citybeat (2006-06)

A will governs the fate of the last big greenfield on Kingston Pike

South Knox waterfront plan unveiled

Wednesday, Feb. 1

Selling the Farm

For years, commercial Kingston Pike has been bisected by a large green swath on either side of Cedar Bluff Road. The 45 acres stands out conspicuously on that stretch of Kingston Pike, otherwise dominated by the asphalt and signage of one strip mall after another. The interstate-exit commercial corridor of Cedar Bluff Road swerves sharply east to Peters Road, avoiding the old farm which has not been for sale since the Roosevelt administration.

The tract has been known to frustrated developers for decades as the McMurry property. It was once the home and farm of Mrs. Kaptola McMurry and her husband, A.R. McMurry; Mrs. McMurry owned it outright after the death of her husband A.R. McMurry, half a century ago.

Mrs. McMurry died in December at the age of 105. Mrs. McMurry was a devout Presbyterian, and childless. After the usual payment of personal debts and about $100,000 in specific personal gifts, the will commands that the remainder of her multi-million-dollar estate go to the First Presbyterian Church.

Though the Knox County Property Assessor’s office appraises the value of the property at only about $4.2 million, some have estimated the greenfield property might sell on the commercial market for as much as $20 million. Others privately suspect the value of Kingston Pike commercial property has peaked, as west-side commercial development has concentrated in Turkey Creek and elsewhere. TDOT requirements for accessing this may cost as much as half a million. But the transfer will certainly be a boon to the downtown church, and will affect commercial patterns in the Cedar Bluff area.

The oldest church in Knoxville, “First Church” is downtown, at the corner of Church and State. Mrs. McMurry was a member of First Presbyterian late in life, in the 1970s and ’80s. In March, 1985, she wrote her will, appointing a committee of church officers to “oversee, invest, and manage the Memorial Fund” on behalf of the church.

But 21 years is a long time. Of those three church officers named in 1985, one, Bill Tate, is now retired and spends most of his year in Florida. The youngest, attorney Dan Holbrook, is no longer a member of the church, and says he does not think it would be appropriate to represent the church on the committee. The third is one Elliott Kane.

Now in his 80s and reportedly no longer a regular attendee of the church, Kane is known to friend and foe as an eccentric. A former ad man given to extravagant gestures, he has most famously become an advocate of a philosophy of development for “vehicleans,” i.e., those who choose not to be pedestrians. Kane was said to be one of Mrs. McMurry’s closest associates in her later years—he called himself her “agent.” Kane caused a stir about four years ago touting the use of the land as an extravagant development with automobile-accessible high-rise buildings called the “Center Place of America.”

With an eye on the Center Place goal, Kane has resisted, on Mrs. McMurry’s behalf, numerous attempts to develop the property in strip-mall or Big Box fashion, but has also resisted mixed-use town-center proposals recommended by the Metropolitan Planning Commission.

Kane himself owns none of the land, though, and is not a beneficiary of the will, but will be a force to be reckoned with, as one of only two committee members charged with the disposition of the property. However, by the terms of the will, the church’s Session—a council of elders—has equal authority with the committee. And according to church polity, the Session has final authority on all financial matters.

The fate of Center Place of America, which maintains an office at 211 Cedar Bluff Road, is unclear. Stan Moore, who describes himself as “property manager,” though the business presently has no formal connection to the property, offers no comment while the will is still in probate.

Whether the church will sell the land to the highest bidder, or try to influence its fate in a positive way—or deal with Elliott’s “Center Place”—is unclear at this early stage. Realtor Wallace McClure, an elder in the church, says, “I think the Session will be very, very responsible. The Session will have a feel for doing, one, Mrs. McMurry’s will and, two, God’s will.”

He cites the “powerful” wording of the unusually religious will, which opens, “IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN:”.

Though the will stipulates that proceeds are strictly not to be used for “any routine church expenses ordinarily found as part of the annual church budget,” one clause is headed “Actual Uses Yet to be Determined”; in it, Mrs. McMurry states that “I intend to express only general guidelines and priorities....”

The priorities as described are something like a time capsule of the church’s specific concerns in 1985, especially in the priorities Mrs. McMurry outlined for the use of her fortune. Of McMurry’s chief priorities, “ample and convenient parking” was number one, and prevention of “unsightly or offensive development on land across from the church property” was number two.

Parking is no longer a complaint at First Presbyterian. In 1988, the church added a large multi-level parking garage. The “unsightly or offensive development” may be a reference to some shabby mechanics’ shops which were removed about 20 years ago for the construction of the garage; but the church is still across the street from a surface parking lot, a couple of decaying apartment buildings, and the county-owned demolition site once occupied by the News-Sentinel building.

Number three mentions “improvements or additions to the church building”—perhaps another reference to needs met with a major addition to the church built soon after McMurry drew up the will.

Mrs. McMurry’s priority number five was “Evangelization ministries, including broadcast ministries.” In the 1980s, the church’s minister was the charismatic Robert Ferguson, the photogenic, mellifluously broguish Scot whose televised services brought the church an unaccustomed degree of attention. The church, presently between chief pastors, is no longer televised, and has no plans to resume that. However, associate pastor Paul Rader says that might be interpreted to enhance the church’s outreach to the downtown community, especially to the disadvantaged.

Priority number four, “Non-routine maintenance,” may be the one priority most clearly relevant to the 21st century; the church could use a new roof.

Take Me to the River

The South Knox waterfront plan presented Feb. 2 at the Kerbela Shriners Temple certainly looked promising, laying out a three-mile riverside stretch between Scottish Pike and Island Home to be reconfigured over 20 years with a mixture of public and private development. But while its bold strokes impressed, the presentation’s lack of supporting detail left open questions of how realistic the plan is, and how the city will foot its portion of the bill.

The city’s chief operating officer Dave Hill says that, despite the lack of specifics on the project’s implementation, the plan proposed by consultants Hargreaves Associates wasn’t conceived in a vacuum. “They (Hargreaves) have done market studies,” Hill says. “I’m sure they’ve done the math as to what kind of revenues will be realized to maintain the balance of amenities. [The plan] is not just based on intuition. There was an ongoing process of weighing what was going into the plan against what was realistic.”

In summary, the waterfront plan encompasses three geographic areas—downriver, near the quarry; midriver, around the Gay Street Bridge; and upriver, near the James White Parkway—to be developed in stages over 20 years, with progress laid out according to intervals of zero to five years, zero to 10 years, and zero to 20. Some of its more significant features include conversion of the South Knox quarry to an outdoor recreation center; creation of a “boat house row” along the riverbank; a riverside promenade; a mid-river belvedere; a Discovery Center; a river arboretum; a festival lawn near the Parkway; as well as a diverse menu of private residential and commercial developments.

But while both city officials and Hargreaves consultants stress that much of the plan will be market driven, it will, as presented, still require some significant public outlays over the 20-year period of development. That may not bode well for the immediate future, given that the Bill Haslam mayoral regime is still working to resolve debt left over from the previous administration.

With the budget for fiscal ‘06-’07 already in the planning stages, Hill admits that short-term funding for implementation may be a thorny issue, given the timing and the city’s current financial state. “There may not be time to get implementation funding in the capital budget this year,” he says. “We are caught a little bit between a rock and a hard place.”

The saving grace, says Hill, is a pending $5.1 million federal allocation for transportation improvements along Blount and Sevier Avenues, to be disbursed over five years. The money requires matching funds from the city of 20 percent, meaning an additional $255,000 in local monies in addition to the annual $1.02 million in federal outlays. Though the federal money was earmarked for Blount and Sevier Avenues, Hill believes the funds can be used broadly for other transportation projects, including components of the waterfront plan such as the proposed riverwalk.

Hill says those federal dollars will help as the city funds relatively modest but highly visible elements such as the riverwalk and the belvedere over the first five years of redevelopment, thereby drumming up private sector interest, first in residential and then commercial development.

“They’re telling us that in that first five years the market will be at the river’s edge,” Hill says. “The strategy is to go after key visual areas so people see something is happening. That way, hopefully, we can encourage development on Blount and Sevier with less in the way of immediate public funds.”

Another question raised by the Hargreaves plan is how the city will navigate issues of property ownership along the redevelopment zone. Many elements of the plan call for new development over top of existing structures on private property—a bell tower walkway, for instance, complementing the existing bell tower in the upriver zone, and which would run through the property owned by Holston Gas, which at present is conspicuously crowded with heavy industrial gas tanks.

But Hill says Hargreaves consultants did their homework, interviewing all of the relevant property owners prior to formulating their plan. And while some of those issues have yet to be wholly resolved, he doesn’t believe eminent domain will play a role in waterfront redevelopment.

“This is going to be a market-driven plan, and using eminent domain is not on the table,” he says. “We want to provide compelling financial incentives. The plan does show many industrial uses of that land going by the wayside, but there will be many strategies to achieve that end. I don’t think eminent domain will be a solution.”

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, Feb. 1

Thursday, Feb. 2

Friday, Feb. 3

Saturday, Feb. 4

Sunday, Feb. 5

Monday, Feb. 6

Tuesday, Feb. 7