Two years after the city launched a Downtown North Redevelopment initiative, to redefine Central Street from Broadway to Woodland as a pedestrian-density mixed-use urban corridor, "Downtown North" may seem like an optimistic description for North Central, which through a car window may look little different from the blighted strip that not too long ago was a magnet for hookers. But slow down just a little, and you'll see some green shoots—new and unusual businesses, buildings with fixed-up fronts, occasionally even a pedestrian who doesn't look like he's up to something.
By the end of the summer, it should be more noticeably different. Though dealing with some bureaucratic delays concerning the last bit of financing, the Three Rivers Market may begin construction at the Merita Bread property as soon as next month, to be open in October. Knox Ivi, the internet-broadcasting company with its main public presence on Market Square, will be moving offices into a building on the corner of Central and Anderson, soon to build new studio space nearby. The Courtland Group's 17-unit North Central Village, the avenue's first upscale condo/apartment project, is mostly occupied. Four months ago, the owners of Tomato Head bought a building on Tyson Street, within the district, to renovate as a bakery for their restaurants. And a recent announcement has a veteran bookseller opening a rare-book shop in the vacant Corner Lounge spot, beside Magpies.
Most of the retail spaces of North Central are pretty small, but one of the larger and more noticeable buildings has been known colloquially as the "White Store building." Even though it's been more than half a century since the building at 1208 N. Central housed a store in that local chain, its colorful but fading sign, in mid-century lettering, is still legible above the awning.
Daniel Schuh, a young architect and preservationist developer originally from Charleston, S.C., owns the building and its neighbors. He says the 1208 building was built around World War I, originally with two stories. He thinks the White Stores people, who moved in around 1943, shaved off the upper floor. What's left is a high-ceilinged space of 5,000 square feet. He did much of the renovation himself, even, with a friend's help, hand-scrubbing the lofty ceiling joists, hundreds of feet of them. Along two walls are installed unusual bars of irregularly cut concrete polished to a marble gloss, and several rolling stage sections. "I can arrange it into anything," he says.
He calls it Relix Variety. "I like old things," he says, and the space has some interesting antiques, including a odd triangular Victorian mirror with winged horsehead of brass; he says it came from the late Kristopher Kendrick. The "variety" part may speak for itself. Last weekend, Relix hosted a Salon Azure fashion show, attended by 200. This Friday will witness a visit by Boston folk singer and guitarist Eric Sommer and, on Saturday, the CD-release show of local band Hudson K. Jugglers like to come in there to practice. The high ceilings help. Schuh is planning "Variety Hour" brunches on weekends, perhaps with audience-participation games.
He's setting up what he intends to be a music-oriented listening room. He's announcing the departure with a weekly event called "Closed Mike Night." "We're advertising to a musician crowd," he explains. "We're not trying to get UT, people coming out to get drunk. The music is the event. It's similar to how the Square Room's doing things," he says of the music-tailored Market Square venue. "But it's a different vibe out here in the Holler."
He's talking about Happy Holler, a name for the mini-downtown commercial area at Central and Anderson that dates back to the days when it was the core of an old mill-town neighborhood clustered near long-gone Brookside Mills. At one time, it had a rough-edged reputation as a playground for millworkers on benders. The 1200 block of North Central may still be still the single most interesting commercial block in the city. It's the longtime home to the Taoist Tai Chi Center, the globally unique Time Warp Tea Room, the XYZ Club, an unusually extensive second-hand shop, and Veg-O-Rama, Knoxville's only all-vegetarian restaurant.
Schuh's fiancée, Jennifer Montgomery, is the Coldwell Banker real-estate agent best known in Downtown North. The two of them are discussing other development prospects, including a space on the corner of Dameron and Central, a couple of blocks closer to town. He'll just say they're considering ideas related to the "arts community."
Montgomery is paid to be bullish on neighborhood real estate, but she's genuinely intrigued by Downtown North's dynamics. She compares it to successfully funky Main Street in Chattanooga. "It has a dance studio, massage therapists, a bakery with a restaurant. It's a similar dynamic." She calls Happy Holler "a district within a district"—architecture from the '20s, which is mostly pedestrian oriented. Closer to town is more automobile-oriented architecture from the 1940s and '50s.
Knoxville Director of Redevelopment Bob Whetsel has been shepherding Downtown North's initiatives in the City County Building for the last few years. He points to changes already made and outlines more to come. The public-private Facade Improvement Program has already made a noticeable difference on North Central, from the intersection of Broadway, where several existing businesses suddenly looked a whole lot better than they used to, to Happy Holler where Schuh has taken advantage of the grant to improve the front of the White Store and other buildings there. "It's Empowerment Zone dollars, which run out, unfortunately, in the middle of this summer."
He's hoping City Council passes the mayor's budget of $440,000 to be applied to street improvements on both Gay Street and North Central. He says the next most visible improvement will be to the curbs of North Central, where the city will be adding "bulb outs" extending curbs to protect parking, narrow pedestrian crossings—"and give us an opportunity for some landscaping," he says. That work probably won't be visible until next year.
Beyond that, Whetsel says, there's been discussion of zoning changes to encourage mixed-use urban development, if not specifically in Happy Holler. Emory Place, at the southern end of the district, was recently rezoned to C-2, and zoning on the block where Magpies and Glowing Body are is under discussion.
Jacki Arthur, general manager of Three Rivers Market, which hopes to reopen in a much-larger space in Downtown North in the fall, calls the fit "perfect" for their growing business. "Three Rivers Market will be so much easier to get to," she says, at the corner of Baxter, a block south of Happy Holler. "And we'll be in the company of locally owned, independent businesses, spiritual healing centers, restorative missions, tai chi and cake," she says, referring to Magpies, just over the hill. "All supporting an inclusive and healthy community. It all comes together in Downtown North."
Three Rivers may help North Central at least as much as North Central helps Three Rivers. Sales at the North Central Village, a sort of Hail-Mary pass from downtown's condo boom, seem to have been disappointing. Several, mostly renters, do happily live in the middle-range flats that opened more than a year ago—its 17 units are said to be more than half taken—a banner currently advertises "aggressively reduced prices." By the end of the year, though, it will be within an easy walk of Three Rivers Market.
Another reason to want to live there may be a new business called Central Street Books, to be open later this year by John Coleman, veteran book purveyor who has run the Book Eddy on Chapman Highway for more than a decade. "I like my landlords, and my neighbors," he says. "And it's close to my home. I'm not real confident about the economy," he says, but adds of North Central, "It will be the most dynamic place in town in the next five to 10 years. The city obviously cares about the area."
Beyond the enthusiasm, Downtown North can look like an abstract concept. Happy Holler is beginning to look like a coherent community again, but down the street toward town there's a lot of long-term blankness and older automobile-oriented businesses that don't appear anywhere close to conforming to the new-urbanist Downtown ideal. The county office building in the huge former Sears store seems mum about the whole thing, and the CAC parking lot is full of buses. Magpies, the Glowing Body, Ironwood Studios, the prospective bookstore and North Central Village are on one side of that hill, out of sight of the Three Rivers site and all the cheerfully offbeat businesses of Happy Holler. The green shoots look closely related on a map, but whether Happy Holler and anything south of Baxter will ever be considered part of the same neighborhood remains to be seen.
Corrected: Jacki Arthur is the general manager of Three Rivers Market, not director.