editorial (2007-07)

A Real Cry of Fire in a Crowded Community

The McClung Warehouse fire should teach us to act when public safety demands it

Speaking of Language

A Real Cry of Fire in a Crowded Community

Aside from the tragedy of firemen injured and the calamity of Ernie Gross' loss of business, the fiery destruction of three of Jackson Avenue's prominent McClung Warehouses was a terrible waste, from which lessons should be learned.

The firemen who were trapped by a flare-up are recovering, we can be thankful, and the building housing Gross' custom woodworking business was insured, we understand, but what of the other two massive brick structures?

Those burned buildings, and two on the other side of Gross' business, have been vacant and decaying for years under the stewardship of Mark Saroff, who fancies himself a developer but has had neither the financing nor the inclination to conclude a viable partnership in the rehabilitation of the warehouses.

There was wonderful potential there for conversion of the sturdy structures to apartment or condominium lofts, increasing the downtown residential capacity while preserving historic edifices. That potential is still there for the two remaining structures, if they turn out to be salvageable. And there is a third, which was already slated for demolition because of its deterioration, on adjoining property that would allow for parking.

Other developers have offered to partner with the owner, who has been on the brink of foreclosure before and is still tens of thousands of dollars in arrears on property taxes. At least a couple of deals have come down to real estate closings, but Saroff has backed away from the table and maintained possession and control.

The buildings have been characterized as blighted, and they have been a sorry sight on Knoxville's downtown doorstep, in full view of the Interstate 40, for the duration of Saroff's 15 years of ownership.

Ironically, the warehouses would probably have been condemned in an exercise of eminent domain and resale by the city and the Knoxville Community Development Corp. before the ravaging fire broke out. That would likely have happened except for the controversial eminent domain decision in Connecticut in 2005 that fueled a round of demagoguery and talk-show ranting that is only just abating. The properties would then been put up for sale, with a request for proposals for their rehabilitation into productive use, and the wholly predictable threat of a disastrous fire would have been greatly lessened by their renovation.

In fact, it could be argued persuasively that the Tennessee Valley's drastically restrictive land use policy, adopted last year to stop nearly all future sales of its nearly 300,000 acres of property for commercial development, would not have come up or generated such fervent public support had it not been for the thrashing the concept of eminent domain was taking at the time.

Property rights advocates have consistently sided with Saroff, despite the fact that he never followed through on plans he submitted and could not finance the most basic of preservation tactics to render the buildings reasonably safe. Whether the city was intimidated by that sentiment or was exercising patience no longer seems to matter.

If there was any doubt that the warehouses, in their eroding condition, constituted a clear and present danger to the community, that doubt must surely have been dispelled by the fire.

Although the opportunity to revitalize the north side of Jackson Avenue on its north side has been roughly halved by the flames, there is yet hope that the standing half may be brought back into productive use.

There should be little reason now for hesitation, even if Saroff declares he has renewed plans for renewal. Take the properties through condemnation now and see if someone else can and will save what's left of them to rid the neighborhood of a dangerous eyesore.

Speaking of Language

In the mayor's Monday veto message, he said, "This is not who we are," describing the resolution as unconstitutional, unnecessary and mean-spirited. Good for him.

The council members had voted 23-19 to adopt the measure, with proponents saying that there was no intention to alienate anyone from the community. Regardless of intent, the result would have been alienation and it may yet occur, if the veto is overridden.

The whole issue of an official language in the United States is misdirected. The Nashville measure was entitled, "English First." Of course, English is first, but what the resolution implies is that no other language should be respected as "second." Spanish is the second language of our Western Hemisphere, and it is the native language of our Hispanic population, now the largest ethnic minority group in the United States.

Hispanic people who live in this country should learn English. That goes without saying. But at the same time, schoolchildren all across America should be learning Spanish as a second language, and some other useful language or languages as well, as they grow up, because that simply makes sense in today's world, in which Americans need to "assimilate" or be left behind.