Looking Back on 20 years of Urban Renewal in Knoxville

Our retiring columnist reflects on the changes we've seen since he started writing about center-city living

"The real estate column."

That's how I typically describe Urban Renewal, the column I write for Metro Pulse. It fits, more or less. Each of the almost 500 pieces I've written for the paper have, with rare exception, featured a property for sale (or, on occasion, for lease). And almost all of those homes have been in or around downtown: Gay Street lofts, restored Victorians in Fourth and Gill, or fixer-uppers in perennially "up and coming" places like Parkridge, Old Sevier, and Oakwood/Lincoln Park.

But as that focus no doubt reveals, Urban Renewal was never really about selling a particular piece of real estate. From the beginning, my purpose has always been to push the idea that center-city Knoxville could be a vibrant, thriving place where people would want to live. And, almost 20 years after I pitched the column to Rand Pearson, Metro Pulse's first publisher, I'm pleased to note that notion has finally taken hold. Knoxville's come to appreciate, enjoy, and embrace its downtown more than it has in at least a generation.

"It's become the default place to go, and that's a total 180-degree shift," says Bill Lyons, director of policy and communications with the city of Knoxville.

"People used to say ‘I haven't been downtown in 20 years,'" says developer David Dewhirst, "now they say how much they love coming downtown."

"We really turned a corner and we didn't realize it," says Ann Bennett, a senior planner with the Metropolitan Planning Commission.

Look around downtown, and the evidence of renewal is everywhere: Market Square is full of shops and restaurants; our music festivals are written up in Rolling Stone; Gay Street and its environs are so crowded with condominiums that developers are running low on buildings to convert into lofts. "It is a dwindling supply," says architect/developer Buzz Goss, "except for the Penny's building and some buildings on Jackson."

Outside of downtown, homes in Old North and Fourth and Gill often list for a quarter million or more. "Downtown started to take hold, and people started wanting to live nearby," says Kim Trent, executive director of the historic preservation advocacy nonprofit Knox Heritage. "We've started having new houses built in historic districts," says Bennett, adding that the revitalization is spreading to other areas as well. "Some of the neighborhoods that border historic neighborhoods, you're starting to see a lot of reinvestment," she says.

The newfound strength of downtown and the historic neighborhoods around it is the main reason I've decided to move on and end Urban Renewal. It took almost 20 years of advocacy, investment, and sweat equity by hundreds of people, but downtown living and historic preservation are no longer "alternative"—they've crossed over into the mainstream. That wasn't always the case.

***

When I started writing the column, downtown living was a novelty. "I‘m not sure that I ever believed that people who weren't eccentrics would live there," says Jack Neely, Metro Pulse's resident historian.

It's easy to see why. Twenty years ago, downtown definitely wasn't the sort of place that appealed to most affluent Knoxvillians. "It was very cheap and it was very blighted," recalls Dewhirst, who moved to downtown Knoxville in 1993. "That was back at a time when the last vestiges of the old downtown businesses were leaving."

"I walked to work past boarded-up building after boarded-up building," says former City Councilman Rob Frost, who moved into an Old City apartment a little over a year later. "We lived downtown before it was cool."

If the idea of living downtown was eccentric, the thought of living in one of the neighborhoods just outside it was downright outrageous. When Frost and his wife, Erin, bought a Fourth and Gill fixer-upper in 1996, he says, "That was cause for concern from everybody's family."

Likewise, people were generally perplexed by the fact that I lived in Parkridge—once I explained where Parkridge was, that is. The neighborhoods around downtown were terra incognita for the typical Knoxvillian, abandoned and written off long ago.

The real estate industry rarely paid attention to downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods, that's for sure. "I was looking for a historic house and couldn't get anyone to take us east of Bearden," says Trent, recalling the search that brought her to Parkridge in the early '90s. Fixer-uppers dominated the market then, even in Fourth and Gill. And today's quarter-million dollar listings were far, far in the future. "We were selling a lot of $30,000 to $80,000 houses," says longtime Fourth and Gill resident Bob Whetsel.

Whetsel, who is now the city's director of redevelopment, was a real estate agent when I started writing Urban Renewal. He was one of the few actively promoting the historic neighborhoods. In fact, the column's debut featured one of Whetsel's listings: a gargantuan Victorian on Luttrell. Gorgeously restored and move-in ready, it listed for less than a hundred grand. "I remember the first $100,000 sale," Whetsel says, "remember it well."

Still, despite all the obstacles, people like Whetsel, Dewhirst, and, well, me looked at the heart of our scruffy city and saw something most others didn't: potential. "I had it in my mind that there were all sorts of people who wanted to buy and fix up old houses," Whetsel says. Dewhirst agrees: "It wasn't hard to look at downtown Knoxville and just know it was going to come back." Trent, recalling one of her first trips downtown, circa 1991, says, "I don't know if it was vision or naiveté, but I remember sitting on Market Square and thinking this town was on the verge of something."

Twenty years later, I'm still not entirely sure if it was vision or naiveté, either. But there's no denying the results. "Downtown revitalization has proved the critics wrong," says Frost, "it can happen."

The road to Knoxville's urban renewal was a long one, though, longer than I have space to recount and certainly longer than most of us realized it would be back at the beginning of the '90s. "The path wasn't what I thought it would be, there were some surprising twists and turns," says Goss.

The brief, bright heyday of the Old City was one. A very un-Knoxville collection of trendy nightclubs, quirky shops and eclectic lofts that sprouted all but spontaneously around the intersection of Central and Jackson in the mid-to-late '80s, the Old City appeared to be the harbinger of the future for a few short years, the first swell in a wave of revitalization that would eventually wash over all of downtown. "We thought it was just going to be one thing after another," says Neely.

It wasn't to be. After a couple of high-profile crimes, the crowds stopped coming almost as spontaneously as they appeared. Even today, the area struggles to catch up to the pace of revitalization downtown. "We kind of let the Old City fall off a cliff," Trent says. "We need to come back around and look at ways to strengthen it, work on getting businesses there that aren't just bars."

Then there was Whittle Communications, which peaked around the same time as the Old City. Staffed with members of what economic development types would eventually come to call the "creative class," Whittle's ever-growing workforce was supposed to the first step toward the sort of downtown Knoxville now has: a place with a live music scene, lattes, lofts. Instead, the company collapsed in 1994, its handsome quasi-collegiate headquarters eventually becoming a federal courthouse. "The '90s were frustrating," Trent says. "It was two steps forward, one step back."

***

Some failures turned out to be fortuitous. For much of the '90s, Knoxville's leadership looked down the river toward Chattanooga, coveting that city's celebrated downtown renaissance. Enamored of Chattanooga's aquarium and for the most part mystified by what attracted pioneers like Dewhirst, Knoxville's civic leadership pushed a series of silver bullet redevelopment schemes: a downtown baseball stadium, a convention center, a planetarium, and a vast "shoppertainment" mall that would, among other things, put a glass dome over Market Square.

Only one of those massive projects, the convention center, actually got built. But even in the concept stage, they proved powerful catalysts for downtown redevelopment—just not in the way their Chamber-backed boosters imagined. "There were so many bad ideas going on at once that it got people energized," says Neely. "People in their 20s and 30s were really pissed off and determined to prove that there was a better way to revive a downtown."

In hindsight, I'd have to say the failure of all those silver-bullet proposals and the occasionally raucous and irreverent public pushback they prompted turned out to be downtown's big turning point. "Everyone almost overnight became amateur urban planners, and it spawned a generation of developers," says Neely.

"All the suits went away, so you had all these independents step up," Trent says, referring to the small cadre of downtown developers, many of them new to the game, who were at the forefront of downtown's recent residential building boom: Dewhirst, Leigh Burch, Wayne Blasius, and others. "We didn't know any better," Goss says. "We saw an opportunity and we grabbed it and ran."

All of this happened on the watch of former Mayor Victor Ashe. "You had to have people who were willing to make investments," Ashe says today. "You had a lot of young pioneers who took it on, who individually couldn't have done it, but cumulatively, with the city's help, could manage it."

Ashe's late emergence as a proponent of downtown residential and a champion of historic preservation provided another surprising twist in the road to renewal—although, ironically, the bellwether moment occurred far from the center city, during Ashe's failed attempt to keep Cherokee Country Club from demolishing the J. Allen Smith House on Lyon's View Pike. "It was such a public battle on the front page of the paper, and finally all those people working in the neighborhoods got some traction," Trent says. Goss adds, "Until Victor came on board, the city never had a real leadership role. It would have been nice to have that leadership earlier."

Personally, while I certainly appreciated that it occurred, I've always been a little cynical about Ashe's sudden enthusiasm for both downtown and historic preservation. After all, his time in office included downtown's 1990s doldrums as well as its 21st century rebirth. Quite a few buildings in and around downtown were also torn down during Ashe's tenure, along with several mansions of the Smith House's caliber—Belcaro on Black Oak Ridge and the Bonnyman house (the former Teen Board) on Kingston Pike, to name two. Still, when I talked to him for this piece, the former mayor was quick to defend his legacy, proudly pointing out two downtown buildings he helped save: the old post office on Main and the Miller's Building. The Miller's Building, says Ashe, "had been empty 10 or 15 years before then, and you really wondered if the wrecking ball was going to come in."

Ultimately, rebuilding and revitalizing Knoxville's urban core can't be credited to any single mayor or developer. Hundreds, really thousands, of people played a role, far more than the handful mentioned here. Some loomed larger than others, like the late Kristopher Kendrick, the eccentric developer who gave the Old City its name and, no doubt, deserves to be called the Godfather of downtown's turnaround. There's also visionary restaurateur Mahasti Vafaie and concert promoter Ashley Capps, whose ambitious efforts have put Knoxville back on the musical map. But, whether you're a homeowner investing sweat to improve a neighborhood like Parkridge, Fourth and Gill, or Mechanicsville, or a couple from Farragut who comes down to Market Square for dinner before a show at the Bijou or Tennessee, what's great about Knoxville's renewal is that almost anyone can take part on some level.

Lately, though, I've been more spectator than participant. Kristi and I sold our house in Parkridge awhile back—we even managed to make a profit. We live in Maryland now, near her family. Amazingly, thanks to the Internet, it hasn't been all that hard to continue writing a "local" real estate column, even from 500 miles away. The proliferation of electronic media makes it surprisingly easy to keep up. But the mere existence of so many alternate sources of information out there—the websites, blogs, and message boards that didn't even exist when I first pitched the idea for the column—is yet another reason why I'm wrapping things up.

***

Knoxville should be proud of what it's accomplished downtown. But don't you dare stop. A revitalized downtown isn't the finished product; it's the first step toward renewal of the entire center-city. "If you get the core done," Whetsel says, "you get a base and you can grow out from there." "The key now is to spread it around downtown," says Trent. "When downtown was strong those neighborhoods were strong."

Investments in the South Waterfront will help, along with Downtown North, an initiative I'm particularly happy to see take off, since I've been talking it up for years. "To have it recognized and focused on as an area is really good," says Whetsel, who has been spearheading the city's efforts in the area. I couldn't agree more. Let me say it one last time: The area around Emory Place, Central and Broadway, even the so-called "Mission District" is critical for success. A hundred years ago, it was the hub that held the center city together, collecting folks from the northern and eastern neighborhoods and feeding them down Gay to downtown. Properly redeveloped, it could be again.

The east side, from Townview to the warehouse area across James White Parkway and Hall of Fame Drive from the Old City, also holds tremendous potential. TDOT's reconfiguring of I-40 has made the area more accessible than ever before, and it would be a shame not to take advantage of that, eventually leading to even more investment along Magnolia. "I'd be all about building that area up all along Hall of Fame," says Trent. "That's how you're going to sustain what's going on."

Even downtown, despite the remarkable strides made around the square and along Gay Street, is far from finished. "Things still need to happen," says Lyons. "Obviously there's room for more retail along Gay. There are various unmet categories." Even residential, according to Dewhirst. "We still get in our office people that want to live downtown, but the problem is we don't have enough residential supply," he says. Goss says, "2000-2002, somewhere in there I made a calculation of about 2,700 households that would choose an urban lifestyle, and we're about half that and running out of historic buildings. It's time for us to start building new." He's right. The city's enjoyed considerable success using tools like Tax Increment Financing to encourage the reuse of vacant buildings, but the time has come to turn those tools toward encouraging new construction.

Most of all, though, Knoxville needs to remember one thing as it moves forward. When it comes to revitalization, "I don't think anything is ever truly done," says MPC's Bennett. "You don't ever ‘save' anything. You buy it time."

"It took 30 years for downtown to die and 30 years to get it back," Trent says. "We can't take that for granted."

And that's particularly true as the upcoming mayor's race approaches. "It's still fragile," says Ashe. "Right now the city is in transition, and neglect by the city can obviously cause it harm."

But I'll end it there. Knoxville's not my city anymore. It will be what you choose to make of it. Try not to mess it up, though. I do try to get back on a regular basis, and it's actually become a pretty nice place to visit. But, I must admit, it's becoming harder and harder for me to recognize. Is it the city I once called home? Or the one I always imagined it could be?