Determined to be Downtown North

City officials and local businesses say North Central redevelopment and combating prostitution should both start now

The Downtown North/Interstate 275 revitalization plan to make North Central Street more attractive to residents and to businesses was warmly received by most of the 175 in attendance at its first public meeting July 8. There were a few objections to attempting to draw people to the area while prostitutes work their trade up and down Central and homeless people are habitually sprawled on nearby sidewalks, but most greeted the plan with optimism.

The hoped-for result is a new mixed-use zone, with a street that's been repaved, re-striped, and reduced to two lanes (otherwise known as a "road diet"); on-street parking; bike lanes; and sidewalk improvements. The goal is to make North Central more pedestrian friendly and attract residents and businesses, an extension of downtown successes.

But business owner and landlord Daniel Schuh isn't waiting for the done deal. He's already plunging money into North Central commercial development and has a head start on remodeling seven area retail addresses: 1200, 1202, 1204, 1206, and 1208 North Central; and 105 and 11 Anderson. "My office is in 111, in a cute little space that's been vacant the past 20 years," he says.

Schuh rents part of his properties to Central Chic, an eclectic housewares boutique, and The White Orchid, a wedding shop. The rest of the complex includes three spaces coming up for lease, ranging from a 1,300-square-foot butcher shop to a former grocery shop of 5,000 square feet. "The space is for lease, but what I'd really like to see in there is a medium-size music hall venue that Knoxville's always needed," he says. "But it is for lease for anybody willing to pay for it. I don't care if someone wants to turn it into a one-bedroom."

Schuh is working on turning one of the spaces (1204 North Central) into a restaurant called the Farm Eatery. "The concept is local and regionally-farmed ingredients and something health-oriented," he says. "We're going to start off doing small things—a whole bunch of sides, eight kinds of grilled cheese—and build into it. We'll have a weekly special based on what's in season."

By "we," he means he and whomever he hires as managing partner. "I've gotta find the right person," he says. "I don't know all that much about running a restaurant."

He's already received one windfall—a partial grant for facade improvements from the city Empowerment Zone, says Schuh, who has owned Knoxville Preservation and Development since 2004 (with the silent partnership of his two uncles). He had previously remodeled dozens of houses in the Downtown North and Central Avenue area, renting some and selling others, before he recently began purchasing commercial properties in the same area and working on behalf of the neighborhood and business interests to promote combined interests.

"I served on the Broadway/5th Avenue Mayor's Task Force, where we met for a good while and got working with homeless providers, cities and local residences and businesses," he says. "Part of the work product was the Downtown North Redevelopment Zone—working to turn the downtown area into a prosperous, pedestrians' district."

"That task force was originally formed with the idea to provide a forum for people to vent," says City Council at-large representative Chris Woodhull, who co-chaired it. "Instead, we said, ‘Let's create some shared interest, not around what we don't want, but what we do want.' What came out of that is, ‘We want to build strong, safe, neighborhoods, and have a place where people who are struggling on the street can get some support. We want to create some business opportunities.'

"So the people themselves really came up with the Downtown North concept," says Woodhull. "Less a concept, really, than an affirmation of the strengths we had that we could build on. Then the local government—which is what it should do—got behind it and provided the infrastructure for it to happen."

To further those types of efforts, Schuh has also helped form the Downtown North Association, a collection of residents and business owners working to promote the area as an arts and entertainment community. It's been meeting since May—no real action items yet—and includes members such as Jeffrey Nash, president of the Courtland Group, which is building the 17-unit condo North Central Village. "We strongly believe that the city is behind the effort and extremely excited," says Schuh. "They've been good to work with—giving me a facade grant, for example. The sidewalks in front of my building already have marks where they're going to be torn out; the old, broken sidewalk is going to be replaced by new sidewalks, with trees and plantings. I just hung the last awning and it looks terrific. Without the city's help, we could have done it, but we wouldn't have done it."

He's not as happy with the city's efforts to combat visible prostitution in the North Central area, though.

"I guarantee you I could drive down Central and get a prostitute right now," he says. "I know when the businesses get going the situation will resolve itself. Prostitutes don't want to be where a lot of people are, so they'll naturally go elsewhere. In the meantime, we need to make it the least hospitable environment we can. The KPD is starting to do a better job at making it a priority, but meantime, I encourage my neighbors who have to drive through it to report it more. If you see a prostitute, call the police."

KPD investigator Jeremy Maupin of the Narcotics and Prostitution division doesn't anticipate another increase in prostitution monitoring in the Central/Downtown North area, but he emphasizes that the KPD has very recently enhanced its prostitution control efforts citywide.

"I feel right now that we're at the strongest we've ever been in efforts to control prostitution, especially in the Repeat Offender and Organized Crime units," he says. "In addition, each of the six squad patrols must undertake a directive or special assignment once a month. Recently, 90 percent of them are opting for prostitution stings.

"Yesterday [July 14], the East Squad East did one sting and got 13 individuals with 30 charges. That's 13 off the street in one day."

Maupin says commercial and retail development along Central should stem prostitution, with business owners giving patrol officers an assist with surveillance and reporting. "I think the businesses won't appreciate those women—and men—loitering in front of the stores. They'll go out and make contact with them, which will discourage them, and they'll report them to us. I think that will eventually force the issue somewhere else."

Maupin is fine with Schuh's suggestion to have everyone call the police at the first evidence of prostitution. "I encourage them to call 911 and make the complaints. If there's a patrol officer available, we'll send them over. We want to know where the problems are. That's what we're here for."

Bob Whetsel, the city's director of redevelopment, is confident that the prostitution can be halted in due time. "It's something we have to deal with , but it's not something where we have to put everything else on hold while we deal with it," he says. "We can move on the social issue front and the economic development front at the same time."

The city even has the budget for implementing the program as it's currently conceived, says Whetsel. "There's some money—there's never enough," he says. "The street surfacing, if it's done, and it's looking like it will be, will be done through operational dollars. We have planning money for the coming year, and minor money for a few public infrastructure improvements."

The rezoning to allow mixed use of the street will probably have the highest impact, says Whetsel, "and it doesn't cost a lot of money."

There's even some facade improvement money left from an Empowerment Zone allotment, and it can be applied to North Central properties. "The half-million we've already dispersed of facade improvement money has already been leveraged with $1.5 million from the private sector—that's the money the building owners had to put in to complete the project," he says.

As for Schuh, no matter what happens with the prostitutes, he's on board with the Downtown North concept. "I believe in the area," he says. "I think that Central has hit the bottom and can only go up.

"I'm going ahead. You should see some people sitting out on the sidewalk right shortly, enjoying the view."

A second installment of the Downtown North/Interstate 275 redevelopment plan coverage will focus on its relationship to Knoxville's homeless population.