Return of the Cherokee

Sutherland Avenue's old mill to be reborn, again

The old Cherokee Mills building is unobtrusive, set back from Sutherland Avenue, but is otherwise hard to ignore. You might not guess it from the street, but the 1917 textile mill at Sutherland and Concord is relatively huge, almost a quarter of a million square feet on a 12-acre lot, certainly one of the biggest properties in the central part of town.

In recent years, its empty parking lot has unsettled both preservationists and business boosters. In 1986, the Cherokee seemed to get a new lease on life as a chic new office park, one of the first industrial-to-office conversions accomplished hereabouts. It enjoyed a relatively short run as home to a technical school, later a call center, among other smaller tenants, and 22 years hence, it's 90 percent empty. Its few tenants include a UT Home Health Care office and some non-profits.

Just lately there are men in hard hats in the vicinity, clear signs that someone either cares about the place or is about to tear it down. It's the former in this case, the beginning of a multi-million-dollar private rehabilitation project.

Steve Hall, a renovating developer with projects in several states, bought the building late last year for a reported price of $4 million. Maybe not one of the most written-about Steve Halls—neither the city councilman nor the former register of deeds—this particular Steve Hall is a vigorous entrepreneur, among other things majority owner of the Dominion Development Group, which has a dozen projects in the works in several states, including the recently finished major residential rehab project Greenbrier Ridge (formerly the Raillery) on Lonas Road.

Hall seems especially excited about what he'll call the Cherokee Mills building, his largest office project. With the help of innovative preservationist architect Gregor Smee, of Smee + Busby Architects, Hall plans to convert the Cherokee into Class A office space. Inside, the place has a little bit of the feel of a high-end funhouse or a fanciful industrial castle. Two atriums connect three floors to a skylight; some balcony-like views expose all three floors, including the below-grade bottom floor, which will feature plantings of trees and shrubbery. Some of the walls are 22 inches thick, but the generous skylights shed sunlight all over the place. The building's industrial-style lofts, lifted from the roof like the pilot houses on a steamboat, will serve as well-lit meeting rooms. The one on the building's east end, lined with exposed wood, is a little reminiscent of a treehouse, except with an attached kitchen.

"There's not a building like it," Hall says, convincingly. "The look, the feel, the location—it's a half-mile from UT, two miles from downtown."

Much of the interior's existing workmanship is unusual: Some roof work visible in some stairwells is composed of tongue-in-groove planks but with the tongues separate pieces of wood. A drab concrete floor, obscured by generations of tile glue, proved upon some vigorous buffing to be a sunset crimson in color.

Elsewhere, a maple floor is multiply nailed in an industrially haphazard fashion, but nonetheless polished and smooth, maybe an urban equivalent to rustic. "You just stepped from 1933 to 1917," Hall says. The eastern end of the building was built first; Cherokee expanded in the early ‘30s. (The textile business was sometimes out of step with the U.S. economy; some mills grew during the Depression, only to wither in the prosperous postwar period; Cherokee quit the building in 1956; for about 25 years thereafter it was a potato-chip factory.)

A recess will become a courtyard, with brick pavers, a tent-like covering, and a stage, for outdoor presentations and gatherings. The interior features exposed brick and wooden beams, and a sample office is fitted out with walnut wainscoting. Much of its interior will be contingent on tenants' desires. Hall expects to spend $6-9 million on the rehab work; his lessees may choose to spend more.

Class A can seem an amorphous concept, but to Hall, it's about character. "It has to do with the finishes and exteriors of the building. It has to do with the courtyard, it has to do with the landscaping, it has to do with the type of tenants." He forecasts medium-sized offices of professionals; so far, he says, among his six new, yet-unnamed tenants, are a physicians' office, an architectural firm, and a bank, which will use the building for "back-office" work. He says about 40-50 percent of the building is now spoken for; the Cherokee's leasing agent is Joe Petre of Conversion Properties.

Hall dismisses hastily constructed West Knoxville offices as "A for a Day." He elaborates: "Put up a box, there's no history, and no campus feel," he says. "You look at the dynamic new businesses, Google, Microsoft, they build campuses, recruiting employees for the next generation.... It's such a different era now of recruiting and employee satisfaction," Hall says. "Cherokee will be a working place that is a fun and active place to be.

"We're right on the bike trail; that's a huge advantage." An iron bridge over the railroad tracks connects the Cherokee to the Third Creek Greenway, which makes the building handy to prospective bicycle commuters and to employees looking for a place for a mid-day jog.

Several of its incidental advantages had been there before, but the development seemed to decline anyway. Hall says he plans for moderate-sized businesses of about 10,000 square feet each; if all goes well, he'll have somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 tenants, which will diversify the development and render it less dependent on any one tenant, as had been the issue with the previous setup.

Hall also plans several upgrades, including some for the more environmentally conscious 21st century: he says the place will be green, in terms of high-efficiency heating and air-conditioning, a recycling program, and an all-healthy-food cafe. He mentions there's already a covered bus stop, serving two routes, in front.

One unfortunate aspect of the development may not be remedied this go-round. Though the 1986 redo seems forward-looking in some ways, it apparently eliminated the pre-existing sidewalks on both Sutherland and Concord. City policy often advises developers to preserve sidewalks, but in the days when some were convinced personal automobiles were practically universal and walking a thing of the past, the city often allowed developers to landscape over the sidewalk right-of-way.

Most of Sutherland has sidewalks on both sides of the street, but on both Sutherland and Concord the sidewalks end decisively at Cherokee Mills. In a neighborhood between UT and UT residential areas, and close to the Greenway, pedestrians and slow bicyclists have to either cross to the other side or walk on the development's grassy shoulder. But because the Cherokee's improvements are mainly to the building itself, Metropolitan Planning Commission staffer Dan Kelly says his agency is not presently recommending a restoration of the sidewalks in association with this project. Plans are on file at the city's plans-review office.

Bill Lyons, the city's director of policy development, is happy to see it. "That's a key place, and any economic revitalization close in is positive news," he says. "I think we're starting to reverse the trend. In the core of the city, a lot of areas are coming to life."

Lyons mentions new activity on North Central and Broadway, but also mentions the other large existing textile-mill building—the vacant Standard Knitting Mills megalith on the northeast corner of downtown. It's even larger than Cherokee; an out-of-town developer who had planned to convert it for new uses is disappointing some neighbors with the project's slow pace.

If all goes well, Hall says, the Cherokee should be completed and occupied by multiple tenants in 2010.