citybeat (2006-18)

Part of the old neighborhood considers conservation zoning

Stop Your Salivating

The third annual Market Square Farmers’ Market returns this week

Wednesday, April 26

The Battle of Sequoyah Hills

In the face of changing times, a portion of one of Knoxville’s most changeless neighborhoods is contemplating “neighborhood conservation” zoning.

The NC-1 overlay proposed for 76 parcels in Sequoyah Hills is the lightest of the overlay-zoning categories considered by the Historic Zoning Commission, and it is already in place in three other Knoxville neighborhoods. The Metropolitan Planning Commission and the Kingston Pike/Sequoyah Hills Neighborhood Organization have been discussing a Scenic Drive Conservation District—a somewhat gerrymanderish, hook-shaped section that also includes Blows Ferry road—for about three years and, according to MPC officials, until recent weeks, response has been overwhelmingly supportive.

But 11th-hour opposition threatens to undermine the proposal, if not scuttle it entirely. The matter will come before City Council on Tuesday evening, and no one is confident about the outcome then—or, if altered by a proposed compromise, at the HZC meeting that will follow sometime later.

As election-season yard signs attest, these tree-shaded streets mask deep divisions. Though it has an exclusive old-money reputation, the peninsula known as Sequoyah Hills is home to nearly 4,000 Knoxvillians, both owners and renters. Many Sequoyah Hillians like the idea of a conservation overlay; quite a few don’t. This week, some parties are suggesting that a compromise is in the works.

The NC-1 document as approved by the Historic Zoning Commission on Jan. 19 calls for several basic architectural guidelines preserving the neighborhood’s character; additions are allowed, but are to be built in such a way that they can be removed by future owners. Demolitions would have to be approved by the HZC. Each house is “a physical record of its time,” the draft states. The HZC would have to grant each major repair or addition job a “certificate of appropriateness.”

The document makes no demands about paint color or specific architectural styles. But in repairs or additions, specifically banned are exposed plywood, vinyl or aluminum siding, exposed concrete blocks, and “snap-in grid windows.”

It’s mostly a straightforward document, but at one point its tone takes a paternal turn: “The owners of properties along Scenic Drive own a piece of history that is important now and will be more important over time, and that speaks to the architecture of the mid-20th century and to suburban expansion and development in Knoxville. Many of the neighborhood’s buildings are older than the people who own them.... As property owners consider making changes to their buildings, they should be aware that those changes will either enhance the history of the neighborhood, or destroy it.”

The draft also outlines the zone’s sometimes-surprising history. Though Sequoyah Hills was developed mostly in the 1920s and ’30s, one house on Scenic is an antebellum farmhouse. Stories connected to the houses cite residents ranging from mayor and Dumpster-inventor George Dempster to rock ’n’ roll pioneers the Everly Brothers. One house was the backdrop for a broadcast by NBC’s Willard Scott, another the focus of an FBI investigation, due to its proliferation of red poppies spotted in a fly-over.

Some might assume that Sequoyah Hills already has some kind of protective zoning, because most of it looks the way places with protective zoning are supposed to look. On its best-known streets, there’s little or no aluminum siding, no trailers, no cinderblocks, and there are lots and lots of big trees. The proposal sounds like it’s trying to make Sequoyah Hills look like Sequoyah Hills. For that reason, some have questioned its necessity.

Spearheading the effort is longtime resident Nancy Bills, a former realtor who has served on the board of the neighborhood association for about a decade. “I’ve lived here for 40 years. I have children, grandchildren here. I’d like to see it remain lovely, established-looking.” Though Sequoyah Hills is famous for its constancy, market forces are bringing unprecedented pressures on the old neighborhood.

The fight against a cell tower in the neighborhood and against the subdivision of a parcel on Cherokee Boulevard, Bills says, were costly in time and money. “We don’t have time to go down to the Board of Zoning Appeals every month” to oppose every developer’s questionable project. “And if we don’t, it’s passed.”

Land values in the neighborhood have skyrocketed in recent years, prompting developers to consider building multiple houses on a single lot, or building sizeable houses on lots that would previously have seemed too small to support a house. Bills acknowledges that the unexpected approval of one such house, at the intersection of Scenic and Cherokee Boulevard, helped convince some neighbors that stronger standards may be necessary just to keep the neighborhood intact. 

“I think as the values increase, we’ll be more apt to have tear-downs and megamansions,” she says. “The lots in some cases are more valuable than the houses. And new houses typically sell by the square-foot. The bigger the house, the bigger the profit.”

Speculators may favor a place to sell over a place to live. One neighbor recalls a recent case in which a real-estate speculator took advantage of a prospective foreclosure near the Scenic Drive zone to make a power bid on the property; as he did so, he casually announced to the neighbor his intentions to clear the yard of its large trees because, in his experience elsewhere in East Tennessee, “houses without trees always sell better.” (In that case, the original owner was able to recover the property before the chainsaws arrived.) 

Kenneth Hall, who’s leading the opposition, is a Scenic Drive resident, but answers the phone at “Total Demolition Services,” a firm off Lovell Road.

He says he became aware of the NC-1 proposal only in February, after the HZC approved its terms, but has found that many of his neighbors also oppose it; he claims that of the 76 lots under consideration, at least 31 landowners oppose the proposal. A few are neutral. “We think it should require a substantial majority” to pass NC-1, he says.

Hall says he favors a plan in which “those who want to be in the overlay can be in it, and those who want to opt out, can.” He seems most resistant to the architectural restrictions but says his people are OK with some of the document’s bare-bones provisions, like the promise not to carve up lots for multiple houses; they can also live with a ban on vinyl siding or exposed cinderblocks.

He expects the proposal that will be presented to City Council on Tuesday will include his compromise.

Hall makes it sound like a solution that everyone can live with. Ann Bennett, who facilitates historic-preservation issues for the MPC, hasn’t seen Hall’s compromise, but she says these opt-out options can end up undermining the whole thing.

“We don’t want this to look like Swiss cheese,” she says. If City Council passes it, the Historic Zoning Commission may not, if it determines the pro-NC-1 factions don’t have enough coherent acreage to pass for a “zone.”

Bennett chooses her words carefully, but seems frustrated at the unexpected opposition. “The commission is concerned that this discussion of what the overlay really means and what it does came so late in the process.”

Bills emphasizes that this is a conservation zone, not a historic overlay. “We’re not talking about paint,” she says, citing a familiar exaggeration. Bills claims that opposition is largely made up of owners of “empty lots, rental properties, and houses on the market,” including Hall, whose house is for sale.

Many are watching closely, especially in the neighborhood. The Scenic overlay is only the first of five vigorous Sequoyah efforts currently underway. Others are in the Nokomis area, around Hillvale, the Glenfield/Kenilworth blocks, and along part of Kingston Pike.

Stop Your Salivating

In its third year as an organization, the Market Square Farmers’ Market is expanding its wares yet again to cater to Knoxville’s growing crowd of conscientious consumers. Director Charlotte Tolley, who can also be found working at both Bliss locations on Market Square, is excited about this year’s prospects. “We’re going to have arts and crafts at every market this year as opposed to the second Saturdays of the month we had last year,” she says. “Also, we’re starting a month earlier, so we’ll be able to offer more plants, herbs and vegetables. We’ll also have meat, eggs and honey at those early markets.”

Another change this year will be the Wednesday market, which coincided with happy hour last year but will shift to lunch hour (11 a.m. until 2 p.m.) this season. “We felt like it was a busier time on the square,” says Tolley. “You talk to downtown employees and they want to get home after work, but they have more time to wander around during lunch, so we wanted to capture that crowd.”

Once growing season is in full swing, the market offers all of the aforementioned products as well as an array of produce, such as multi-colored heirloom tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, squash varieties, corn, onions, potatoes, herbs and more. Tolley cites a myriad of reasons to shop the Farmers’ Market. “It’s supporting a local economy, literally, from the ground up,” she says. “It’s keeping our community more self-sufficient rather than relying on big companies…. Something that isn’t even organic but that is locally grown is actually more ‘green’ because it hasn’t been shipped from California. Also, you’re supporting local farmers. And it’s just fresher.”

While obviously benefiting from the influx of people on the Square, a few Market Square restaurants also incorporate that fresh produce into their menus when possible. “Last year, we did most of our carrots and tomatoes and other salad stuff there,” says Hossein Ghodrat, owner of Market Square Kitchen. “Whenever we can we like to support the local community…. It’s doing great business for us, so we’re happy to see it start up again.”

Many customers flock to the meat vendors first. The Market’s main meat vendor, though not yet technically organically certified, does follow all the organic, free-range guidelines, says Tolley. “It actually tastes very different from what you would get at the supermarket. It has a more whole food flavor,” she says. “You’re so used to tasting additives, and this is much fresher, because they’ve butchered it much more recently.”

The Market officially begins this Saturday, May 6, 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., but don’t expect to sink your teeth into those ripe tomatoes just yet. Because it’s all naturally grown in East Tennessee, the variety depends on the growing season. Still, Tolley says many regular customers are already salivating with anticipation. “We’ve added vendors every year and we definitely have a stable customer base,” she says. “As soon as the weather gets warm, people start asking me when it’s going to start. I’m like, it’s just now gotten warm. Things have to grow!”

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, April 26

Thursday, April 27

Friday, April 28

Saturday, April 29

Sunday, April 30

Monday, May 1

Tuesday, May 2