Proposed South Knoxville Apartment Complex Sparks Community Opposition

Residents in the adjacent Island Home neighborhood respond to a preliminary site plan with skepticism

After a contentious community meeting at South Knoxville Elementary on April 4, it looks like developer John Gumpert will have to take into account more than just the specs of the South Knox waterfront's form-based zoning code in building his proposed apartment complex.

"He's got input from the residents," said Knoxville's Director of Redevelopment Bob Whetsel. "Now we'll see what he does next. That's kind of where we are.

"When a developer comes to us to talk about a deal, we look to see if there's a project that will work for everyone's benefit. From a certain part of the meeting, there was a pretty clear message there were some things he needs to work on."

Gumpert stressed he was only presenting preliminary designs for his firm's proposed 219-unit complex on the cusp of the Island Home Park. But area residents responded with skepticism about the development, with many of them giving voice to the belief that it violated the spirit—if perhaps not the letter—of the city's South Knoxville redevelopment plan.

"This appears to be a terrible plan, for South Knoxville, for Island Home, and for the future of Knoxville," said Island Home resident Casey Field. "This looks like, ‘How many units and parking spaces can we cram onto this lot.' My suggestion is, please don't come and show us this and say this is our future. Because I think our future is brighter than this."

Field's impassioned diatribe, which came early in the meeting, was met with an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience of perhaps 150 gathered in the gymnasium of the elementary school.

To be fair, the meeting was hardly a representative sampling, and probably incited the passions of the opposition more than potential supporters. And there were a couple of audience members who spoke in favor of the plan, the product of Gumpert's Camden Management Partners out of Atlanta, Ga.

But by and large, the message from the audience was that the density, scale, and overall profile of the project are at odds with the residents' view of how redevelopment is supposed to take place along the waterfront.

The question of density is a sticky one, given that density—according to form-based zoning—is largely in the eyes of the beholder. And the concerns of many residents were best summarized by a local homeowner who said, "I'm worried about having something with 400 new neighbors, where it looks like a project built out in front of our house."

According to Whetsel, the form-based zoning to which the South Knoxville waterfront is subject doesn't have defined measures of "high-" and "low-density," like other forms of zoning. And for the most part, he says Gumpert is conforming to the letter of the code.

"The form-based code allows for the type of use he's proposing there," Whetsel says. "He's not totally got to all the requirements of the form-based code at this juncture, but he's made it clear he's going to make that happen."

Gumpert said he considered the development "medium density," at "20 units per acre."

"The form-based code speaks to density pretty clearly," he said.

His analysis seemed to offer a clear point of departure between himself and most of the locals in attendance.

"The feeling among residents is this complex is fundamentally at odds with the redevelopment vision plan," said local resident Chris Field. "It's basically just a suburban, sprawling apartment complex."

Added another, "It has the same height, the same density, concrete all around, the same profile… What separates it from those developments?"

Gumpert and Camden have owned the 10-acre site—the site of the former Transmontaige tank farm—for some years now. A previous redevelopment plan was introduced but shelved by the group; they reintroduced a plan early this year, with the economy seemingly on the mend.

The new plan calls for 45 one-bedroom units, 146 two-bedroom units, and 28 three-bedroom units; 446 parking spaces; a riverwalk connecting to adjoining properties; boat access; new streetscaping; and possibly a roundabout at Island Home Avenue and Maplewood Drive. The total investment: $26 million.

Although Gumpert repeatedly stressed the project is still "in flux," he also said construction could begin as early as this year, perhaps explaining the high levels of tension and anxiety in the room.

He said he did not bring façade plans for the buildings, because "we're looking for public input."

Gumpert is reportedly seeking $3 million in tax increment financing, or a TIF—essentially a tax break that will go toward financing a development—from the city, a point that had not gone unnoticed by those in attendance. One Island Home resident said he "couldn't believe" the city would consider the request on this project.

And one of the loudest rounds of applause was elicited when one homeowner opined that, "The city is so anxious to see something happen on the waterfront that they'll get behind anything to get it started."

Another concern was the nature of the apartments being built; several worried that the units would be cheap, student-style apartments. Although Gumpert assured the crowd that these would be luxury units, renting at anywhere from $800 to $1,250 per month, he couldn't give a firm definition of "luxury apartment" beyond "the rent they bring in."

"It is a class ‘A' apartment community," he said. "Our market study shows there's a strong demand for that. The market and financing define an ‘A' level project, and construction costs.

"I can't give you the demographics [of the apartments' target residents]," he continued. "I can tell you it's working professionals. I get more specific with our demand analysis."

Still others in attendance worried about Camden and Gumpert's abortive history with a previous riverfront residential development, Cityview, in 2006. Camden sold it to another group, apparently when the project took a turn toward condominium rather than apartment development, Camden's specialty. Under the new owner, the project ran into bankruptcy in 2009; it was later bought and completed by still another developer.

But in spite of the public resistance to his project, Gumpert did express his desire to work with the Island Home and other neighborhood residents to fashion an amenable compromise. "This is preliminary; it's not final by any means," he said. "We'd like to blend our desires with what your desires are."