On Tuesday morning, a brilliant sunny day that seemed perfectly staged for a riverside press conference, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero unveiled a plan that has been in the works since January: a mixed-use multi-million-dollar development that will take the place of the old Baptist Hospital.
A development of some sort on the site had been rumored in recent months—this after earlier plans for redevelopment fell apart with the economy in the last several years. But this time the city seems confident the proposal will happen.
"This is a catalyst project for South Knoxville," Rogero says. "I think you will see a domino effect on down the riverfront once this is built."
The site plan for the so-called "The Bridges at Riverside" envisions demolishing most of the hospital buildings, leaving extant the soon-to-be renovated office tower at the corner of the Gay Street Bridge and Blount Avenue. In place of the rest of the pink brick monolith, developers will build a 300-unit luxury apartment complex and a 150-room hotel (possibly a Hilton or Marriott). Across Blount will be 45,000 square feet of retail parcels, probably a mix of national and local stores and restaurants. The parking deck will stay, along with the pedestrian bridge, but will be gussied up with apartments in front. The medical office building that currently houses the eye center will also stay.
Just on the other side of the Henley Street Bridge will be a 225-unit student housing apartment complex (not affiliated with the university). And connecting it all will be a public riverfront walkway with a prominent water wall.
The developers, Blanchard and Calhoun Commercial out of Augusta, Ga., are also proposing major screetscaping changes to Blount, with two possible roundabouts, including one at the end of the Gay Street Bridge, and improvements to the Henley/Chapman and Blount interchange, along with significant landscaping. Rogero says the city is on board with helping fund the riverwalk and road improvements, although it remains unclear at this time whether the developers or the city will eventually own the riverwalk property (i.e., who will pay for the water wall maintenance).
It's also unclear what will happen to the historic chapel in the Baptist Hospital. Blanchard and Calhoun CEO Vic Mills says a decision hasn't yet been made as to whether to tear down the chapel, or, possibly, relocate it.
"We've just begun exploring that," Mills says. "There is quite a bit of water damage to the structure—apparently there's been a leak in the roof for a long time. At this juncture, we just don't know if it's possible to save it."
Blanchard and Calhoun aren't totally new to Knoxville—they're responsible for the Kroger shopping centers on Cedar Bluff Road and out in Farragut. And the strip-mall background is reflected in the design of the renderings of the project presented on Tuesday. University of Tennessee architecture professor emeritus Michael Kaplan says the developers are missing an opportunity to make a significant stamp on the Knoxville skyline.
"It's difficult (at least from the drawings presented) to see the project as being site specific (i.e. designed for this very unique waterfront site). It seems kind of generic," Kaplan says.
Another UT architecture professor, George Dodds, says that renderings aside, the site plan itself is a step in the right direction.
"The broad strokes of the plan seem precisely the sort of mixed-use repurposing that Knoxville needs in general, and this site in particular will profit from. Moreover, the mix of housing, office, and retail should be a game changer for South Knoxville, creating a connection to the life of the city and promoting the idea of building domestic and commercial real estate within walking distance of each other. ... I suspect the proposal would profit from less parking and even greater density, but this is a great start and demonstrates an important leap across the river and into the woods of South Knoxville," Dodds says in an e-mail.
When asked if the city had suggested to the developers that they take architectural design into account for the project, spokesperson Jesse Mayshark only responded that the plans will have to conform to the form-based code adopted as part of the South Waterfront Vision Plan.
Kaplan also questions the luxury housing aspect of the project, with rents likely above the price point most Knoxvillians can afford. (Mills declined to specify possible rents, only saying that the units will be "Class A" apartments. He also wouldn't comment on rates for the student housing development, but similar units in Knoxville start around $500 per room, including furniture and some utilities.)
"Since this is a legal redevelopment area (as defined by state law and approved by KCDC, City Council, and County Commission), the project would qualify for tax-increment financing [TIF] and therefore be subsidized by taxpayers," Kaplan says. "I don't see an affordable ‘work force' housing component included, something that would enable low-wage downtown workers to live in decent, new housing. The latter is being required by many cities providing tax-increment financing TIF or other financial incentives to projects of this kind. ... If taxpayers are going to subsidize development, we should get something out of it."
But the city isn't interested in affordable housing, at least not on the river. "It has always been anticipated that this prime piece of real estate would have a higher-end development on it," Rogero says.
Construction on the student housing is estimated to begin later this year, with demolition (and asbestos abatement) of the hospital to follow. The apartments are projected to be complete by the end of 2014, and the entire site built out by the middle of 2015, at an estimated cost of $125 to $150 million.
CORRECTED: UT architecture professor George Dodds' name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.