citybeat (2006-27)

KCDC draws up an agreement that should put the McClung Warehouses on a fast track to redevelopment

Nothing doing at UT’s Kingston Towers

Wednesday, June 28

The McClung Saga Continues

The June 29 meeting of Knoxville Community Development Corporation’s Board of Commissioners may have been a step toward resolving the fate of the rundown McClung Warehouse buildings on West Jackson Ave. But no one can be sure.

“Things aren’t ironclad, where we can walk away and say, ‘yeah, this is taken care of,’” says KCDC executive director Alvin Nance. “We’re dealing with an individual who has had reasons not to complete work on the buildings before. But we’re hopeful.”

The individual he’s talking about is Mark Saroff, owner of the cluster of buildings known collectively as the McClung Warehouses. Saroff, who began purchasing the dilapidated buildings on the 500 block of West Jackson in the early 1990s, is now at the center of a redevelopment controversy. While the city has put ever-increasing pressure on him to improve the condition of the buildings—which many regard as a notable eyesore to motorists passing through downtown on Interstate 40—Saroff has continually reiterated his plan to redevelop them, yet has taken relatively few steps to do so.

At the June 29 board meeting, KCDC commissioners voted to draw up development agreements on three properties in the Jackson Depot Redevelopment Zone that fall short of meeting the redevelopment zone’s blight-remediation standards. In addition to Saroff’s buildings, agreements will also be drawn up for developer David Dewhirst’s building at 310 Depot, and Wahid and Samia Hanna’s property at 129 South Gay.

The development agreements, which according to Nance will lay out plans and timelines formulated in discussions between KCDC and the property owners, will be issued this week. Nance says Saroff will have between 90 and 120 days, beginning the day he signs his agreement, to remediate the aspects of visual blight laid out therein. Nance says Saroff must perform roof repairs, replace numerous broken windows, and finish filling in a hole at the rear of the McClung buildings to comply.

Saroff’s attorney Mark Siegel refused to speak to a Metro Pulse reporter who called seeking comment on the pending development agreement.

In the past, Saroff has considered, but ultimately rejected, several potential partnerships that might have brought McClung redevelopment to fruition. Most recently, he reportedly considered selling out to local developer Kenn Davin, but backed out at the eleventh hour. Davin says it was he who earlier this year had begun filling in the gaping hole (now mostly fixed) at the rear of buildings, but that he ceased work when Saroff changed his mind about the sale. Davin has said he filed a lien on the property based on $60,000 to $100,000 worth of brickwork for which Saroff has yet to repay him.

While it has been suggested that KCDC might seek to wrest the property from Saroff via eminent domain, KCDC Chief Development Officer Dan Tiller said at the board meeting that, “we have no desire to file eminent domain at this time.” He did say the development agreement would require Saroff to adhere to “aggressive timelines.”

Once Saroff has completed the aspects of visual blight remediation laid out in the development agreement, Nance says he will have 90 days to submit a viable reuse plan. To date, Saroff has indicated that he would like to turn the warehouses into a residential development of some sort, possibly with retail space on the ground floors.

Should Saroff hedge in signing the development agreement, or fail to meet the timelines it lays out, Nance says KCDC will “have to look at soliciting another developer.”

For the moment, however, eminent domain isn’t on the table. “We just want to keep this moving,” Nance says. “It sounds like it could be a win-win situation. We have the individual who is the original owner still involved. We just need an agreement that holds everyone’s feet to the fire.”

The Big Empty

After 40 years of continuous operation, the 240 apartments at the Kingston Towers, which once housed many of UT’s graduate and married students, are now completely empty.

“We had a notice about seven months ago,” Ashley Snell recalls. His mother had been living in the tower while she finished her degree. “Seven months was ample time to move out,” he goes on. “It was clean. It was safe. I really can’t say anything negative.”

The “mass exodus,” as the building’s current manager, Donice Knight, calls it, has come after university housing decided to sell the building earlier this year. “It would be more cost-effective to sell it,” says Ken Stoner, executive director of University Housing, “so a developer could use it, perhaps for slightly different purposes.” There’s no telling what the future may hold for this behemoth. But, according to many employed by UT housing, the building has not gone completely unnoticed by developers.

You’ll find the giant 20-story apartment building perched on the corner of Kingston Pike and Alcoa Highway. Its red brick exterior seems out of place; its size overwhelming. Perhaps the gigantic building hasn’t aged well in a part of town that acts as a gateway into Knoxville’s sophisticated Sequoyah Hills neighborhood. It’s Communist Revival in style, so it was aesthetically challenged from the beginning, as its designers focused on practicality, the architectural equivalent of putting form well under function. In the ’60s, residents dubbed it the “Tide Box” and the “giant cereal box.” Others just thought it was plumb ugly.

A few years after its construction, a dangerous shower of brick and mortar fell onto the parking lots, an early hint that the building’s designers might not have been as devoted to practicality as they let on. More recently, foreign students, those who typically don’t have cars, have complained of the dangers of crossing five lanes of traffic on Kingston Pike, without a convenient crosswalk, just to reach the bus stop.

And, in 2003, Metro Pulse placed the building on its “Tear It Down” list.

At the turn of the millennium, University Housing had big plans for the tower and surrounding area. The university’s long-range plan included a complete renovation of the Kingston Towers. It wasn’t going to be cheap. Six years later, after delaying renovation efforts in both 2003 and ’04, a comprehensive estimate predicted that more than $9 million would be needed to revamp the entire building.

“That was an estimate that was put together to do everything,” Stoner says. “What would it take to get the building up to par for the next 20 years? What would it take to put it in essentially new condition?” Kingston Towers needed more than $300,000 in parking garage repairs; just under $1 million in elevator maintenance; and $2 million to upgrade the heating and air system. Roof, window and furniture replacement, as well as asbestos abatement, added another $3 million to the estimate. What they didn’t plan on, however, was the enormous cost of bringing the stairwells up to code, which would involve several million dollars more.

“I think it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” Knight says. “The budget’s back, I guess.”

“It came to the point where we were picking and choosing from a smorgasbord of options,” Stoner adds. “Another unit or entity might be able to structure their options differently, to obtain a more favorable financial outlook. It’ll be a substantial investment for somebody, but there’s been quite an interest in it.”

The bidding will not officially open until Sept. 8, according to the UT director of real estate administration, Robbi Stivers. “It gives the property enough time to be properly advertised,” Stivers says. “It’s my understanding that there have been a lot of inquiries.”

There have also been many rumors as to the fate of the building, ranging from complete renovation to total demolition. If the building is torn down, it’ll mark one of the largest demolition projects in Knoxville history.

So far, a baker’s dozen of potential buyers have toured the property. “I had a potential buyer from Georgia today,” Knight says enthusiastically.

“The good thing about that area is that it’s like the center of the universe,” says Sam Furrow, the auctioneer who restored the old downtown post office and federal court building, as well as Tyson Place adjacent to the Kingston Towers. “There’s a lot of accessibility there. But it’s ugly.”

Kingston Towers are now empty, waiting for the next big thing. Many of its tenants have moved westward to the Sutherland and Golf Range Apartments, which are part of the University Housing system.


Wednesday, June 28

Thursday, June 29

Friday, June 30

Saturday, July 1

Sunday, July 2

Monday, July 3

Tuesday, July 4