citybeat (2007-10)

A quiet section of Market Square gets interesting new life

Querying the future of downtown's hottest vacant lots, the News Sentinel and State Street sites

Cornerstone in the Corner Pocket

An unusual nonprofit project may turn out to present a solution to both a problematic corner of Market Square and to the much-mourned loss of the Candy Factory site as a performing-arts venue and community gathering place.

The Cornerstone Foundation is buying the two buildings that comprise addresses 4-8 Market Square, in the Square's southeastern corner between Tomato Head and Reruns, for what sounds like an interesting mixture of purposes.

As most of Market Square has hummed with new life in the last couple of years--and a new restaurant, Trio, began serving just this week--the two three-story brick buildings with big windows at addresses 4-8 have lain curiously fallow. Cyberflix, the mercurial video-game company nationally popular for a couple of years in the '90s, was headquartered in the building until the company imploded. A bright café that opened just as major reconstruction of the square commenced didn't survive the square's fences-and-rubble phase. Since then, other vaporous projects, including a theoretical comedy club, produced some garish signage, but no actual comedy.

The Cornerstone Foundation is closing on a deal this month with the larger of the two buildings, recently owned by Dewhirst Properties. Cornerstone is believed to be one of Knoxville's larger foundations, if not its most widely advertised. The unassumingly Christian charity, led by former city official and Partnership for Neighborhood Improvement officer Laurens Tullock, is religious in inspiration: Its stated purpose is "to serve as a catalyst to reach our God-given potential as a community." But most of its specific projects seem secular, boosting technology, artistic talent, or education. Nurturing trust between people of different faiths is listed among its priorities, as is community development.

Tullock says the buildings are in excellent shape, though, and seemed to cry out for some carefully considered use.

"As a foundation, we have been doing a lot of research, hearing from a lot of people" about the community's needs, Tullock says. "Especially since the closing down of the Candy Factory, there's a meeting need, and an arts need." (The Candy Factory at World's Fair Park had been used since the 1980s for theater, dance, arts, and community meeting purposes, but after its sale by the city, it's being redeveloped into condominiums by a group including Cardinal Enterprises, which is owned by Metro Pulse 's publisher.)

"Market Square has become the community meeting place," says Tullock, who more than a decade ago, working as development director for the Ashe administration, was confronting inertia and major ownership obstacles in his attempts to get something fresh going on the square.

He says, it's here on the square that they mean to establish a streetfront café, along with "a community gathering place, a flat-floor, flexible meeting area that might seat up to 350 people." Tullock says it's designed for those arts groups, dance and dramatic groups who are less likely to need larger spaces like the Bijou or   Tennessee Theatres.

In that way, it may echo the purpose of the square's long-gone Market House auditorium, which was of similar size and served a similar purpose for more than half of the 20th century.

Cornerstone will own the building, but a non-profit limited-liability company organized for this purpose will develop it. "They'll lease it for $1 a year to an operating entity being formed right now."

The upstairs floors will offer space to "a number of smaller non-profits in an office-incubator environment," he says. Furthermore, the building will also house 12 residences for selected post-graduate students studying community leadership. Tullock sees that aspect as a way to "attract the best and brightest young people to Knoxville."  

The complex operation will be non-profit from the ground to the roof. Proceeds from the café will go to help subsidize the expenses of the gathering place. Some might grumble that non-profit use of prominent downtown frontage doesn't maximize its tax-generating potential, but such a versatile use for a building does seem likely to boost foot traffic downtown.

Tullock expects the project will be finished and ready for use by the end of 2007; he says he'll be able to announce more details later in the month.

Land Rush

It'd have been more exciting if stakes were handed out to everyone who showed up at last Thursday's public input meeting at the Knox Area Chamber Partnership and if, at the firing of a gun, the crowd had been loosed into the night. Imagine, if you will, a mob of some 35 blueprint-wielding developers, library boosters and urban rubberneckers tumbling headlong into Market Square, swatting at one another as they race down Gay Street toward two of downtown's final frontiers. Whoever plants their stake in the ground first gets to decide the property's fate.

Alas, democracy isn't as exciting as it used to be. In reality, the meeting was conducted in a rather civil manner, with Lynne Fugate, former executive director of Nine Counties. One Vision., moderating. "What we're doing here tonight, we're not deciding what is going to go on these sites," she explained at the outset of the meeting. "What we're going to do is give the county information that they can use in their subjective criteria for evaluating the RFPs (Requests For Proposals)."

The first of the two downtown sites in question is a one-acre site at the corner of Church Avenue and State Street, now a grassy hillside, known as the News Sentinel site for its former occupant. The city conveyed the site to the county in exchange for property upon which to build the Gay Street Cinema, currently under construction.

The second is a four-acre site on State Street, bound on the other three sides by Central, Union and Commerce streets. It has been largely paved as a parking lot but underused for almost a decade, since it was assembled from several parcels to be used as the site of a proposed Justice Center, which never materialized. Later, when a Transit Center was proposed for the site, the county conveyed the site to the city (though the county retained its air rights, or the option to build atop the finished structure). It was subsequently decided that the location was not a feasible site for the Transit Center, and the property is expected to be transferred back to the county soon.

Both sites are prime downtown real estate. Not only are they two of the last sites upon which a developer could build from the ground up, they're located just a block east of Gay Street's theaters, retail and restaurants.

As Mike Arms, chief of staff to Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, explained during the meeting, "You know the history of Gay Street, you know what it looked like seven or eight years ago, you know the excitement we have now, you know that Mast General store has exceeded everyone's expectations. And we think it's time to move out on these two properties, put them back in the hands of the private sector or public-private partnerships that are going to make them worthwhile--more useful, back on the tax role, generating sales tax, property tax."

Noting that "the News Sentinel site is the first one they can pull the trigger on" (since the State Street site must be transferred back to the county before it can be developed), moderator Fugate divided those in attendance at the meeting into three groups to generate ideas for the site. The groups were then asked to narrow their ideas into Top Three lists, to be presented at the end of the meeting.  

Among the most popular ideas were suggestions for a new library--the downtown library has outgrown its current location-- and mixed-use or high-density development. Some expressed the need for affordable housing in the downtown area, while others suggested that as downtown approaches its residential ceiling, the need for more office space is imminent.

Though most developers who attended the meeting--among them David Dewhirst of Dewhirt Development, Russ Watkins of Partners Development, and Leigh Burch of Terminus Real Estate -- seemed more interested in listening than in talking, Arms says that over the past few months his office has received several phone calls from developers asking when the properties would come available and what types of development might be suitable. "We know there's developer interest," Arms says. Seeing as last year's RFP yielded zero proposals, the expressions of interest probably come as a relief.

As for the suggestions of the large library contingent that showed up for the meeting, Arms says that while a library alone would probably not be feasible--"If we looked at a public library, that would be in most cases a major taxpayer investment, and with our need for school development and funding of the sheriff's pension plan, it might be outside the scope of what Mayor Ragsdale could do"--combining the library idea with mixed-use development via a public-private partnership might be doable, he says, because it would put the property on the tax roll.

Arms says that suggestions from the meeting should be summarized by the end of this week and will be worked into the first RFP within the next month. Not quite as time-efficient a strategy as racing one another down the street, and possibly not quite as democratic, either.

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, Feb. 28

Thursday, March 1

Friday, March 2

Saturday, March 3

Sunday, March 4

Monday, March 5

Tuesday, March 6