Despite an economic climate that has scuttled one large-scale project downtown and delayed others, architect-turned-developer Buzz Goss says his $91 million Marble Alley project will begin construction within a year. A rare new-construction project on a block long wiped clean of old buildings, the city-within-a-city has been touted as the elusive connection between downtown's main business district, especially Gay Street and Market Square, and the orphaned Old City.
One of downtown's best-known preservationist architects of the last 20 years, Goss and his firm of Goss Design and Development have converted historic buildings for modern use from the Old City to Market Square. In recent years GDD has converted unlikely buildings into residential condominiums, most recently the tall Burwell office building on Gay Street (which also houses Metro Pulse), and the Candy Factory on World's Fair Park. More than a year ago Goss bought an early 20th-century building on Summit Hill near Central. In the last 15 years, the forlorn block has done time as the prospective site of a baseball stadium, a planetarium, a transit center, and the abortive county justice center. Last fall, Goss got an option from the county to buy the big empty block behind the building for $3 million.
Goss has already endured some bad-economy bumps. On the 400 block of Gay, the huge fabric banner heralding an upscale condo project is fading. Goss's proposed conversion of the long-vacant J.C. Penney building stalled out a couple of years ago. With a reined-in version of the original plan—no longer calling for new construction on the top of the building—Goss says it's back in the game, with a different plan. "Thank God we didn't get started," he says. The upscale condo market is not what it used to be. He's not ready to talk specifics with a reporter, but says he's considering proposals involving affordable housing, corporate headquarters, and the University of Tennessee. Suggesting at least two investors are ready to go ahead, he says, "I'm 90 percent sure that's gonna happen."
It'll be big news when it does. For now Goss is concentrating on Marble Alley. The idea is to build nine new buildings over the next five or 10 years, focused around the same marble-lined pedestrian corridor. It could stand on its own as a neighborhood, with places to live, work, shop, and dine—but it would also connect the Old City with the daily traffic of what used to be called Uptown. Geographically, it's not very far from the Old City to Market Square, but it involves a hill, noisy traffic and parking lots, and not much to look at on the way. Marble Alley will comprise a graded pedestrian curve situated to minimize the steepness of the hill, and paved with marble blocks..
Goss has a high-tech presentation with computer imagery, but at one point he thumps his wall. "That's the last leg of Marble Alley—right behind this wall," he says. It's a historic name for an alley that's now hardly more than a patchy driveway between buildings, probably named in the days when Knoxville was proud to be the Marble City.
Lots of appealing big plans come and go, of course. A year or two ago, another State Street project a couple of blocks south seemed plausible—but today, the corner that announced Sentinel Tower, with a colorful architects' drawing of a skyscraper busy with condos and offices and shops, now has a Lot for Sale sign. It's a different economy.
"I don't know if he can do it or not," says Mike Edwards, chief of the Chamber Partnership. "I don't know what his economics are. But I don't have any reason to believe he doesn't have it worked out."
Goss claims he's confident. "I started this process in the middle of the meltdown," he says. "The economy is going to recover and we need to be ready when it does. If we weren't, we'd be behind the 8-ball."
He has some partners in this venture. One is Patrick Hunt, the young preservationist developer who's currently chairman of the Central Business Improvement District. Another is Dr. Vas Bopanna, a local oncologist. A fourth is Keith Rosenberg, a Bethesda, Md., attorney who got interested in Knoxville when his son came to school here. He's involved with a real-estate development company called Potomac Holdings.
"I've encountered skepticism," Goss says, "but not cynicism. Most people think it'll be good for Knoxville." He's anticipating setbacks. "By my best-laid plans, it'll take five years. But it's more likely it'll take 10." Goss plans Marble Alley to include nine buildings in all. "We'll do one building at a time. As these get absorbed into the market, we'll go to the next one. That way we'll get a finer grain, get a city that feels like Knoxville."
Major downtown developer David Dewhirst, who worked closely with Goss for years—and who already owns a bit of property in the section—isn't one of the primary partners, but will be involved, and sounds gung-ho about the idea. "That's the way cities are built, one parcel at a time," he says. "Buzz is just young enough to see it through." Goss is 47.
Goss and his partners are laying out the plan and making the deals, but they won't necessarily plan and finance all or most of the nine buildings. He sees it unfolding like Market Square did, in privately financed increments after infrastructure help from the city—he thinks he'll need $1.5-$2 million, mainly for paving. He'd also like to see a parking garage nearby, as many would. "We already have an issue with parking, and it's gonna get worse," he says.
Developers and specific proposals are all TBA, but Goss is serious about covenants to keep the development coherent. "They can't build whatever they want to," he says. The first requirement he mentions is "transparency." No buildings with blank faces that add no appeal for the pedestrian.
Goss points to a drawing of the most noticeable one, a tall triangular building with a concave side. "That building right there, we're gonna do." The first building will be one of the project's biggest, a $10 million, 10-story building he refers to, for now, as the "Flatiron building" for its triangular shape. He says he's raised almost $1 million, more than half of the equity the bank requires to finance the construction. It's going to be a commercial building with office and retail space.
"I love the Sterchi Building, and am learning from it," he says. By virtue of its height and placement on a bend, the 1920s furniture-chain headquarters is conspicuous for half a mile down Gay Street. He wants his Flatiron Building to be the same sort of icon, visible from Interstate 40, James White Parkway, and the Old City. He wants to build landmarks, he says, "like D.C. with its circles, or Paris with its obelisks." Another major landmark would be a set of broad steps rising 20 feet up to Gay Street from State; to describe them, Goss flashes a photograph of the famous Spanish Steps in Rome. "I can see guys sitting there warming up their banjo before performing on WDVX."
It's a little surprising that he's starting with a commercial building. "The backbone is going to be residential," he says; they're reserving 350,000 square feet for living, beginning with a 100-unit apartment building. "People have told us, ‘We want to build apartments as soon as we can,'" he says. He's not ready to mention any participants by name, but he says he's already heard from "more than one" developer who wants to build "something big and multi-family" along the lines of his project.
He cites other developers' observations that despite all the interest in downtown living in the last 10 years, about 80 percent of downtown Knoxville's residences are in a fairly tightly circumscribed area within a couple of blocks of the 100 block of Gay Street. Marble Alley is adjacent to that area.
"We want to begin before the end of the year," he says. "That's aggressive, and I realize that's aggressive. It's possible we won't get started until early next year."
Naturally, there's a good deal of skepticism about whether Goss and company can pull it off. This would mark the biggest private new-construction project downtown in decades, and it's coming during a recession which seems to be slowing or aborting several other projects.
"Conceptually, it looks great," says city policy-development director Bill Lyons. "It's a connection to the Old City, it's great urban design, it's really just about ideal for that space. Beyond that, I really can't say more. So many things would have to happen" before the city would get involved. He says the city would help with infrastructure improvements, many of which needs to be done anyway, but isn't ready to talk specifics. "It's way too early for that." About a parking garage, he says, "that would likely be for another administration to do."
"There are a whole lot of variables," says Chamber chief Edwards. "This is not a build-it-in-two-years-and-it's-done kind of thing. It's built over time, as opportunities become available." Edwards says that makes it seem more "realistic." He likes the vertical design of the project, which he says aligns with urban plans for that section going back 20 years. He also boasts of downtown's retail reports, which he says bode well for retail-oriented new development; sales-tax receipts from downtown have risen sharply in the last two years even as they've declined countywide in the weak economy.
"When people say, ‘in this economy,' they're right," Edwards says, "but the truth is, it's hard to do these things even in a good economy. Just because it's hard doesn't mean it's worth trying to do." If successful, he says, Marble Alley will be a major boost for downtown. "In order for there to be several of the amenities people want downtown, there has to be new construction. That has been lagging."
A year ago, Goss was talking of Marble Alley as his life's work, his magnum opus. He's no longer saying that. "I've got two more up my sleeve," he says. "One of them's a lot bigger than this one."
Corrected: Name of Buzz Goss' company, Goss Design and Development