An irate young Hispanic man hoists a 42-inch flat-screen television out of a white pickup truck, slaps it down on the wet asphalt, and jumps into the driver's seat, stomping on the gas and spinning out past the plastic-sided tent and the mannequins and bicycles and sopping area rugs onto Broadway where he catches a green light and roars north toward Fountain City.
Jack Bullard, proprietor of the seven-day-a-week yard sale at 1620 N. Broadway, says the guy wanted his $125 back because the TV didn't work.
Neither did his demand.
"That sign right there says ‘As is,'" Bullard says. "I don't think he could read English." Then he shrugs and says this was a minor problem compared to the three police cars that showed up earlier that day to respond to a complaint about a theft.
"A police woman walked through here and told me we were illegal. I showed her my paperwork and told her to call (city redevelopment director) Bob Whetsel," Bullard says, adding that he ordered her off his property after she threatened to confiscate four pit bull puppies that were tumbling around in a playpen with a sign that says "10th Kingdom Animal Rescue."
The lot on the corner of Grainger Avenue and Broadway is owned by Ted Lowe, a West Knoxvillian who bought it in 1987 and in 1988 entered into a 20-year agreement with the neighborhood that limited its use to an open air market offering produce, bedding plants, Christmas trees, and seasonal decorations in exchange for a rezoning from C-3, which prohibits outdoor displays, to C-4, which allows them. The covenant expired in 2008, and Bullard set up shop in October, 2009, during which time he has been visited by a string of building inspectors, codes inspectors, fire marshals, city engineers, tax collectors, and KUB employees (who yanked his meter for non-payment of an old bill, forcing him to use a generator for power and kerosene heat to ward off the winter cold). He is acutely aware that he is a source of aggravation to his Old North Knoxville neighbors who consider his business an eyesore.
But he also knows that he's legal, and Whetsel backs him up.
"There's a difference between ugly and illegal, and he is operating legally within the C-4 zone, which allows outdoor display and sale of goods. It's an old shell of a service station and is considered a pre-existing, non-conforming use," Whetsel says.
Katie Allison Granju, a public relations professional (and former Metro Pulse contributor) who lives on Grainger Avenue a half block east of Broadway, is one his most vocal critics. She has started a Facebook group called the Grainger & Broadway Coalition to promote "positive, community-enhancing development at the corner of Grainger Avenue & Broadway," hoping to enlist surrounding neighborhoods in her cause.
"That lot is the visual gateway to a big chunk of redeveloping residential and small business property, and it's also the visual gateway to several greenway entrances. Not only that, Grainger Avenue is the primary way that many people coming off of Broadway access the lovely park and recreational facilities at the edge of the Parkridge neighborhood," Granju writes in an e-mail interview. "The city has put a lot of time and effort into the greater Downtown North community, with new sidewalks, attractive traffic calming circles, facade improvements, parks and greenways. I can't imagine that it's in the best interest of the city's investment there to let that very important piece of property at the corner of Grainger and Broadway be permanently developed into something negative or unattractive."
While she concedes that Bullard's yard sale is legal, she'd still like to find another use for the property:
"I think that those of us who are interested in this issue are going to have to think outside the box," Granju says. "We may have to figure out a way to compete in the marketplace to secure the property. I have no idea how that could work at this point, but I know that many residents and business owners in the community are actively brainstorming. I would love to see the city get involved with a creative approach that respects the property rights of the lot's current owner, but also recognizes the fundamental importance of that piece of property to the overall economic health and quality of life for that area of town.
"Maybe there is an angel investor in Knoxville who would want to help, or maybe there is grant money available that could play a role. Again, we have to think creatively because there is no easy answer here, but the issue is critically important to those of us who have homes and businesses nearby."
Granju's neighbor, Chester Kilgore, says she's fighting a losing battle. Kilgore lives two doors down Grainger from Bullard's operation in a two-story neoclassical Victorian with Italianate touches like a graceful, double decker front porch. Originally built in 1860 and expanded in the 1890s by architect George Franklin Barber, the original owners were members of the George W. Peters family, later owners of the Peters & Bradley Mill, which was powered by the waters of First Creek behind the old home place. The land that is now the Broadway Shopping Center once held the millpond.
Kilgore is a former MPC commissioner and the third owner of the old house, which would not look out of place in the Garden District of New Orleans, especially decorated for the annual ONK Christmas tour and for any potential buyers who might want to come have a look-see. After 30 years as an urban pioneer, he has decided to downsize.
Unlike most of his neighbors, he was there when Lowe wanted to put an open-air market on his property, which was zoned C-3, a designation that doesn't allow outdoor displays. After a lot of wrangling, the neighborhood association agreed to a C4 rezoning with a 20-year covenant allowing only a produce and garden supply market on the site.
The covenant is up, and Kilgore says there's nothing anyone can do about Bullard's yard sale.
Lowe could not be reached for comment.
In an October 23, 2009 letter to various city and MPC officials and ONK membership, Kilgore explained why he decided not to fight:
"After talking to many people, I have come to realize that there is nothing that can be done but to accept the use of the property for a perpetual yard sale. We will have to live with it. It is a real shame as this property is exactly where people exiting I-40 and James White Parkway enter our city at the Broadway exit. What they see as their first impression of Knoxville is a beautiful Rose Funeral Home building and landscaping, followed immediately by a prominent corner lot filled with flea market items hanging on the fence and littering the property, surrounded by a reviving Historic Old North Knoxville's beautiful homes. Not a very clear picture of good zoning practices on display in Knoxville. Or maybe it just shows it like it is, which I hope is not true."
He admonished members of City Council and his former MPC colleagues to "Please remember when you are considering a rezoning request that you are approving the least desirable use of the property listed in the rezoning request. This current example in ONK shows that the intended use of the C-4 as an open-air market was a good fit with the area, but, still, the other possible uses of C-4 zoning came with it whether they were compatible or not. As a result, we have a very bad fit with the surrounding uses, even if unintended. That is why I say, consider that you are approving the least acceptable use of each rezoning request, even if the use requested is the nicest of the uses permitted, because the bad that comes with the good intentions can come back to bite us all."
Carlene Malone, who served on City Council from 1991-2001 and was an active neighborhood defender for years before that, remembers the rezoning well. She said the rezoning was heavily lobbied, and began as an attempt to reinterpret the zoning ordinance to allow open-air markets in C-3 zones.
"That would have affected large portions of the entire city, and Fountain City Town Hall and other neighborhood groups were very concerned, so we worked very hard to stop that. Every neighborhood in Knoxville had a vested interest in that issue," Malone says.
After many postponements, reinterpreting the ordinance to allow open-air markets in C-3 didn't work.
The rezoning to C-4 with the 20-year deed restriction was done with the blessing of all the nearby neighborhoods, and over Malone's and Fountain City Town Hall's objections.
"We explained to people who were down there that if you rezone to C-4, this is what you're opening it up to," she says.
Meanwhile, Bullard's associate Sharon Blanton, who had brought in a pot of chili and a batch of homemade brownies to benefit the animal rescue operation, says they are trying to help poor people, especially during the holidays.
"We're not here to make a fortune. I can't afford to go Christmas shopping at Dillard's, and we're here for people like me, who wouldn't have a Christmas without places like us," she says.
Bullard displays a sign that says, "We do not buy stolen goods. All our items are donated to Cross of Light," a ministry operated by his father, Joe Bullard. He's hoping to work something out with the landlord to get a break on the $1,500 monthly rent, at least for December. He rents space to vendors for $200 per month, but says times are hard and he's gotten behind.
"They've done everything they can do to me, and I'm legal as can be," Bullard says. "I'm not an eyesore and I'm hoping down the road somebody will come along and say, ‘Okay, we're going to turn your lights back on.' And I'd let that TV (the one just returned by the irate customer) go for $100."