terms of investing in future projects, we need to make sure it's a good project. We need to make sure we're going to get a return. If it helps the vitality of the city to do it, then we should do it. But it can't be across the board. Not every project should get one.

Now, because of the situation with the South Knoxville project and because of the situation the country's in with the economy, those kinds of things are going to happen. But I think to say, I'm not going to do PILOTs and I'm not going to do TIFs is a bit short-sighted.

We have to ask, does it fall within the realm? I think that sometimes these things stretch the rules. Sometimes we have a certain district where these things are allowed. Now, all of a sudden, there's another project that falls outside of it, so we increase the district. I think we have to be careful about that.

Now, say we have two different districts. This one district is doing well, and it wants TIFs, so it will be doing even better. Maybe what we want to do is take this other district over here that's behind and figure out how it can get to that point as well. You don't just cut this one off just because it's on the way up. I don't think you can say that neighborhood is doing so well, it doesn't need this anymore. I think you need to, once again, weigh out each one of these projects.

Give us a for instance. What would have to be on the chopping block in order for you to support a tax increase in a budget?

Grieve: You have to understand what the priorities of a city budget are. You need to have police. You need to have fire protection and all the safety measures that go along with those. We need to have good services for our people. I would talk to my neighborhood groups and find out what their priorities are. I heard a great expression the other day. And it speaks to the issue here. We have to say, listen, this is what we want, and this is how much money we have. If we want to maintain this, we're going to have to raise taxes. So, how do we make these choices? We might have to make some tough choices soon. Here's the expression I heard: "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die."

Now, back to priorities. Nobody wants their police cut. Nobody wants their fire budget cut. Police want more. Firemen want more. Now beyond that, I think we may have to face some tough decisions. But remember, our debts are good. We have a rainy day fund that's doing well. The taxes are lower, but remember the taxes are lower because the value of these properties went up. What would I cut? I don't know. In business, I've faced this. In my business, I gave people the option. We all take a ten percent pay cut, or I have to lay someone off. We might have to work a four-day workweek, or we'll have to lay someone off. What is the priority? Who are we going to cut off? We have to jump on the bandwagon together. We have to be able to say I'm willing to give up something, and you're willing to give up something.

What about non-essential services and budget items like, say, parks or the city's nonprofit grants? Are those ever worth a tax increase?

Grieve: One of the things I would look into when it comes to Parks and Recreation is, what I would do is ask my neighborhood groups. Is there a way that we can ask a group in a neighborhood if they can help take care of their park so we can cut if we need to cut? Is there a way we can get a group to take care of a greenway? This is an example of a public-private partnership to get these groups rallied around their parks. If we can save several hundred thousand dollars by having groups take care of their parks and greenways, that would be a great way to cut that budget.

When it comes to funding some of these nonprofit organizations, I think we have to ask ourselves, is this really the responsibility of government? Or is that the responsibility of the private sector? I pay taxes and you pay taxes. You may not want your portion of these taxes to go to the symphony. You may want it to go to greenway programs. Maybe what we have to do in a tough, tough year is cut those, and say to the private sector, "Folks, you're going to have to step up." That's a tough thing to do. In an ideal world it would be wonderful if we didn't have to make these decisions—understand I'm as passionate about my nonprofit groups as anyone else—and tell people that, look, we're not where we were four years ago. We might have to get lean and mean.

Is the city's plan for a HOPE VI replacement for the Walter P. Taylor homes a good one? Is it a priority for you to maintain the same level of KCDC housing units as we have now?

Grieve: I think one of the questions I would have is how much federal money is going into it, as opposed to local money. I think any time we can upgrade any of our facilities, we should do that.

I think this goes back to, for instance a situation like Town View, where they went in and took out units, and they made it more of, what I would call more of a community, more of a living area. I think that is a plus. There's a double-edged sword here. We just talked about the economy. So, we're going to have subsidized housing. The federal government gives us a certain amount of money if we put in certain types of housing, so we have that possibility. You have to look like at where we are with subsidized housing, how we continue to upgrade what we have. The density of people there and this sort of thing, I don't know enough about it to give you a good answer. That is one thing I have not looked into in terms of what we do and what we don't have.

I will say again that anytime we have a situation where the federal government will give us a good match on what we put in—a 4-to-1, 5-to-1 ratio—I think we definitely have to look at it. It's one of those issues that we really need to look at the benefits that we as a city will reap, if we do that.

Is the Magnolia Avenue Corridor plan a positive sign that the city is putting its attentions toward an area that has arguably been politically neglected? What else, if anything, should the city, as a public entity, be doing beyond Magnolia to improve infrastructure, the economy, or simply the standard of living in this part of town?

Grieve: We've got a real vibrant, exciting downtown that's growing. And, all of a sudden, things are starting to happen—whether it's South, whether it's Cumberland Avenue, whether it's Broadway or Central. Things are really starting to happen on those corridors. So, we're beginning to look at Magnolia also. I'm on the Facade Improvement Task Force. And there's federal money there, this is what's exciting about it. Part of that is that the Central Avenue, Broadway, Magnolia, and the downtown area, there's money available for private folks to upgrade the exteriors of their buildings. What's exciting is that, you go out on Broadway or Central and buildings are being redone. So what's happened is that our downtown has been so successful, people are looking to go out into different areas.

If you go out Magnolia, there are some really neat apartment buildings. There are some nice—still some very nice homes, though some have burned. There are some great places out on Magnolia. You go out on Magnolia—okay, you have Pellissippi that's invested, then you have a lot of smaller restaurants and retail, fast food places, then you get out to the park. What excites me is as we improve on each of these areas, it builds on what we have in the center of the city, and it makes our neighborhoods grow.

If we can get that momentum out Magnolia, with new businesses. We have several smaller businesses out there where the proprietors are fixing up older buildings. That begins to happen, then some of what I call these disenfranchised neighborhoods, we can start to place some extra emphasis on these neighborhoods. You go out to the park there, and then you come back this way [downtown], there are some voids there that can be looked at, can be worked on. Should the city help? Absolutely.

In terms of infrastructure, one of the things that we've looked at—it's just so expensive, but it's sort of a dream of mine—is if we can get the power lines there, take them down, and bury them and improve the scenic value of that area.

What's important—again, what this all takes is public and private will—we have to identify those areas with absentee landlords, and look to the people that are there to help. I go back to Emory Place, when we moved there, there was a lot of absenteeism, but we had enough businesses there who wanted to improve the area to help out. I think we can do that along these different corridors. It's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take a few brave people who are willing to invest, as long as they know the backing of the city. But as a City Council member, again, I have to remember that the pie is only so big, and we have to decide how to divide it up. If the city will really champion these corridors that lead into our center city, really help to get them going economically, that is going to help the surrounding neighborhoods. So yes, we need to figure a way that we can subsidize the infrastructure in these areas, but, again, the pie is only so big.

Planned Parenthood recently backed out of a move to move to a facility in Bearden following a large and well-organized movement protesting its move there. Now, before I get to the question, let me present two givens so they will not have to be included in your answer. (1) People have every right to protest Planned Parenthood if they feel that what they do is wrong. (2) What Planned Parenthood does is perfectly legal. So should city government have taken a greater role in perhaps mediating this dispute?

Grieve: What I remember from reading about this in the paper is that Planned Parenthood said that this was their decision, and it was supposedly not due to the protestors. But, on the other hand, of course, it did come after the protests. So, let's back up. Number one: Any business has a right to go wherever as long as they follow the codes and the zoning requirements there. So they have a right to go wherever they needed to go. I think, number two, you're right. People have the right to protest. That's our freedom.

The problem you have is that this is such an emotional issue, the whole issue of what Planned Parenthood does. Planned Parenthood apparently needs a larger place to be. Planned Parenthood performs a service for people who need that service. And it's a service that they should be allowed to do, which is something these groups disagree with.

You talk about the intimidation factor in this sort of thing. I think what the city should have done, if it were asked, was gone in and seen what Planned Parenthood needed. The problem is that you don't want the government interfering with private groups and private business.

Now, you had a situation here where Planned Parenthood found a space they wanted to move into. They had a legal right to move there. There were no code problems, no zoning issues. So, what involvement should the city have? Only if they were asked to be involved. I don't want the city involved in my business. I think you have to be really careful with where you get involved and where you don't get involved. That is a situation where the city should be even more careful because you're dealing with a highly emotional issue.

To me I can see both sides. We need to allow people to express their opinions. We also need the services Planned Parenthood provides for those people who want those services. It should be legal. It should be above-board. It should be able to happen. I think the city can only do so much in this type of situation.

An attendee at the August 27 forum expressed some concern that, as she sees it, City Council is too often a "rubber stamp" for mayoral policy. It was a comment that really seemed to resonate with the audience. In your opinion, have what some have categorized as an overly friendly media environment when it comes to the mayor, as well as his family's deep and significant connections, and now his gubernatorial campaign, produced a situation where it is politically difficult for City Council to go against mayoral policy? In other words, is it at all possible that the mayor's too popular for our own good? [Note re: Mayor Haslam's campaign for governor. For whatever it's worth, Duane Grieve is a $250 contributor to the Haslam gubernatorial campaign according to the most recent campaign finance report.]

Grieve: No, I don't. I think number one, the mayor's done a good job. Number two, if you really think about it, we're really fortunate to have someone of his stature and his means that has decided to go into politics. I also think it's fortunate to have a business person in that position.

Would I go against the mayor? Absolutely. I have no problems with that. It doesn't matter if it's you or whether it's Bill Haslam. And if Bill were sitting here, he would know that.

I know that in issues that I've dealt with—for instance the digital billboard issue. Being president of Scenic Knoxville, I dealt with that. And there were council members we went head to head with on that. We did it civilly. We did it respectfully. We knew we disagreed, but we disagreed agreeably.

I think, on Council, you need somebody that not only respects others' opinion, but is willing to say, "Bill, I disagree with you on that. I'm not in favor of that. This is how I feel about this, and here are my reasons." If the mayor or someone on his staff will be upfront, will explain to me why he is taking a position, what the reasons are, and then I can check on them, I will do the same for him. That's what it takes.

I don't think that because he's a Haslam, that that has anything to do with how I feel about an issue. I know the Haslams, and I think they've done a lot for the city. But I think how I feel about a situation will depend on how my constituents feel about that situation and how the residents of the city feel about it. What I hope to do is represent my district or my city on whatever it may be. If I disagree with the mayor, I disagree with the mayor. And we have disagreed on some issues. All you can do is present your side, present your source, and do what you think is right. That is based on your folks, I want to make that clear. Then you put it out on the table and you vote on it. Then you move on.

Now, I'm not entirely sure where this person was coming from. I think the mayor has made it very clear that he's out of these Council races, which he should be. That doesn't mean he can't support somebody quietly, but for him to come out publicly and say, "I approve of these people," would not be right.

I think the mayor has been very successful, but just because he is who he is and has the name that he has, there is some suspicion. Plus the fact that he's running for governor, I think people have some concerns about that.

I do believe that the people I've worked with who surround the mayor are good people. I've disagreed with them, but I think they've done a good job.

Have you seen the Hillside-Ridgetop Task Force's preliminary recommendations? Would you be in support of policies that, in the interest of the long-term benefits of environmental stewardship, might limit a property developer's ability to "maximize" a hill or ridge property?

Grieve: We have got to be able to come up with a balance between property rights and what is good for the city. That balance has got to work, which means we've got to come up with the kinds of ordinances that not only protect the property rights of the individual but also protect the property rights of the whole city.

Our city is surrounded by all these beautiful ridges and hills. Do we want to turn into a Sevierville or Gatlinburg? Do we want to keep doing what's been going on out on Clinton Highway near Callahan where they've just paved down everything? Do we want what has happened out there to continue?

At the same time, we don't want to deny someone the rights to their property and the investment that they've made. They're trying to come up with reasonable things that can be done with a piece of property. This is just like building regulations they have in neighborhoods and downtown areas in cities. So, somehow we have to get a set of ordinances that will protect that individual as well as protect the city. There's got to be that balance.

The other term I use is smart growth. Does it make sense to take a hillside and mow it down to put a 12-story building there? Is that going to aesthetically help that building? We want to have a type of development that enhances the city, enhances the property, and enhances the value of the property. Now, I don't think we should say to someone, "Now, because you're on that ridge, we're not going to let you do anything." That's not going to work.

Where I live, there's a lot next store to me. They can only do certain things on that lot, to begin with. That's what we're doing here. We're saying, "Here's this whole ridge. It's zoned X. In X, you're allowed to do such and such." There's no difference between what they're trying to do, and what we already do inside the city. Say you have a vacant lot in the city that's going to be developed. They have to be set back a certain distance on each side. There's only a certain area they can build. It's got to be a certain height. There has to be a certain relationship between building and green space. So, all you're saying is, how do we develop? How do we go beyond what we already have?

Now I don't know a whole lot about [County Commissioner Greg] Lumpy's [Lambert] project, but if he's zoned agricultural, he can't put a high-rise apartment in there anyway. Now, where you get into trouble is in a situation in which current zoning ordinances would allow someone to build a 30-story building. Then what you need to do is appeal to his senses. Explain smart growth, a good environment. People don't want you to cut down these hills.