citybeat (2007-07)

A look back at redevelopment efforts for the burned buildings on Jackson Avenue

Mark Saroff, pictured here at the “Take Back the Government” rally held on Jan. 25, 2006.

Six million gallons of water have to go somewhere

Wednesday, Feb. 7

McClung Were-Houses

On Feb. 16 of 2006, Metro Pulse published a cover story on the future of the old McClung warehouse buildings on Jackson Avenue, the simultaneously striking and decrepit downtown structures at the center of a longstanding redevelopment controversy. If the year since has proven anything, it's the truth of a wretched old cliché: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

They've changed in that at least three of the five buildings have been destroyed by a fire that sparked somewhere around 1 a.m. on Feb. 7. They've stayed the same in that the fate of the properties is just as open to speculation as it was around this time in 2006.

To wit: In early '06, it appeared that warehouse owner Mark Saroff, who acquired the buildings in the early 1990s, was on the verge of partnering with, or else selling out to, local developer Kenn Davin for the purpose of turning the buildings into some sort of combination retail/residential complex that would include a number of new condominiums.

The timing of the partnership seemed to be not a moment too early, given that officials at Knoxville's Community Development Corporation were hinting at the possibility of exercising eminent domain against Saroff. Their reasoning stemmed in part from Saroff's apparent unwillingness to remediate the buildings' blighted conditions--broken windows, gaping holes in walls, etc.--and in part due to the fact that Saroff had been proposing, then backing out of potential development deals for the property for close to a decade.

A short list of his would-be partners includes local developers David Dewhirst, LeRoy Thompson, and Bob Talbott, among others.

His plan with Davin was successful in staving off any condemnation procedures on the part of KCDC; but true to previous form, Saroff eventually backed away from a partnership with Davin. As a result, Davin filed a lien on the property for $60,000 to $100,000 (depending on reports) worth of blight remediation he had performed on the structures, most notably repairing a cavernous hole in a rear wall. Davin has also threatened to purchase the mortgages on the properties, the largest of which is held by Saroff's cousin, attorney Arnold Cohen.

Saroff introduced the prospect of yet another partnership, this one with California developer William Cole Smith. And KCDC was forced yet again to weigh the likelihood of Saroff abandoning his latest plans.

According to KCDC chief Alvin Nance, the next move--whether it may be by Saroff, KCDC, Davin, or any of the other would-be players--will be dictated by a structural evaluation of the two surviving warehouses, to determine whether they're still viable, or need to be demolished with the rest of the charred warehouse ruins.

"We're still looking to move forward toward redevelopment," Nance says, "with the understanding that the previous plan--a retail and residential complex--will probably change.

"We need to have a conversation with Mark Saroff. We still plan to afford him due process. But without the structural evaluation, it's not clear yet what we're giving him due process on."

Nance says that based on his conversations with Kenn Davin and with Cohen and the other McClung mortgage holders, Davin was indeed on the verge of acquiring the mortgages, thus potentially allowing him to foreclose on Saroff and redevelop the properties himself.

Meanwhile, Downstream

The impact of last week's McClung Warehouse fires was hardly self-contained. By now, you've heard about the burning embers that landed on rooftops a block or more away from the site, at one point igniting a small brushfire on the eastern end of the Old City. If you've been downtown within the past week, you've seen with your own eyes the soot that accumulated in far corners of downtown like charred autumn leaves. And during the fire itself, residents from miles away were privy to the sight of smoke billowing upward high above the city skyline.

But while airborne byproducts of the fire were fairly hard-to-miss, others closer to the ground handily slid beneath the radar--unless you happened to be looking.

Mark Camven of the Fort Loudon Lake Association was among the first to notice coffee-colored water flowing out of the mouth of Second Creek into the Tennessee River. He correctly pegged it as runoff from the site of the fire that had flowed into storm drains and subsequently into streams and larger bodies of water. At that point, though, there wasn't much that he or anyone else could do about it.

"When you've got six million gallons of runoff water, it's going to impact streams," Camven says. "But it's a tough situation. Our real concern is that the city, the county and the state will take measures to lessen the impact."  

Camven says he's confident in the city's response to the situation in that it has already addressed the runoff and is now taking measures to lessen its impact.

"The water basically just overwhelmed the base flow of Second Creek," explains Brent Johnson, deputy director of engineering for the city of Knoxville.

What specific pollutants may have been released into area bodies of water is not yet known. Johnson says that while he doesn't know what exactly was in the buildings, he assumes that much of what escaped into storm drains via   the firefighting water was demolition-type debris and charred fragments. In the initial phase of the runoff, he says, thermal pollution and high chlorine levels resulted in a fish-kill limited to one particularly sensitive species, but Camven has observed no other such trends in other more pollution-tolerant types of fish. And those initial effects, such as heightened water temperature levels, have already subsided.  

Now that the fire is over, Johnson says, the city can begin "not necessarily remediation, but putting some controls in place to prevent further damage."

Although a permitting program is in place to mitigate water damage, firefighting water is exempt by federal law from the permit for obvious reasons--limiting water use during the McClung fire, for instance, might have had catastrophic consequences.

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, Feb. 7

Thursday, Feb. 8

Friday, Feb. 9

Saturday, Feb. 10

Sunday, Feb. 11

Monday, Feb. 12

Tuesday, Feb. 13