Southern Revival: Stirrings on the South Knoxville Waterfront

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

It’s been a decade since then-Mayor Bill Haslam heralded South Knoxville waterfront development as the city”s “next big thing.” Yet except for the remarkable reincarnation of the site left dormant by the demise of Baptist Hospital, not very much has happened.

The 2008 financial crash put the kibosh on residential developments that were expected to be the mainstays of the waterfront’s transformation. And the closing of the Henley Street bridge for nearly three years put a further crimp in already limited commercial activity in South Knoxville.

The one residential project that got built before the mortgage market went kaput, the 122-unit CityView condominiums on Blount Avenue, soon went bankrupt. And not even the two titans who acquired it at a fire sale, Jim Clayton and Raja Jubran, have managed to sell more than 25 units in the six years since. (Another 60 units have been rented for the nonce.)

Still, the crash is now a fading memory, and the housing market generally has made a strong recovery—as manifested by the 365-unit apartment complex that’s going up on the former Baptist site at a cost of $160 million.

Riverwalk at the Bridges, as the complex has been dubbed, should provide a big boost to South Knoxville’s economy. And some signs of that are starting to emerge. Consider:

The developer who’s long been in the forefront of downtown’s revitalization, David Dewhirst, has established a South Side foothold with the acquisition of the historic (but vacant) Kern’s Bakery building on Chapman Highway. But where most of Dewhirst’s myriad downtown building renovations have been largely residential, he foresees the 65,000 square foot Kern’s building serving different purposes. “While we’re still early in the planning stage, I envision an eight-figure multi-use development including retail, entertainment, restaurants, and breweries,” Dewhirst says. He’s also looking for ways to make the 13-acre site “serve as a front door to South Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness, which I think is one of its best assets.”

A smaller vacant building on Sevier Avenue that was once a fraternal lodge is being renovated for a combination of office, retail, and restaurant use.

One of the pillars of a 2006 South Waterfront Vision Plan was the use of tax increment financing (TIF) to fund some $50 million in public-sector improvements that would go hand in glove with hundreds of millions in private development. Unlike the many downtown TIFs that have gone primarily to support developer financing, these public sector TIFs derived from private development would go for supportive street work and a signature 3-mile riverwalk stretching from Island Home in the east to the western end of Scottish Pike.

More than a mile of this riverwalk is now docketed for completion within the next year in connection with several projects on which work is now underway. These include:

A 134-unit River’s Edge apartment complex in Island Home from which a $2.5 million TIF will fund 1,900 feet of riverwalk as well as street work.

Suttree Landing Park for which the city is “borrowing” some $6 million from a notional TIF account
to cover the cost of new access roads and another 1,900 feet of riverwalk as well as the 5-acre park itself with boat ramps. The notion is that these amenities will spur private development on adjacent property whose augmented value will repay the loan. The property is mostly owned by Mike Conley. But after canceling a $30 million condominium and townhouse development in 2008, Conley has remained silent on his plans and didn’t return my phone call to his Regal Corp. office.

As its very name connotes, Riverwalk at the Bridges includes 1,000 feet of riverwalk between the Gay Street and Henley Street bridges funded by a TIF that will also cover the cost of a 37,000 square foot public plaza on the site as well as streetscaping on Blount Avenue. Another 500 feet of riverwalk will accompany the 235 units of student housing that the same developer is planning west of Henley, linking to the 1,000 feet that went in place with CityView.

When or whether riverwalk extensions will accompany development further west on Blount Avenue and Scottish Pike is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the biggest single spur to such development is a proposed $20 million pedestrian bridge linking the South Waterfront to the University of Tennessee campus. Environmental studies and design work on the bridge have been completed, and the city’s South Waterfront coordinator, Dawn Michelle Foster, says it’s “shovel ready.” But no funding source nor timetable for construction is in sight.

Clearly, such a bridge would beget a lot of student housing and thus benefit the owners of the mostly industrial properties near its southern terminus. But it’s hard to imagine such development generating enough TIF revenue to pay for the span. So whether it would be a boon or a boondoggle is debatable.

The city does have $5.4 million in federal funding earmarked for roadwork along Sevier Avenue to the east, including a roundabout that promises to become the increasingly busy intersection of Sevier and Island Home. But Foster reckons it may be three years before design work and right-of-way acquisition for sidewalks are completed so construction can begin.

Meanwhile, the city is nearing completion of a much more accessible new entrance to Fort Dickerson Park aligned with the intersection of Chapman Highway and Woodlawn Pike. This $1.2 million project should make Knoxville’s prime Civil War commemorative site a more appealing place to visit and to access nearby trails around Quarry Lake, which is one of the Urban Wilderness’ most scenic spots.

So things are looking up.

Joe Sullivan
Columnist

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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