University Commons vs. Cumberland Corridor

Not the fight of the century, maybe—but can they work as a tag team?

The announcement that a major development involving the Florida-based Publix grocery chain and international retail Godzilla, Walmart, would be lumbering toward central Knoxville was startling news in itself. But this 211,000-square-foot development is proposed for the foot of Cumberland Avenue, just as the city's beginning practical work on a long-discussed plan to give "the Strip" a pedestrian-friendly college-town feel with broad sidewalks and shops fronting the street—not exactly the familiar Walmart way.

Then there's the traffic issue. Jammed for decades, especially at rush hours, four and five-lane Cumberland Avenue is already anticipating a harsh diet: five blocks of it narrowing from four lanes to three to make it safer and generally more comfortable for pedestrians. It's likely to be controversial anyway. Would Walmart ever put up with that? Walmart's a good deal bigger than Knoxville.

Cynics were ready to assume the city would roll over for the claimed economic impact of $226 million and creation of more than 1,700 jobs, and Walmart would snap up the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project like an hors d'oeuvre.

It may not be quite that bad. The developer is a local firm, CHM, named for partners Bud Cullom, Jim Harrison, and Mike McGuffin, known for a comparable recent project to put Publix and Target into the Northshore Town Center project, reviving that attempt to grow a sort-of pedestrian-oriented new-urbanist community in West Knox. They're also working on Virginia College, a conversion of a former Kroger in Fountain City to a junior college, almost complete.

What they plan at University Commons is an unusual urban-style development with parking on the ground floor, behind frontage of small shops, which will make up about a fifth of the project. The Walmart, located on the second floor, will be limited to "general merchandise," sans groceries, and will occupy about 100,000 square feet—smallish for a Walmart. Harrison says it will be one of only three such "general merchandise stores" in the nation. "Walmart's trying to get at urban markets," he says.

The developers promise a "distinctive multistory structure will revive the look and feel of a turn-of-the-century factory." Which, irony enthusiasts will observe, is exactly what the landowner, multinational corporation Invensys, demolished six years ago. The Fulton Bellows plant, known for a few decades as Robertshaw, manufactured delicate parts for gauges and other instruments here for about 90 years. In the number of people employed there, Fulton was once larger than the nearby university. It left an enormous footprint much larger than is obvious from the road. It's a brownfield, of course, which may call for extensive remediation.

CHM's announcement of the plan seems to anticipate the anxiety that Walmart's influence would spoil the neighborhood's urban design. "This project [and] the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project will be great complements to each other," the firm's statement quotes partner Jim Harrison. "Together, these projects will make this semi-suburban area that is often used as a pass-through into a safe and attractive urban district…"

Veteran City Director of Redevelopment Bob Whetsel is one of the constants bridging the Haslam and Rogero administrations, and he has been working on several urban-revival projects, including the Cumberland Avenue project, for years. He says the city knew about the project a while before it became public, and have been discussing it with developers.

He says they're still studying it all, but he sounds impressed with what he's seen so far.

"I think it's potentially pedestrian friendly," Whetsel says, emphasizing the adverb.

"They've kind of borrowed from the Cumberland plan," he says, with hidden parking and buildings fronting the sidewalks of what will essentially be a new street perpendicular to Cumberland. The University Commons proposal is outside of the city's redevelopment zone, and the city's making no demands on them in that respect. "They just think that's good urban design," Whetsel says.

Whetsel suggests the project's intersection with Joe Johnson Drive side—the relatively recent road linking the main campus with the ag campus by way of a bridge over the Third Creek Greenway—might be favored by many pedestrians, offering access to residential halls and (albeit in a roundabout sort of way) the new sorority row.

Automobile traffic bears some further study. "We've got three big flows" of traffic at Cumberland, he says. The Cumberland Avenue flow itself; the Volunteer Boulevard flow, dominated by University of Tennessee students, staff, and faculty connecting with Kingston Pike; and the 22nd Street flow, dominated by Fort Sanders hospital folks. The Cumberland redesign will stop at 22nd Street anyway, a couple of blocks short of the new development, so traffic in the immediate vicinity of the development would be unaffected, and Whetsel says it will offer an opportunity to fix the dysfunctional traffic light at the railroad tracks. West of 22nd, Cumberland will remain five lanes wide, but Whetsel says they can still widen the sidewalk under the trestle, connecting the traditional Strip to University Commons.

How the project fits into downtown's retail mix, however downtown is defined, is more complicated. The University Commons site is about a mile from Henley Street, most of which is already covered by a free trolley. University Commons would arguably answer several long-bemoaned lacks: hardware, electronics, prescription drugs, cheap groceries, and basic clothing, services that have seemed slow to return to downtown. There aren't many mom-and-pop stores in the city center providing the sort of basics that Walmart sells. Considering Walmart and Publix will share 171,000 square feet of the project—40,000 is earmarked for smaller shops—math suggests is will be one of Walmart's smaller stores.

Even in their announcement, CHM warns that partly due to the expenses associated with the brownfield issue, the project "will absolutely not happen unless we are able to secure the necessary funding through the TIFs and the NMTC [New Markets Tax Credit]."

It may be easier to convince the city that the project deserves tax-increment financing than to convince the federal government that the UT area deserves the New Markets designation.

The NMTC is a federal project intended help revive low-income communities. Whether the low-income designation is credible in a spot adjacent to a major university—and a scone's throw from a new multi-million dollar gated sorority-house village—remains to be determined.

The census district, which includes Fort Sanders, may literally be low-income, but collegiate poverty is not one of the grimmer sorts. Harrison's been told the neighborhood qualifies, though, and if all their financing is approved, they should break ground this year, with a two-year construction period.