citybeat (2006-46)

Near downtown, Courtland Group tries something different

Wednesday, Nov. 8

Affordable Condos?

The downtown-housing boom over the last five years has been astonishing to many, but equally astonishing to some are the asking prices. In fact, the number of buyers accounting for the phenomenon is actually a small, affluent minority of the city’s population. Most Knoxvillians aren’t buying downtown, in part, because most can’t afford to.

Some developers are looking outside of the CBID to make downtown housing more affordable by expanding our definition of downtown.

If Jeffrey Nash has his way, downtown’s trend will jump over the interstate and move up North Central, an area dominated by decaying commercial and industrial properties, empty parking lots, and rubble. Through his company, the Courtland Group, Nash has acquired the large stone-and-block building at 912 North Central. It represents a departure from the downtown-condo model not only because it’s outside of the modern-day definition of downtown, but also because the building being renovated isn’t as quaint, or as old, as many of the downtown renovation projects that have gotten attention recently.

Once known as Graystone Apartments, the long three-story building once held 34 efficiency units, but it’s been vacant for years. After an initiative to make it available for a charity failed, the city condemned it. Nash means to gut it, rebuild the floors and walls to suit modern codes, and transform it into 18 “affordable condos.” That’s a phrase rarely heard downtown.

“Downtown, space is going for $225 bucks a square foot,” Nash says. “I don’t think there’s anything much less than that now. The Holston’s getting $240-245. The people who have to [provide] service downtown are not usually able to buy anything there.”

He pictures his new project at “something around $165-170 per square foot, or 25-30 percent below downtown prices.” Units will go from $70,000 to a maximum of $150,000.

“My target market are the future people who will work in the bars and restaurants downtown. A lot of these people who work late at night won’t be able to live downtown. It’s a 15-20 minute walk downtown, and it’s on a bus link as well.” He also mentions that St. Mary’s Medical Center is not far away.

“It’s a way for young professionals to get on the homeowning ladder. Nurses, young interns, doctors.”

If Nash is thinking a little differently, it may be thanks in part to the fact that he has a résumé unlike other preservationist developer in Knoxville. “I’ve been renovating historic buildings in London for the last 30 years,” he says in his distinctly English accent. “What I see in Knoxville is very similar. To me, it’s very reminiscent of a lot of inner-London boroughs. They required a lot of work to be done; much of London was in a sorry state through the ’60s and ’70s.”

He did well, and still has real-estate interests there, and an office in Essex. “With values in London just going through the roof, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do anything there,” he says. “My hope is to develop my portfolio here and do more work here.” Nash is best known in Knoxville for the distinctive Keystone Building on Church Avenue which, with some help from David Dewhirst, he converted into five upscale residences, and the more-recent Sandstone Building on Clinch Avenue, a mixed-use building with a larger architectural studio and two plush penthouses on top.

He’s very impressed with what he’s seen happen here in the seven years since he first visited. He now considers Knoxville his home.

“If we’re honest, there’s not much left downtown to really do,” he says. He’s talking about old buildings to renovate; nearly every one available has been taken up. He does think there needs to be more retail support: a small pharmacy, a small grocery, maybe a cell-phone store. “I know that’s going to take place,” he says. And he’d like to see more new construction, especially along North Central, much of which seems empty and blighted.

“I want to see how this project comes along, see how it’s perceived, see the profile of the buyer. I’d like to do more in North Knoxville. I also think there’s more opportunity in East Knoxville, especially in Park Ridge.”

The economics that put downtown condos out of reach to most Knoxvillians may be saving the buildings themselves. Concerning the North Central project, “If we had not seen the escalation in pricing Knoxville has seen in the last three to four years,” Nash says, “I don’t think it would be profitable to do this.”

The building’s provenance is a little mysterious. By the old name Graystone, which seems to suggest its appearance, it’s been there as an efficiency apartment building of 30-odd units at least since the 1940s, but City Directories show a Graystone Apartments with fewer units there as early as the 1920s.

Courtland’s new version of the old place will feature apartments of 475-1,000 square feet. Working with his contractor, Jim Hickman Construction, Nash means to preserve the rough-stone look of the building, but stucco over the concrete portions and frame the building with new cornice work. He’ll also add balconies to the side windows. “Nothing you can actually sunbathe on, but Juliet balconies.” He’s acquired property next door for what he calls “gated car parking.”

It’s telling that people talk about this area as separate from downtown; before the construction of I-40, Central/Broadway/Emory Place was considered part of downtown, and most of its buildings are urban in style, multi-story, and built to the sidewalk.

The area presents some inherent concerns for many residents. One is the proximity of the homeless shelters, presently clustered along Broadway near Central. Another is the barrier of I-40. During TDOT’s massive construction effort, some streets will be blocked altogether for months at a time. Even when it’s done, interstate underpasses rarely allow for appealing neighborhood connections, and now the dead zone beneath will be bigger than ever.

But several things are looking up for the area north of I-40. Nash’s project is also near the successfully gentrifying neighborhoods of Fourth and Gill and Old North, which have both been quietly booming in recent years. To the south, St. John’s Lutheran Church is in the process of acquiring some blighted areas along Broadway, North Gay, and Fifth, including the Great American Wheel Ranch, to improve their appearance. Studios, art galleries, and trendy nightclubs are popping up on blocks middle-class Knoxvillians once considered dangerous.

Furthermore, KCDC and the city have been working together to make downtown-style tax-increment financing available for residential and mixed-used construction. City policy-development chief Bill Lyons says the first job will be freeing the area of postwar zoning laws, which are “more suitable for suburban areas.” He mentions the likelihood that “form-based zoning,” as favored in the Southside development, will take hold in near-North. That suddenly popular phrase describes the much-more-flexible style of zoning that allows for broader interpretations of existing buildings, based on their forms.

“It recognizes the mixed-use pedestrian character of the neighborhood,” Lyons says. Much of the city’s study of the area has been informed by the Broadway-Fifth Avenue Task Force and KCDC’s efforts to improve that section.

Lyons seems very interested in the Courtland project. “We think there’s a lot of potential reuse of buildings there. It will jump-start the KCDC’s redevelopment of the area.”

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, Nov. 8

Thursday, Nov. 9

Friday, Nov. 10

Saturday, Nov. 11

Sunday, Nov. 12

Monday, Nov. 13

Tuesday, Nov. 14