citybeat (2007-09)

After considering so many options, is the S&W's tray finally arriving at the cashier?

The first apparent steps are still a few years away

Budget cuts affect nighttime and Sunday service for Knoxville's public-transit service

Saturday, Feb. 24

Monday, Feb. 26

No Longer On the Block

After more than a decade of agonizing over what to do with the S&W building--the once-grand, multi-story cafeteria that seems central to most older Knoxvillians' memories of a thriving downtown--the grande dame's makeover seems imminent. Under an agreement between the city and developers, restoration development of that cluster of old buildings in limbo for more than 10 years will finally proceed--just as construction of the adjacent Regal Cinema project, much-delayed by financing issues, takes definite shape next door.

Leading the project will be developer John Craig and preservationist architect Faris Eid, operating as 500 Block, LLC, who have agreed to buy the buildings from the city for $527,625. They've been operating for more than a year under a preliminary agreement but, Craig says, progress was slow due to the complications of financing. "It's a very complex project, with a fairly complex financing structure. There's private money, bank loans, tax-increment financing, new-market tax credits; it took a long time to coordinate things."

He credits Mayor Bill Haslam with taking a lead in making it possible. The sale is stated to be "as is"--and the S&W, stripped of much of its once-elaborate interior, does need major work--but under the agreement before City Council, the city will, via the Public Building Authority, replace the roofs. Meanwhile, 500 Block, LLC, ensures that for a period of 10 years, all three buildings--and all four floors of the S&W--will be used commercially in ways that on the contract sound interesting: "a basement level restaurant/lounge or other commercial use, a first-floor (Gay Street level) restaurant or other retail or commercial use, a mezzanine floor restaurant....."

The S&W is adjacent to two older, smaller buildings, including the old Athletic House space and the Victorian storefront sometimes known as the WROL building, for the radio station located there in the 1930s.

Architectural work will commence right away. Craig says the buildings, and the way they're arranged, offer interesting possibilities; there's potential for another restaurant/bar in the large basement below the street-level part of the S&W, and he talks about a "courtyard" formed by the WROL building and the new cinema that might be accessed via an alley.

Residential development is mentioned for the second and third floors of the other two buildings, but not the S&W, which apparently will be devoted to restaurant/retail. Craig says he has two strong candidates for using the restaurant space, but he isn't ready to announce any deals. "Our hope is to restore the S&W to its former glory," says Craig.

Through his company, Segundo Development, Craig is owner/developer of several other properties downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods, notably the Bliss/Home building on Market Square, which houses retail, offices, and residences. He and Eid, along with Wayne Blasius, are also partners in the development of the Gallery Lofts on Gay Street, a block and a half north of the S&W.  

Blasius, a third partner involved in several other major projects downtown, recently dropped out of the group.

The S&W, a ca. 1935 art-deco cafeteria, has been empty for almost 25 years, but it has been subject of passionate preservationist efforts and several aborted development projects in the last couple of decades. Once condemned for the county's ill-fated justice-center project, the building has been under the control of city or county government for several years. The construction of the adjacent cinema--the first multi-plex-style cinema ever built in the downtown-UT area--revived interest in the adjacent S&W site.

Restriping The Strip

A reconfiguration of the Cumberland Avenue Strip has gotten the go sign. Following a hearing last week on wide-ranging proposals--the outcome of consultant recommendations and one of the most elaborate series of public and institutional input sessions in Knoxville history--the plan is headed to the Metropolitan Planning Commission and City Council.

Once added to the MPC master plan and approved by Council, the several elements of the plan would be addressed one at a time.

Included are recommended changes in the zoning of The Strip and the area a couple of blocks on each side of it to include form-based coding, which would require new building permits to be based on building size and setback rather than on use.

The idea would be to encourage a Main Street look to The Strip, making it more appealing to businesses and customers and to allow for residential development on upper floors of new structures, with parking moved to the rear of the buildings and to envisioned new garage spaces.

A market study to determine what kinds of businesses and residential components would be desirable and would fit the vision would likely be conducted next by a new consultant, according to Renee Davis, a senior planner with MPC.

Glatting Jackson, Kercher Anglin, the Orlando-based consultancy that prepared the proposals in partnership with the Chattanooga firm of Kennedy, Coulter, Rushing & Watson, conducted an 18-month study of the area and affirmed the reduction of traffic lanes along Cumberland between 17th and 22nd Streets from four to three, with widened sidewalks and pullouts in each block for delivery vehicles.

That lane reduction and sidewalk expansion, which might cause a delay of up to 50 seconds for vehicles passing through the area in peak traffic periods, would contribute to better pedestrian access and safety, one of the prime considerations in conducting the study.

Roadway and utility work alone is estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $8 million, but the plan should stimulate literally hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment, according to the consultants' estimates.

Mayor Bill Haslam, a strong supporter of both the process and the results, characterizes his desire for the future of Cumberland Avenue as "more than just a (travel) corridor... a place where people will want to stay to live and work and shop." Haslam says the study will help achieve that goal if it is systematically carried out. He says funding sources are already being explored.

Street and sidewalk work will have to wait a couple of years until the Tennessee Department of Transportation concludes its widening of I-40 through downtown Knoxville and the revamping of the James White Parkway that goes along with it. That work, along with the possible burying of overhead utility lines and the planting of trees and greenery along the curbs, is key to the eventual success of the proposals. It will be the first really evident progress on the project, and it is a while away.

KAT-o-Nine Routes

Despite public transportation's increased popularity in the face of rising gas prices, new formulas established on the federal level will mean less funding for Knoxville Area Transit. Specifically, a federal job-access program, which enabled the bus service's Night Rider service seven years ago, will take a major hit.

Presently, KAT runs buses along the four directional trunk lines down Broadway, Magnolia, Chapman Highway, and Kingston Pike until 11:45 p.m.. An additional service known as Call-a-KAT-- basically a subsidized taxi service--will be eliminated altogether.

KAT is responding with a proposal for approval by the Knoxville Transportation Authority. The proposed changes will pare the evening routes back to one bus per hour--ending, a half-hour earlier than previously, with the 11:15 p.m. bus. Sunday service would also be pared back to one bus per hour, from 10:15 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. Daytime routes are unaffected.

For bus riders, the news is not all bad. The changes will bring greater service to some areas; instead of four fixed routes at night, the plan calls for nine.

KAT spokesman Belinda Woodiel-Brill explains that the changes are coming as the result of a new federal formula that assesses cities' needs. KAT will have a smaller budget, but she's looking on the bright side.

"One of the beauties of the proposal is that it will make a more seamless transition from daytime to nighttime services," says Woodiel-Brill. For the last seven years, the night emphasis has rendered a seemingly erratic schedule.

Woodiel-Brill regrets the loss of Call-a-KAT. "It was a very innovative service, and won some awards, but it was also a very inefficient service. You have a lot more work involved, you have a scheduler. We tried to figure out, 'Where are these people going?' and started putting pinpoints" on destinations of bus riders who had requested a Call-a-KAT at night. "I was amazed at how many people were going back to a fixed route," she says, especially route 32, the Dandridge/MLK route.

When KAT instituted the Night Rider service in 2000, it had been decades since the city had significant late-night public transportation. In 2006, the after-8 service logged more than 85,500 individual passenger-trips, accounting for about 5 percent of KAT's total service. Though some have been known to use the bus service to come home from downtown pubs, KAT surveys indicate the overwhelming majority of passengers use the night service to get to or from work.

Even with the cuts, KAT's proposed changes are still dependent on adjustments to funding, especially on the city level. By a less-expensive Plan B, KAT would run six routes at night instead of nine. The public meeting to consider the changes will be on Thursday, March 22, at 3 p.m., in the Main Assembly Room of the City County Building.

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, Feb. 21

Thursday, Feb. 22

Friday, Feb. 23

Saturday, Feb. 24

Sunday, Feb. 25

Monday, Feb. 26

Tuesday, Feb. 27