Demolition by Any Other Name
Shades of orange are tainted by shades of gray when it comes to Gameday’s Maplehurst presence
Downtown cinema project approaches target opening date without contracts
Wednesday, Feb. 22
Demolition by Any Other Name
At around 2 a.m. last Wednesday, a fire was reported on the outskirts of Maplehurst—the quaint, quiet neighborhood between UT and downtown, perched on a bluff overlooking the river. The structure in question was a canvas-colored apartment building by the train tracks on West Hill. It was unoccupied, with windows that had been boarded up for several years; it was shrouded in a tangle of weeds and trash. The fire was the work of a vagrant.
By mid-morning, the still-standing façade had been razed by a bulldozer, a spectacle witnessed mostly by firemen, one local news team, and a handful of curious neighbors. In the afternoon, it began to rain, and the pile of blackened debris steamed briefly with the stench of charbroiled plastic.
It was a seemingly unremarkable death. The building would’ve been torn down eventually anyway, to make room for Phase II of the neighborhood’s Gameday development project. The Riverfront Club, as it will be called, promises a luxury sports condominium complex roughly twice the size of its neighboring predecessor, the Philip Fulmer Building. A preliminary watercolor rendering, included in the sales brochure, reveals a five-plus story elliptical-shaped structure replete with a Club Lounge. Individual balconies feature orange awnings and, according to the brochure, “spectacular views of the Tennessee River and Neyland Stadium.”
Other buildings in the Maplehurst area, encompassing an eclectic hodgepodge of architectural styles, seem small in comparison. But they boast other advantages, namely character and history. The now pile of sticks on West Hill, for instance, was so-called the “Coach House” because it was reportedly built in the late 1800s as a coach house for the later-demolished Mead Mansion. It was converted into a apartment building around 1932 and became primarily a student residence in the ’60s.
The building was never, however, granted historic-register standing. In a May 2003 Metro Pulse cover story, Gameday owner Gary Spillers, who had acquired that property along with a great deal of the Maplehurst neighborhood in 2000, explained that the denial was due to its distance from Maplehurst proper and alterations from its original state. “They said there was no way to get a historical designation on that,” he said.
Not being on the historic register also gave Gameday the option of either rehabbing the original building or tearing it down and starting from scratch—the latter being the company’s ultimate decision. But Cathie Bleyler, manager of Knoxville’s Gameday properties, says they were hoping to at least salvage some of its historic tiles and doorways. “This wasn’t how we were hoping it would happen,” she says. “It was just so old, it went up like matchsticks.”
Spillers, who has overseen Gameday projects in six other Southeastern cities from his office in Atlanta, declined to comment, indicating that someone else had taken over the Knoxville project. He refused to give that person or company’s name, saying that he’d pass the message on but to not expect a prompt reply. When asked to mark the message urgent, Spillers replied, “He doesn’t care. He’s slow doing anything.”
Some sources suggest that Spiller’s “he” may be Place Properties, the Atlanta-based student-housing developer that is responsible for Knoxville Place, the 12-story, 219-unit Fort Sanders apartment complex that towers above the UT law school. Kristopher Kendrick, who owns a 1929 Spanish-style apartment building on the Maplehurst cul-de-sac, says five gentlemen from the company approached him with an offer, which he turned down. “It’s just not for sale,” he explains. “They could not understand something not being for sale, no matter what price. Nobody can understand why I won’t sell, but it’s good property and it represents what we do, saving the goodies.”
Place Properties did not return MP ’s phone call, but Robert Harrill, secretary of the UT Foundation that was a partner in the Knoxville Place development, confirmed that the foundation had been approached by Place Properties about the Gameday project. “But for now, it’s all talk. You never know; it could happen, but it may not happen at all. It’s all so early, they might be talking to other people as well,” he says.
Regardless of who’s heading it up, the Gameday development is certainly progressing at a slower pace than originally anticipated. In 2003, Dee Canizales, then-manager of Knoxville’s Gameday properties, told MP they expected to break ground on Phase II by the end of the year, and said that the 34-unit Riverfront Club was already half sold.
Since then, rumors of financial difficulties have been circulating, leading some to conclude that the latter phase of the plan was being aborted. Bleyler denies those claims and says that sales are “pretty good, actually.” As for the delay, “there’s just lots of paperwork. I wish it would start tomorrow.” As of now, however, there is no set date to begin work on Phase II.
Meanwhile, several other buildings, mostly rimming the western cul-de-sac in Maplehurst proper, sit vacant. A few are boarded up, but others have broken out or missing windows and are easily accessible to vagrants. Bleyler says she’s under the impression that they’re on the Historic Register, as many of them hail from the 1920s, and that Gameday, being unable to tear them down, is planning on gutting them and rehabbing them as condos after Phase II is completed.
MPC senior planner Ann Bennett says that at one time, they were eligible for H1 (historic overlay) or NC1(neighborhood conservation overlay) designation; however, none are presently registered. In the case of districts with multiple—50, 60 or more—individual owners, Bennett explains such a designation could be majority-forced, but, “With Gameday owning as much of Maplehurst as they do, I think they’d need to consent before an H1 would be adopted.”
Without historic designation, property owners are subject only to codes enforcement and cannot be held liable for demolition by neglect—a violation that might’ve been applied to the Coach House or, in the future, other Gameday properties if they continue their decline. “It may be historic, but if it isn’t designated, there’s no legal avenue to use the demolition-by-neglect legislation,” Bennett says.
The few buildings in Maplehurst that are not owned by Gameday, however, look forward to a brighter, perhaps less orange-hued fate. Kendrick expects the Kristopher to stay in his family for generations to come“[The Kristopher] is in excellent shape, new roof…they just don’t build buildings like that anymore,” he explains. As for the Gameday project, Kendrick says he’ll stand his ground but doesn’t intend to stand in the way. “I can’t keep them from building some big, ugly building, but I might as well be a good neighbor.”
But everyone allows that they’re “close.”
“We’re still negotiating,” says Blasius. The 500 block RFPs he submitted along with Craig and Eid last year call for the partnership to purchase—for a yet-undisclosed sum—and redevelop the old S&W Cafeteria building at 516-518 South Gay Street, the Knaffl Brothers/Athletic House building at 520, and the WROL/Central House Hotel building at 522.
“It’s close to being ripe, but it’s not there yet. It’s the city’s deal, so it’s their call to make an announcement.”
Blasius allows that he and his partners have probably found the anchor tenant for their portion of the 500-block development—almost certainly a restaurant, since that’s what their RFPs call for among the ground-floor commercial spaces surrounding the proposed eight-screen cinema.
“We have several tenants in mind, although we’re not yet trying to secure any for some of the smaller spaces,” he says. “The anchor restaurant is our first focus.”
City officials are even less forthcoming than Blasius, on both the cinema deal and the restaurant/redevelopment component. While acknowledging that the contract with Regal is still in negotiation, Knoxville senior policy director Bill Lyons maintains that “we’re still on the same [time] model we were before” for a November opening.
Senior finance director Chris Kinney, however, says “We’re trying to get it there [for a November opening], but it’s going to be tight.”
For his part, Blasius expects the non-cinema components to proceed well ahead of schedule. “We feel good about the timing,” he says. “The RFP calls for the exteriors to be finished by the time of the theater opening, and we plan to be way past that point. We may even have some things open before then.”
Blasius says he isn’t worried about the theater opening, either; he notes that “they’re already digging footers on the site, so that’s a good thing. It looks to be in good shape.”
On the off chance that the theater opening misses the target date, Blasius says the rest of the development won’t suffer. “I’m a downtown guy, and I’d like to see the cinema open yesterday. But if it misses November, will it be a problem for what we’re doing? No, not at all.”
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