For decades the infernal regions of Gay Street have been the subject of speculation, legend, misconception, and, for those picturing a cavernous Edwardian underworld of barber poles and hitching posts and forgotten saloons, disappointment. What's really down there is a lot of space, most of it awkwardly arranged in rectangular chambers of assorted sizes. Much of its looks suitable for storage, the purpose most of it has served for the past 90 years.
David Dewhirst, downtown's most vigorous preservationist developer of recent years, considers these neglected regions, combined with a nearby alley, a major neglected resource. He says developing them can open up more than 150,000 square feet of usable retail space.
It's an idea he and architect Buzz Goss have been kicking around since the '90s. Dewhirst recently finished the mammoth Holston building, now fully occupied with residents, and is nearing completion of a conversion of the JFG building into rental apartments on Jackson Avenue. He says he's finally ready to push for Underground Gay Street, as the city digs up the 100 block in a multi-million-dollar project to reorganize utilities and rebuild the present-day sidewalks. Rick Emmett, the Haslam administration's urban-growth manager who's overseeing that project, is cooperating with Dewhirst's plans for the Underground, but has concerns about its feasibility.
Underground Knoxville applies to only a few addresses on the 100 block of Gay Street. The city buried this formerly sloped part of the street in 1919, when they installed the Gay Street viaduct over the railyards. The new street was several yards above the old one, on solid fill and retaining walls installed on each side to hold it in. What was left, on both sides, was the old pre-1919 sidewalk—or rather a space, about 10 feet wide, where the sidewalk used to be.
It's believed to be city property, but over the years, each business has acquired the under-sidewalk space as a handy basement extension. Several walled theirs off for security. Generally it's been used only for storage or, in one case, a bathroom.
The west side of the street, which has the most interconnected spaces, looks like an unfinished linear basement. At one spot, if you look closely, there's a bricked-in window. The most interesting artifact of the pre-1919 era is a length of sidewalk underneath the building now occupied by Unarmed Merchants. It shows the original moderately steep slope of the street. More surprising is the fact that it's made partly of glass bricks: for decoration underfoot, but also for illumination below. See, several of these basements have basements. Some of these buildings, modest above the street, are huge beneath it. In some cases, these sub-basements are big enough for dance clubs. Or fashion shows. Or handball courts.
Dewhirst has owned or developed several of the buildings on both sides, and with several he had installed storefront doors that would suit modern businesses, in anticipation of something working out. There's no discernible remnant of Wilson-administration Knoxville down there, but Dewhirst pictures some homage to that era: "The more we can engage that, the better." Dewhirst pictures likely tenants as "jazz clubs, bars, boutiques—stuff that fits that culture."
From these catacombs there's a mirage of green space in the rear. "We consider them basements today," says Dewhirst, whose office is on the street level, or the original second floor of one building. "But they all walk out to the back to what I consider kind of a beautiful urban forest." The space between Gay Street and Immaculate Conception's hill has apparently never been developed. Some developers have pictured back patios or beer gardens.
Currently only a few buildings, dominated by Dewhirst's, are linked underneath, but developer Jeffrey Nash, who bought some property just north of that string, is reportedly agreeable to the project. The last building on the block is the recently vacated Volunteer Ministry Center, which is currently for sale at $1.2 million. The building will be crucial to access the currently linked underground corridor. Dewhirst expects any future owner to be agreeable. "I don't know why you wouldn't want to build it," he says.
The east side of Gay is different, and interesting in other ways. The Emporium and the older building next door both have remnants of a streetfront beneath, though you have to look for them. The paneled marble of the Emporium's original front is visible through the glass doors at the front of the building's big art gallery. On the building next door is some marble fluting, subtle but something you wouldn't expect to see in a basement. Its basement opens into a sort of elevated open-air gallery overlooking the green space left by the missing WNOX building, now used as a dog yard for some residents. Other underground areas are currently being used as parts of residences. Some even have underground balconies.
Dewhirst pictures three parallel corridors—the two subterranean Underground ones on the east and west sides of Gay, plus the barely developed "Fire Street" alley just to the east and accessible underneath the brick-lined ramp on Jackson Avenue, as part of an unusual E-shaped development.
Rick Emmett is cautiously interested in the project, with an emphasis on the adverb. He says there's a lot to work out. The current excavation is all due to a city project to repair the street and reorganize the utilities and rebuild the sidewalks, for reasons unrelated to Dewhirst's proposal. Work started a few weeks ago, and will shut the street down altogether, probably starting next week, for about a year.
While they're repairing the sidewalks—which are potentially unsafe for those below, and also leaky—they'll take the opportunity to remove the remaining dividing walls to make the corridor possible. The city also agreed, with Dewhirst's persuasion, to restore the translucent glass-brick feature in the modern sidewalks, which would also encourage development beneath by illuminating it. (Dewhirst actually helped pay for the three large sections of glass brick in front of the Emporium, with further help from the Cornerstone Foundation.)
Once such a corridor is open to the public, Emmett says, it becomes city responsibility, and they'll have to assess it for handicap access. The concrete pillars which hold up the modern sidewalk, for example, stand in the corridor, and may raise wheelchair-passage issues. Dewhirst responds that he's not yet sure about the sidewalks, but that some handicap concerns can be allayed by elevator access.
He also questions whether legal questions might impede the project on the north end. The city wants to purchase the current parking lot on the northwest corner of Gay and Jackson, but there are still unresolved questions about ownership and right-of-way involving the railroad and Heuristics, the furniture workshop nearby.
Emmett says the plan to rehabilitate Jackson Avenue ramps—whether they'll be redone with bricks or not seems to be a complicated issue—will likely take four to five years. Then there's the issue of the grade difference. As low as it is, Underground Gay Street is actually not as low as the parking area along Jackson, and the most likely entry is several feet above the ground. "It's not like it's just a straight shot," Emmett says.
"And it's been a challenge with all the electrical, wastewater, gas, AT&T, trying to route everything you need," he says of the current project. "It's gonna take a lot of money," he adds, perhaps unnecessarily.
"People think it's the old road, with old stores, kind of like a hidden world down there," says Emmett. But he's intrigued with some remnants. Modern utility crews were surprised, digging 15 feet below the pavement, to hit streetcar tracks. Witnesses say when they tried to pull them up, they stretched like bowstrings before breaking.
Emmett does admit he was surprised to learn of the depth and extent of possibly viable space. "People like the idea, and I do, too," Emmett says. "We're all for it." He just has logistical and financial concerns.
He's more sanguine about the likely development of Fire Street, where Dewhirst owns a large, old-fashioned brick warehouse building, as well as the basement areas of several currently occupied residential buildings. "Fire Street is going to be repaired and rebuilt," Emmett says, adding that it has great potential. However, he says ownership questions on the north end need to be resolved. "Heuristics would like to claim they own the right of way," he says. "If they do, Fire Street dead ends."
Dewhirst doubts that will be a deal-killer. "What's beneath the Jackson Avenue ramps is public realm," he says, and that space may be all the project needs.
If successfully developed, Dewhirst says, it would add mightily to the city's downtown tax base. Dewhirst has also been a major developer on Market Square, and has no reason to disparage its success. But he says Underground Knoxville, if fully realized, might one day dwarf Market Square in viable retail space.
Dewhirst admits it's an expensive, multi-year project. He wants to start soon.
Maybe the one private individual most responsible for downtown's revival of recent years, Dewhirst may be the last one to claim it's a success, which he considers tenuous. "We're just getting started, and to some extent it's a fragile start," he says. "Residential has made great strides, but retail is still in a sort of infancy stage." One problem, he says, is that there aren't many retail-ready spaces available for occupancy downtown. He adds that downtown will require further investment from both private and public sources to succeed sustainably.
For more than a million East Tennesseans, downtown Knoxville is the closest patch of urbanity. Despite some astonishing strides in the last few years, downtown Knoxville is still tiny, barely half a square mile. The city has been trying to guide its spillage to the south side waterfront or out North Central. Expanding downward may be the third option.