The Andrew Johnson Quandary

Is the likely gain worth the costs?

City Beat

Last week, Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale's office sent a letter to Roy Mullins, interim superintendent of Knox County Schools, suggesting that the Board of Education vacate its headquarters in the Andrew Johnson Building. The school system has occupied 16 of the old hotel's 18 floors, plus the basement, since the county bought the building in 1991. The school system currently employs about 215 staffers in the AJ. In addition to those, the 145,661-square-foot building also hosts some law-enforcement and judicial offices, Community Television, the Community Mediation Center, and one private company, Verizon, as well as a weekday-lunch restaurant called A J's.

Ragsdale cited â“multiple developersâ” who'd made offers to develop the building as a â“mixed-used space with a residential element.â”

The building, which also sports a small 19th-floor penthouse, affords some of downtown's best views of the river, and of the mountains beyond, but, like most office buildings, is nearly empty all but 40 hours a week. It might seem ripe for the sort of redevelopment that seems to have overtaken most of the older tall buildings on Gay Street, but whether it ever happens is a complicated issue, and anything but certain.

It has a history like no other building in the world. Originally known as the Tennessee Terrace, the brick building was Knoxville's premiere luxury hotel when it opened in the very earliest days of the Smokies tourist trade. Renamed after East Tennessee's only president during a rare period of scholarly favor for the once-impeached and much-maligned Johnson, it was for decades the tallest building in the Knoxville area. As a hotel, it hosted an astonishing array of guests over the years. Amelia Earhart gave an interview here a year before her disappearance. Jean-Paul Sartre stayed here for several days and wrote an essay about American cities for Le Figaro in the AJ. Sergei Rachmaninoff spent the night here after the final public performance of his career. Hank Williams spent his last conscious hours here; some believe he died in the Andrew Johnson.

It closed as a hotel in the 1970s, and news reports indicated it would be torn down. The Andrew Johnson was reborn as an office building in the '80s, though, and hosted a variety of tenants. For several years, the magazine company Whittle Communications occupied almost half the building for its editorial headquarters during its high point, when author George Plimpton and others were visitors at the AJ, and a few nationally known authors and magazine journalists began their careers in that building.

The Knox County School System has occupied the building since 1991. Knox County bought the building then for $2.5 million. Public Building Authority chief Dale Smith says it hasn't even been appraised since then, and won't hazard a guess about what it would bring on the open market. â“I don't know, and I don't know anybody who does,â” he says. He mentions, however, that like a lot of old buildings, it will have two prices: One to buy and use as is, and one to buy and convert to a very different use, like residential, which would probably require a lot of gutting and a price tag in the millions.

But it's hard to ignore the fact that the price the county paid for the whole building 16 years ago is equivalent to the combined price of just three or four luxury condos on Gay Street today. According to Ragsdale's letter to Mullins, these â“premium pricesâ” have been the impetus to reconsider the AJ's use. The county could make a major profit from the sale, and at least finance the construction of a new home for the school system. Though no details of such a home are forthcoming, county spokesmen say such a project would probably be in the downtown area. According to Lorna Norwood, â“I would guess there'd be either a better existing space somewhere, or we could build a new space that would serve the schools' interests better.â”

Interim Superintendent Mullins shared his first impressions of Ragsdale's proposal with us this week in an email conveyed via the school system's public-affairs office. â“My first reaction to the letter was that we don't want to move our offices out of the building unless it will be a better situation for us in terms of convenience and space utilization,â” Mullins writes. â“My recommendation to the Board of Education is to ask for a feasibility study which would identify the value of the AJ, sites which would be conducive to relocate our Central Office staff, ample parking for staff and visitors alike, and other advantages that are not currently available to the AJ Building.â”

In his letter to Mullins, Ragsdale refers to the AJ's â“many shortcomings as an office building.â” The shortcomings are not detailed, but interim superintendent Mullins notes that having offices on 16 different floors â“makes it difficult to communicate at times.â” He also mentions parking for visitors. Inexpensive visitor parking is probably harder to find in the vicinity of the AJ than anywhere else downtown, but the county-owned Dwight Kessel Garage, just behind the building, offers dedicated parking to all the AJ's employees, and is rarely close to full. Mullins adds that â“the building is well constructed [and] is convenient to other government offices located in the City County Building.â”

Residential development of the AJ would balance residential development overall. So far, almost all of the new residential development downtown has been north of Church Avenue. The current residential arrangement, heavily weighted on the northern half of downtown, leaves the southern half, especially the courthouse area near the AJ, very quiet during non-business hours.

There's some sympathy for the idea of restoring the AJ as a hotel. Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis, and even Greeneville have large historic hotels currently operating in their downtowns. Knoxville has two still standing, the Andrew Johnson and the older Farragut, currently an underoccupied office building at the corner of Gay and Clinch. Within the last two years, at least one developer has studied the idea of converting the AJ back into a hotel, but reportedly abandoned the idea as unfeasible. Smith remarks that the addition of rooms provided by new downtown-area hostelries like the Cumberland House and Hampton Inn saps that motivation some.

Some in the county say that possibility is still in play, but a surer thing seems to be the mixed-use model dominated by residential, a demand that seems to have no end, at least in terms of currently envisioned projects.

Smith advises caution. He says the school system is paying $6.50 a foot for space in the AJ, a very low rate by downtown standards, and probably couldn't do that well unless they moved the office to a more remote location, outside of downtown. The county might well realize a major windfall in the sale of the AJ, but might have to pay for it in long-term costs of locating the school administration elsewhere.

The PBA chief adds that much of the nearby City County Building is packed to the gills, and even the 29 PBA employees who work in the AJ would seem difficult to place elsewhere in the vicinity. He proposes that maybe the answer will come from the private sector: that any developer interested in developing the AJ might provide a plan for how the county can deal with the county's loss of downtown space. Part of a successful private development plan for the AJ, he says, might include providing suitable and affordable space for its current public tenants.  

â“Until you have those costs taken care of, if somebody offers you $10 million for the Andrew Johnson, is that a good deal?â” Smith asks. â“Probably not.â” â" Jack Neely

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