citybeat (2006-08)

East Knox residents want a return to their neighborhood’s glory days

Wednesday, Feb. 15

Back in Business

Though Magnolia Avenue is now the main commercial artery of East Knoxville, some people remember when the parallel Martin Luther King Avenue and its intersectors Olive Street, Vine, McCalla, and Ben Hur Avenues, three of which still meet to form what’s labeled “Five Points,” were also bustling with businesses, from the Five Points Candy Factory and the Five Points Shoe Rebuilders to WJBE, a radio station owned by soulmaster James Brown.

In their recent book Images of America: Park City , Becky French Brewer and Douglas Stewart McDaniel write of Easley’s Grocery, which operated in the 1930s on East Vine, “Many homeowners and black-owned businesses like this one did not survive urban renewal.” Today, the once-thriving area is home to a handful of empty, blighted commercial and residential lots, as well as several multi-family housing developments that have fallen into dereliction. However, there’s a new plan of urban renewal on the horizon and, judging from the 150 or so enthusiastic community members who attended the city’s community input meeting last Thursday night at Austin East Magnet School, there still exists a strong sense of community pride and a willingness to get involved in the city’s redevelopment plan.

Metropolitan Planning Commission’s Jeff Archer led the meeting with a slide show of Five Points’ days as a booming business district—grainy photographs of old streetcars and a shot of the infamous crash of 1956 at the old Burlington Speedway. Then he outlined the area of the MLK Corridor Study, which encapsulates what’s considered Park City, stretching from Austin Homes in the west to Holston Court in the east, and Chilhowee Park to the north and Skyline Drive to the south. The actual 1.86-square-mile area that is the focus of redevelopment is in the center of that, enveloping the Five Points and Burlington area of MLK.

MPC’s study of the area is in its infancy, hence the opportunity for community input, but Archer outlined a plan that proposes designating the area with a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay, which would require that new developments stay within the historic character of the neighborhood, and would prescribe preservation of existing historic structures. Also included are traffic calming and safety measures, such as installing roundabouts, similar to those in Fourth and Gill, and speed bumps. Improvement on the area’s many parks, the abundance of which accounts for the name Park City, is also a priority. Of the 430 vacant residential lots and the 22 open commercial lots, Archer said, “There’s a strong correlation between vacancy levels and housing conditions.” Or, as has happened in Fourth and Gill and is beginning to happen in nearby Parkridge, the more vacant houses that are renovated and inhabited, the better the overall condition of the neighborhood.

Another part of the proposal is to increase the number of single-family homeowners in the area. Archer said it’s been suggested that the redevelopment boundaries be broadened to include Walter P. Taylor Homes, a rundown multi-family development. However, that idea struck up some controversy in a group discussion after the presentation, when attendees were broken down into smaller groups to give their input. “We need more single-family residents in East Knoxville,” Margaret Gaiter, a lifelong resident of the area, said. “They want to change every neighborhood out here into duplexes and apartments, but if you don’t start preserving single-family housing, these group homes are going to take over our neighborhoods.”

On the other hand, young resident Betty Blackman said, “To me that’s just another way to get rid of public housing. Those residents will end up being displaced. The problem is that they don’t give people substantial housing to live in…I think it’s a trick question.”

Blackman wasn’t the only community member to voice skepticism. Murmurs of distrust—“It doesn’t matter what we say. They’re going to do what they want.”—were often heard, muttered under breath.

Also, though it’s heartening to see the city soliciting community input in any form, there was obvious miscommunication between the citizens and the representative of East Tennessee Community Design Center who was guiding this particular group. Questions like, “When is this going to happen?”, “How will it affect me and my property?”, and “How much is this going to cost?” were forefront on the minds of frustrated attendees, but only provoked vague answers from the design representative. Vice Mayor and City Councilman Mark Brown, who’s entrenched in the redevelopment plan, said of individual concerns, “You have to do it on a case-by-case basis. Plans are just that—plans, and you have to sit down and figure out who they are going to impact.”

Brown said the initial proposal area was “determined by commonality of housing stock, income, common needs, as well as human and financial resources.” The area is centered around Five Points, and the plan is intended to establish the intersection itself as well as the neighborhood boundaries with flags similar to those in Old North Knoxville and Fourth and Gill, or monuments like those in Fort Sanders. “At one point, [the intersection] was the focal point of the area, so we would be reinstating that historic sense of community,” said Brown. “It’s my hope that in the next few years, that area will see a vast improvement.”

Though parts of the plan seem far off, others are already getting off the ground. Brown points out that the Walter Hardy buildings are currently being renovated for a future inhabitant, the Tennessee Conference Community Development Corp., which will aid in building new housing in the area. Most noticeable, though, is the completion of a brand new shopping center at Five Points, which includes a Wells Fargo Home Mortgage office, a Fast Gas filling station and a grocery store called Metro Village Market, slated to open mid-March.

The city’s director of Community Development, Renee Kessler, who was instrumental in the grocery store effort, was optimistic about the future of the area. “I haven’t had a chance to digest the information (culled from community members) at the meeting yet, but clearly some of the main issues we need to address are crime and safety and also commercial amenities,” she said. “Of course, there are residential areas where you don’t want to put commercial. You want to have a clear commercial corridor that’s accessible to the neighborhoods.”

On the issue of Walter P. Taylor Homes, Kessler said, “We are aware that we need to address the problems there, and a lot of that comes down to resources. But we absolutely can’t go about redevelopment of that area without addressing that.” She said KCDC is currently exploring options there, and Brown said he’d like to see it addressed “in the same manner that it happened with Hope VI (a recent KCDC project in Mechanicsville that turned a multi-family development into single family residences), as far as commercial and residential development.”

Eddie Davis, a concerned community member speaking conspiratorially off to the side of the group, would be in favor of such a development. “You have to get to the root of the problem, which is poverty. You shouldn’t lump all the poor people together, you should disperse them throughout the neighborhood, but provide them with quality housing. Otherwise, it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a cancer,” he said. “That’s been the city’s answer since slavery, to build cheap housing and put poor people in it. The projects have now outlived their usefulness.”

However, Kessler is wary of jumping too quickly on the idea of doing away with Walter P. Taylor and other multi-family units. “Home ownership can be a reality for some people, and we want to help them achieve that,” she said. “But some people aren’t able to or don’t want to own homes. Multi-family housing is not necessarily a bad thing. Our job is making sure they have quality housing.”

Kessler is heartened by what she called the “myriad of resources” available for the total plan. For starters, last year’s city budget put $160,000 toward Burlington/Five Points redevelopment. Also expected are federal empowerment zone funds available to MPC and federal Housing and Urban Development resources.

Though several areas of East Knoxville could stand some rehabilitation, Kessler explained that the Five Points area is the focus for now. “I think it’s really important to value our inner-city communities, because they are our diamonds in the rough,” she said. “So we’re trying to add a little sparkle to that diamond, and that’s why it’s so important to have a focal point, to have something that people can see and hold onto and identify with the community.”


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