by Frank Cagle
Call it the law of unintended consequences.
Mayor Victor Ashe made no secret of the fact that his priority and his legacy for Knoxville would be parks and greenways. He built new parks, refurbished old ones and established greenways to connect neighborhoods.
County Executive Tommy Schumpert pushed through the largest property tax increase in county history to buy the property that was to contain a Justice Center. While the focus was on a new jail, the complex was to contain courtrooms and offices for court clerks and the district attorney general, and move the entire criminal justice system in Knoxville from the City County building to a Gay Street/State Street complex of buildings.
Ashe built his parks and greenways, but in the short term his biggest impact has been building a road. He reached an agreement with then County Executive Dwight Kessel to annex and build a four-lane boulevard to the new Goody's headquarters in West Knoxville, which became Parkside Drive, which now stretches to Farragut and contains Turkey Creekâ"a cash-producing retail center of shops, restaurants and department stores. The property and sales tax generated throughout this commercial center has been a boon to city coffers. It helped city government avoid a tax increase this year and will provide a stable source of revenue for years to come. If the area had been annexed by Farragut or remained outside Knoxville's city limits, Knoxville would now be hard pressed to maintain services.
Controversy doomed the Justice Center and the county has owned a series of vacant lots in recent years. Proposals like Universe Knoxville and then a transit center topped by an office tower have come and gone. The county swapped the Gay Street lots to the city for the former News Sentinel property at Church and State. The city is in the process of developing the Gay Street site with a multi-screen movie theater.
The old News Sentinel site is now being developed as an office/condominium tower. The old jail site on State Street, now a parking lot, will be offered up this month for development proposals. If you understand local government you know they would not be offering the site in a request for proposals unless there is already a proposal out there.
In the near future the land purchased and cleared for the Justice Center, and the News Sentinel site purchased and cleared, will most likely be occupied by new developments: condos, offices, movie theaters and shops.
The potential developments downtown and the developments at Turkey Creek are the two most significant additions to Knoxville since the days of the West Town Mall, the City County building, the TVA Towers and then the Whittle campus.
They were certainly not the goals Ashe or Schumpert envisioned as a legacy.
We would hasten to point out that Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam have worked to achieve the latest developments. Schumpert's purchases made the county a major player in downtown development, primarily because the county has owned large tracts of downtown property already cleared and ready for development.
Had Haslam and Ragsdale not cooperated and capitalized on these assets, nothing would be happening. It is also true that these vacant lots would remain vacant had the downtown residential boom not occurred. The thing that makes them viable now, when they weren't in the past, is the banks' understanding of downtown condo values, which help the numbers work on these projects. You can build Class A and Class B office space, but the numbers wouldn't work without the residential component. You can thank Leigh Burch, David Dewhirst, Wayne Blasius, Brian Conley (the Metro Pulse publisher and developer) and others for that.
Another factor is the sale of downtown office towers to out-of-town companies. Let's just say the locals are less reluctant to build offices and cherry pick prime office tenants from an out-of-town corporation than they might have been with local ownership.
You can also expect the school system to find a new home, and the historic Andrew Johnson hotel will likely be developed as condos, putting that property back on the tax rollsâ"eventually. The school board was pressured into filling space in the AJ because it prevented a large vacant eyesore next door to the City County Building. The school system employees spend a lot of time going up and down elevators in a building not designed for their needs. As far back as 2001, the idea has been discussed to re-locate the central office staff. But at the time, the prospects of downtown development were miserable and there was no alternative for re-using the AJ. Now there is.
Ashe made the deal for the News Sentinel building to keep the newspaper inside city limits and prevent it moving to West Knox County. Schumpert bought all that property for a government complex, because private development downtown was an impossible dream.
Ain't it funny how life works out?
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