Downtown Knoxville's Newest Neighborhood: Jackson Avenue

From Jackson Avenue's long block to Depot Street and beyond, downtown's preservationist tide is inching northward

The most surprising development on downtown's longest and least-known block is called the Standard. Two years ago, it was an abandoned, vacant, and rapidly decaying industrial building whose owner was seeking a demolition permit. It comprised two adjacent buildings. One had been recently vacated by a glass-repair business. The other had been left for dead decades ago. Its roof and an interior wall had collapsed, and nobody cared much.

This year, the same double building, now a large, complex event venue, has been hosting elaborate weddings more weekends than not, with about 20 more on the schedule before the end of the year. That's not counting some posh fund-raisers, some of them scheduled a year in advance. The building, which includes one very large room, a mezzanine, and another that's a sort of split-level effect, plus a subterranean "boiler room" and a lofty back patio, halfway up the kudzu-covered hill, holds 1,180. On Sept. 13, it will host the annual public-radio fund-raiser WDVX-travaganza, starring popular singer/songwriter Robinella, the first event to which the general public is invited. Though tickets are $50, they're expecting a big crowd.

Nearby, along the sidewalk in another set of century-old buildings known as West Jackson Row, some young businesses—Nathanna Design and Status Serigraphic—have set up shop, as another, the Happy Envelope, after outgrowing its space on Union Avenue, is moving in. The chain of buildings that includes the Three Feathers Building (named in honor of a long-gone beer joint), the Fixture Building, and the Armature Building host 76 new residences, all but five of them completed and occupied. Behind them is an outdoor scene that's even more startling. In the backyard of Knoxville's newest residences, accessible via a passageway underneath the viaduct ramp but not obvious from the street, is a courtyard like no other in Tennessee.

Surrounded by a pocket canyon of three-, four-, and five-story buildings, and a steep bluff of mossy boulders, a curved walkway leads past unusual wooden sculptures. The combination of greenery and elevation all seems almost surreal, and vaguely Mediterranean—even though only a little bit of what you see of is newly built. It's almost all just old Knoxville stuff that's been renovated in ways that bring out the contrasts. If you doubt the scene's real, or that it's in Knoxville, you can look up at an old chain-link fence serving to prevent an avalanche of a few decades of Vine Street rubble and refuse.

Dewhirst Properties, downtown's most prolific development firm, is in charge of both the Standard and the West Jackson Row courtyard. That company's back patio looks out over it, but all these elements are part of a chain of new projects by several developers who are working independently while appreciating the momentum their neighbors are supplying. There's no overriding city-imposed plan, but the nation's most pointy-headed urban planners might find little to protest about how downtown Knoxville developers have been going about things lately. There are certain themes to it all—"mixed use," "form-based," "new urbanist," whatever current jargon you want to apply, to be sure—but, for whatever lucky reason, this fringe of new projects seem, for the moment at least, both profitable to developers and by most accounts smart for the city in the long run.

Across the train tracks from the West Jackson push are other ambitious jobs, including Dewhirst's White Lily project, the 42-unit residential development due to be done in about a year; some associated projects in the Central and Depot neighborhood involving both preservation and new construction by both Dewhirst and, working independently, developer Jeffrey Nash; and the county's mammoth Knoxville High School building just beyond, on Fifth Avenue. Three local developers, including Dewhirst, have submitted residential proposals for the KHS building. Taken all together, this new offensive on the northern edge of the traditional central business district may eventually add a couple hundred new urban-style residences of various sizes, shapes, and prices. It's all bringing downtown's residential density closer to an ideal that might support say, the elusive grocery, hardware store, electronics store, and pharmacy. And it all seems more than likely to expand the boundaries of what we consider downtown.

If you've ever even set foot on the long block of Jackson between Gay Street and Broadway, you may be in a minority.

For most of its history, Jackson Avenue west of Gay Street has been industrial, a place of warehouses and small factories and machine shops, familiar to practical buyers and sellers and the laborers who kept it all humming, but not as much to the general public. Appearances to the contrary, Jackson Avenue is a relatively new street by downtown standards. It didn't develop until the city was close to a century old, and in its early years, it was barely there, hardly more than a truncated alley on either side of Gay Street. Its namesake is not Andrew Jackson, but a now-forgotten railroad executive who apparently outlived his local influence. But by the 1890s, it was an avenue of big buildings, all of them there mainly for the access to the railroad yards. Some of its buildings were showy, but rarely visited by mainstream shoppers or revelers.

Separated from the rest of downtown by a steep hill, and hard by the old freight yards on the other, Jackson, west of Gay, lacks cross streets and isn't really on the way from anywhere to anywhere. The freight yards, in particularly, though not nearly as busy as they were a century ago, are still owned by the railroad, which doesn't allow trespassing and isn't liberal about easements. Its isolation by hill and rail yard is the reason it's such a long block, the equivalent of three blocks, but without cross streets to signal a change in numbered addresses.

In recent decades, the long block of Jackson was known for its clusters of vagrants, occasional crime, increasing vacancy, and for the city's most spectacularly ruinous fire of recent memory, the 2007 inferno that destroyed most of the huge and long-vacant McClung Warehouses. Though a couple of businesses held on through it all, the block was, in recent years, dominated by rubble and ruins, some caused by the fire, some just by neglect.

Though unfamiliar to most downtown pedestrians, Jackson Avenue is often mentioned as the conspicuous face of downtown to passing interstate traffic. The hastiest assessments of downtown Knoxville may have been based entirely on the unprepossessing appearance of West Jackson.

Hardly any commercial block in Knoxville has bloomed quite as suddenly as this long block. Some of its changes seem almost startling, even if you've heard rumors about them.

Two development teams, Sanders/Pace and Dewhirst Properties, have been working on the block from opposite ends, and others will likely soon join the party as the city—after years of legal and financial anxiety—stabilizes what remains of the McClung buildings and issues its request for proposals for the piece of property between Jackson and the freight yards. Most of the 1.7 acres involved in the McClung dilemma no longer hosts actual buildings, and would presumably be interesting to developers for brand-new construction. That's not counting a large city-owned parking lot near the Gay Street viaduct that may become part of a proposal.

Knoxville downtown coordinator Rick Emmett affirms it's all on the table, though if the 192-space city parking lot becomes part of the McClung deal, the city would like developers to include an equivalent amount of parking in a prospective plan—perhaps by building on a platform that could even bring commercial space up to the Gay Street viaduct.

That's entirely speculative now. But coincidental with the private initiatives are two government-led projects. A sort of greenway—in this case, just a broad sidewalk with streetlights and plantings—that will connect West Jackson with World's Fair Park, near the Foundry, crossing Broadway in the process. Emmett hopes that crossing will include significant new safety features, perhaps even a bit of median on Broadway. The walkway will eventually extend to the east, through the Old City and well beyond, to Patton Street. He says there's already funding for that, and it may be done sometime next year. When completed, the World's Fair Park connection would provide an all-pedestrian, or wheelchair, or bicycle route from the university to Jackson Avenue, with only one road crossing.

Probably after that, with state and federal funding, the city will replace the ancient brick ramps that connect with Gay Street. Presumed to be the original brick ramps that connected a raised Gay Street with Jackson in 1919, they seem to be composed of bricks manufactured on-site for the purpose. The bumpy ride up Jackson to Gay is part of the neighborhood experience, and most locals want to keep it in some form.

Emmett says the city would favor a simple solution, like textured concrete, in homage to the brick, but federal historical guidelines may encourage using the original brick itself. It's all in the study phase now; Emmett doesn't expect to see that project done before 2015.

So far, with the exception of McClung Warehouses, purchased after 15 years of waiting for a private-sector solution, the city's touch has been light. A streetscape plan to improve the pedestrian appeal of the 500 block of North Gay, just beyond the interstate, may have positive effects on northern urban development in general; it commenced this week.

And then there's TDOT's plan to replace the nearby Broadway viaduct, regrettably without the little brick buildings atop it that housed offices and shops years ago.

Emmett worries about what he calls gridlock in that sector. "With so much going on, over the next three or four years," he says, "it's going to take a whole lot of coordination."

The great big question concerning the McClung Warehouses and their associated space remains-- with the city to issue an RFP, perhaps before the end of the year. What will occupy the north side of Jackson 10 or 20 years from now is something no one seems ready to guess.

Insiders suspect that whatever happens probably won't be determined by Dewhirst or Sanders/Pace or any of downtown's recent heroes. The buildings themselves need major work, perhaps beyond the scope of local preservationist developers. Even the new construction will be extraordinarily costly, as architect John Sanders notes, because it has to rise up to Jackson Avenue from its foundation at the rail-yard level. "From way down there, you have to spend a lot of money before you get up to Jackson Avenue," he says. "You have to spend $1 million before you even have access to the right of way."

They're expecting deep-pocket investors, probably from out of town, to step in and see the potential. One option is a philanthropic non-profit, like Minneapolis-based ArtSpace, which came here a few months ago with the encouragement of the Cornerstone Foundation. They've expressed interest in the McClung buildings, along with some others; and their presence would fold in well with established art center the Emporium and the University of Tennessee's Downtown Gallery, both nearby on Gay Street.

But it's been only a few weeks that the city has had control of the property. Nobody's anywhere near ready to predict anything specific.

What's on Jackson now is interesting enough, especially in contrast with what was there, and wasn't there, in recent memory. The Standard evolved almost by accident.

Developer Dewhirst and his partner/architect Mark Heinz were first interested in the Standard property because it seemed a potential liability to their neighboring projects closer to Gay Street. Half of the building, once an Ingersoll Rand machinery corporation presence, had been vacant for many years. Its roof was partially collapsed, with interior walls "melting," as Dewhirst puts it. The better half was leaky, too, and perhaps not far behind. Even preservationists would be unlikely to get worked up about it. Dewhirst bought the buildings, and their liabilities, just because he didn't want more vacancy in the neighborhood.

"The last thing Jackson Avenue needs is a gravel parking lot with weeds," Dewhirst says. So they bought it, unsure at first about what they'd do with it.

Heinz, who's originally from Philadelphia but has become the go-to authority on Knoxville's architectural history, is fascinated with the whole block, and has photos and drawings of it from the late 19th century, through the dramatic raising of Gay Street in 1919, to the present day. The concrete part of the Armature Building, he says, was one of the first three "non-combustible" buildings erected in Knoxville, around 1900. The Standard is new, by their standards—from the 1920s.

"It was completely in ruins," Heinz says. "The roof had collapsed, and they just locked the doors. It was not safe to go in. Of course, David and I went in."

Dewhirst remembers that day vividly. "Mark and I walked in here the first time, said, ‘Oh my God, this would be a great place to have a party!'"

"It just had a great scale," Heinz says. "Nobody recognized what a terrific building it was." Containing about 14,000 square feet in all, the building captured their imagination. Beyond adding a roof and stabilizing it, they changed little, kept the surfaces of the old place, some of them glossy with the patina of decades, adding only the requisite modern bathrooms and fire exits and a little caterer's kitchen. Old offices, some with old-fashioned translucent-glass windows, have been transformed into "green rooms" suitable for bands waiting to perform or brides arranging a veil.

Another innovation is just outside. The hill up to Vine Avenue is daunting—from here, Vine Avenue seems well named, because the steep hill up to it is covered in kudzu—but it's surprising, when you emerge from the mezzanine onto the back patio, how close to the top you're getting. Dewhirst means to use the kudzu itself to make a sort of canopy over the back patio. Has live kudzu ever been used in architecture? Maybe, but perhaps not in Knoxville.

"It can be super-elegant, rustic, everything in between," says Dewhirst. "It has a way of accepting everything and making it that much better." He's an accomplished salesman, and his enthusiasm for unusual old buildings is infectious, but the Standard's busy calendar suggests he has hit on something.

"The wedding industry operates by word of mouth, and it's huge," says Mary Beth Tugwell, of Dewhirst Properties, who plans the Standard's events. "It's cool and looks different. Photographers are all about it, because their photographs look so different from the last 10 weddings they did." Dewhirst charges $5,000 for the all-day use of the thing, with prices down to $100 an hour for use of a smaller space. And for the foreseeable future, parking's easy. The city lot across the street, though prospectively a building site, is free at night and on weekends.

Next week's WDVX-travaganza may be the first of many concerts in the building. Chyna Brackeen, of Attack Monkey Productions, books bands for Dogwood Arts' annual Rhythm N Blooms music festival and says they're planning to use the Standard as one of their principal venues next April. "It's a wonderful venue," says Brackeen, whose office is near Dewhirst's, just around the corner. "I believe it can be a catalyst for growth on this end of downtown."

A smaller free-standing building, with brick showing fading colors of more than a century of different paint jobs, is next door to the Standard. Dewhirst says that, by this time next year, it will be a new "destination restaurant," one with a hillside back patio. They're just beginning on that renovation, and they're not announcing their tenant by name yet, but they say it's local and no ordinary sort of eatery. It's developer talk, sure, but they're effective at getting you to wonder.

In a series of buildings adjacent to his other projects on the 100 block of Gay Street, Dewhirst has made space for 76 apartments, 71 of which are completed and occupied. The courtyard behind them regularly strikes first-time visitors as a "wonderland," which features mossy natural rock outcrops and an arcing walkway adorned with unusual concentric Chinese-privet sculpture by artist Kelly Brown. Some large geometric concrete pieces on the patio were salvaged from Dewhirst's JFG project a block away.

"We just had this opportunity to be in this urban forest," Heinz says. "To be downtown, and to have this spectacular park here, where people can relax and walk their dogs. Nobody knows this is even here."

Heinz says they had argued in the office about several aspects of the plan, especially whether to install a swimming pool. To keep the peace, they decided to hire an expert, and obey her. Sara Hedstrom, of Hedstrom Designs, was in charge of the makeover, which, in the end, did not include a pool. Back here, the smell of chlorine might break the spell somehow.

They're so happy with its success, Heinz says, that they're going to build another courtyard by some of their new construction on Depot.

Depot, Fifth, then Emory Place, and potential development for other blocks beyond that, Knoxville seems to be reclaiming downtown's northern quarter, abandoned with the construction of the highway in the 1950s.

But all that's a story for 2014, 2015, and beyond. What you can see now is on Jackson.

"I think it's the best building David's done," says architect John Sanders about the Standard. The partner in Sanders/Pace works on the long block, and used to live here, when almost no one else did. Among downtown's leading preservationist developers there's a camaraderie that's almost eerie, considering how few old buildings are left to compete for.

But Dewhirst's progress on Jackson is likely to bring more attention to what Sanders/Pace has already done there. The architecture/development firm has been settled into the western end of the block for three years now, when they rebuilt a roofless shell of a 1930s industrial building into what they call the West Jackson Workshop, a lively office space for themselves—they employ seven in their offices in the center of the building—as well as Titan Technologies, an IT startup; and a space shared by a potter and a photographic studio. (The latter two are reportedly both quiet, and don't bother each other.) In a separate, much older building next door—dating from the 1880s and probably the oldest building on the long block—is a single residence and a fitness-training studio associated with a cooking business called Stoopid Good Food.

Sanders/Pace is better known for their signature building, the 1920s Southeastern Glass building at the far end of the block, on the corner of Broadway. Working with developer Joe Petre, of Conversion Properties, they took on one of the most unusual, and most challenging, buildings downtown, the six-story building designed with few right angles. It was practically empty 10 years ago. Today it has 15 residential units, all occupied, plus commercial spaces, housing Synergy Business Environments and Morris Creative.

Across Jackson from there is innovative entrepreneur Gregg White's creation, a former service station that's now a bar, an old hydraulic lift forming a very sturdy bar table. The Corner BP is a bit of Key West on the edge of downtown—pool, darts, cornhole, the half-outside place is the sort of place where you get your can of cold beer in a coozie, whether you ask for it or not, and get a barbecue sandwich if you want one, or other stuff, depending on what they brought in that day.

At present, all told, it appears at least 100 people live on Jackson Avenue west of Gay. Considering that even in its heyday, it was mainly industrial, its current population may be an all-time high.

Taken alone, Jackson Avenue's progress marks an interesting new turn for preservationist development downtown. So far, Knoxville's urban revival has emphasized the re-. Downtown's neighborhoods are almost literally reviving, coming back to some semblance of their lively former selves. The Old City once had a lot of saloons and restaurants and apartments, and does again. Gay Street once had a lot of stores and theaters and expensive residences, and does again. Market Square was once a gumbo of nearly everything going on at once—residences, shops, offices, restaurants, and live music, with farmers selling produce in the middle. And it's all that again.

Jackson's westernmost block is another story. Its destiny will be heavily determined by new buildings, infill construction to fill all the vacancy down here. And even with the preservationist projects, its new uses are altogether different from what has come before. Today, developers are effectively creating a new block, inventing new stuff that's never been on this block before.

This year, at least, the long block is looking spontaneous and unpredictable, an interesting stage for downtown's next act.