David Dewhirst Ramps Up Downtown Projects

Despite the recession, the downtown developer is tackling multiple apartment and retail enterprises

You'd almost think David Dewhirst, always smiling when he's shaking hands on a downtown sidewalk, has shrugged off any rumored recession as if it were another chance of showers. Last year he opened the Daylight Building and the JFG Building projects, historical renovations with apartments that were fully rented before they were finished, with active retail on the ground floors of both.

In August he bought the historic part of the 125-year-old landmark White Lily Flour factory, across the tracks from the Old City, with plans to convert it to residential, too. That's the long-term plan, maybe two years out. "It's one of the best structures we've purchased as is," says Dewhirst partner and architect Mark Heinz. "It's obviously on the other side of the tracks, but the bones are solid, and there will be a market that close to the Old City, with ample parking and interesting architecture."

They've done some clearing-out work this year on the benighted J.C. Penney building on Gay, but have not yet announced plans.

Dewhirst Properties is currently busy enough with the Arnstein Building, overlooking Market Square, which promises to open a ground-level restaurant this fall. Dewhirst has called the Arnstein his favorite building in East Tennessee. The seven-story 1906 Beaux-Arts building, designed by the once-fashionable New York firm of Cleverdon & Putzel to serve as an upscale department store, was Knoxville's first steel-frame construction. Dewhirst, Heinz, and intern Aaron Pennington have taken pains to restore the building's long-gone bay windows on the Union Avenue side, based on historic photographs.

"We always try to respect the building's original history and character when we're replacing a previous generation's modification," Heinz says. "We went a little further on this because we know it's going to be seen by just about everyone that comes to Market Square." It will soon be ready for its ground-floor tenant, Lime Fresh Mexican Grill. The popular Miami-based restaurant began branching nationwide last year, an expansion in partnership with Ruby Tuesday. It'll open soon, and despite the abundance of Mexican restaurants already on the Square, Dewhirst claims his tenants "aren't at all concerned about the competition."

But ask Dewhirst and Heinz what they're working on, and they're both likely to mention a cluster of buildings most Knoxvillians have never paid much attention to. To get there from their offices on the cheerfully multifaceted 100 Block of Gay, the developers don't even have to cross a street.

The old Armature and Three Feathers Buildings most recently housed a generator-service business and a homeless shelter, respectively. The Tennessee Armature building amazed Heinz, the architect originally from Philadelphia: "the cast-in-place concrete sawtooth clerestories in the Armature—I'd never seen anything like it in concrete. Very unique." Heinz, who has become an authority on historic Knoxville architecture, believes it to be one of the city's first "fireproof" buildings. Its sunny clerestory top floor will be the complex's most expensive apartments.

The Three Feathers name recalls a long-gone Gay Street bar and sandwich shop at the site of what later housed the Volunteer Ministry Center. Adding a couple other buildings, they now comprise a new whole that wraps around the corner of Gay and Jackson. Its interior is likely to surprise. The adjacent buildings used in one way or another by the Volunteer Ministry Center extend two floors below the Gay Street level, adding to the deceptively abundant floor space. It's a four-story building that looks like a two-story building. "It's twice as big as what you see in the front," Dewhirst says.

In all, the complex connects close to 90,000 square feet. Dewhirst remarks that the project will total about the same square footage of another of his projects, the obviously huge Holston condo tower a few blocks to the south. When the project is completed next year, this 100 Block of Gay, already reputed to be the highest-density block in Knoxville, will support 71 more apartments, 19 of which will be ready in about two months—plus four to seven new commercial spaces.

Due to the complicated history of the buildings—parts of the Gay Street frontage were built in the late 1800s, but the construction of the 1919 viaduct called for partial demolitions and rebuilt upper floors—there are lots of odd angles and surprising depths, a honeycomb of chambers. Dewhirst means to use almost all of it as living space.

A room descends from another floor, an extreme sort of split level. You stand there and say, Huh! Dewhirst likes that reaction, but says his main motivation is to use the space, as it is, efficiently.

Recently it was still cluttered with some leftovers of its decades serving the homeless: some sticker-adorned lockers, a dead snack machine shielded by a protective screen, and an old X-ray machine perhaps once used to diagnose broken bones. One large interior space shows a history of a staircase added, as an afterthought, and later partially removed. From some angles, the canyon-like alley looks like a confoundingly surrealist Escher print. From some parts, you can see parts of several other buildings, including the back porch of Dewhirst's own office, and the suddenly popular back porch of Harry's Deli.

"Some may stand out there and look at this and find it hard to believe that this can be beautiful," Dewhirst says, on the underside of a viaduct that was long a mecca for vagrants. "But it has to be. One of the most blighted sections of the city can be the most interesting, the most beautiful parts of town. It's all very old, very interesting, very unforgettable." Reimagined, the once-spooky urban crevasse under Jackson will provide a patio and a semi-secluded entrance.

The Gay Street building wasn't always part of Dewhirst's plan. He first acquired only the unusual concrete Armature building facing Jackson. Developer Jeffrey Nash had proposed a residential development called "Langham Village" for the Three Feathers building, but backed out of the plan last year. Dewhirst, worried that someone less savvy might buy the building and spoil the block for his other projects, bought it himself.

Some of the redeveloped space links to the partly obstructed corridor known as Underground Gay Street. Though most of it doesn't look very historic, the subterranean hallway traces the route of the pre-1919 sidewalk. "In a really wacky world, this could be a retail space," says Dewhirst. "It could be a jazz club, it could be a restaurant, it could be a residence. It's C2 [zoning], downtown, it can be anything it wants to be."

The complex earns its complexity. Due to the edge-of-the-bluff construction, the same project that includes subterranean chambers also offers a hidden, elevated backyard; Dewhirst pictures it as a great spot for a game of horseshoes. He plans a swimming pool down there, as well as some touches that are mostly sprucing up the existing back lot. The plan is to keep a sort-of-picturesque old tin roof over a loading-dock area, cut down a couple of trees but save others, and clean up a startling limestone rock outcrop that looks like something in the Cumberland Plateau. The overgrown slope up to the high end of Vine is almost an escarpment; Dewhirst says that pocket forest is littered with ancient demolition debris, remnants of buildings perhaps shoved off Vine several decades ago.

"This is why we stay in business," says Dewhirst. "It's simple, but unique. You're not gonna find it anywhere else. It's not for everybody, but a lot of people are pretty sick and tired of the suburban apartment complexes that look identical to each other."

Dewhirst was best known five years ago for his high-end condos, but in spite of—or because of—the recession, he says the downtown rental market is "very strong and growing." Studio apartments in the complex will start at $675 a month, with the upper end at $1,800 for a two-bedroom apartment with 21-foot clerestory ceilings.

The Jackson Avenue side faces a problematic block, the block of the few remaining McClung Warehouses that survived the disastrus fire in early 2007. After almost five years, neither the city nor the property owner has moved very decisively to improve things. Heinz says he and Dewhirst have to content themselves to do what they can. "It's too bad the block lost those buildings," Heinz says, "but the current property owners can only improve on what remains."

Two not-necessarily historic buildings across from the McClung site, recently vacated, were almost demolished by their owner earlier this year. Naturally, Dewhirst bought them. "We've lost so much on that portion of Jackson that even those two small nondescript buildings add to the commercial scale and history of the block," says Heinz. "We couldn't let them go." One is in terrible shape. "Honestly, to the majority of the world it was already ruined, but David and I have seen and purchased worse." They haven't decided what they'll do with them, but it's another 11,000 downtown square feet for Dewhirst Properties.

"We're building as fast as we can," says David Dewhirst, even though it's 2011.

Dewhirst had begun shifting toward rental just before the 2008 recession. "I'd like to say we were clairvoyant, but really we were just lucky. The fact is that downtown is a niche market," he says, a tiny, finite parcel of the metropolitan area that's different from everything else in the region and highly desirable to a motivated minority. He doesn't think he'd be as successful if he hadn't lived downtown, and been working at improving it for 20 years.

Developers who have been less successful downtown, he suspects, haven't understood its nuances. "Some of them think downtown's one thing. Downtown is 30 things. Every block is unique."