As voguish as mixed-use development has become in many places, it’s surprising that Knoxville’s zoning ordinance prohibits it except for downtown. But that may belatedly be about to change.
At the request of City Council, the staff of the Metropolitan Planning Commission is crafting a mixed-use zone for Bearden that would permit residential and other uses along what’s a strictly commercial stretch of Kingston Pike from Western Plaza to Northshore Drive. MPC’s executive director, Gerald Green, envisions promulgating a draft for public comment before year end. And if the new Bearden Zone is adopted by Council, he believes it can serve as a template for mixed-use zoning extending out the city’s other commercial corridors, including Broadway, North Central, Magnolia, and Chapman Highway.
The mixed-use concept would only apply to areas presently zoned commercial, not to residential zones. And given the immense popularity of downtown as a place to live, shop, dine, and be entertained while walking rather than driving to their destinations, it seems compelling to extend these lifestyle amenities to other sections of the city. (As an exception to the segregation of property uses elsewhere, so-called form-based codes adopted for the South Waterfront and Cumberland Corridor would regulate the shape and size of buildings but not their uses.)
Asked why Knoxville hasn’t been doing more of same long since, MPC’s still-new executive director replies, “We have not been very proactive in making revisions to our ordinances. From a citywide perspective, we have not been doing very much to bring our ordinances up to date.”
As an upscale shopping and dining district, Bearden seems a natural place to start.
It also helps that there are at least two developers who want to proceed with the very sort of mixed-use projects that epitomize what’s envisioned.
One is Tony Cappiello who, along with other Bearden properties, owns the Bearden Antique Mall in Homberg Place. After relocating its tenants, he’s planning a new four-story building with shops and restaurants on the ground level and 40 to 60 apartments on the upper floors.
The other is Asheville-based Biltmore Properties, which acquired the 203,000-square-foot Western Plaza shopping center about two years ago. The firm’s Knoxville general manager, Morgan Bromley, will only say, “We would certainly welcome the new zoning, and if the new zoning goes through we would entertain mixed-use development.”
The Bearden Zone, as Green envisions it, would include standards for building design and scale, landscaping, and parking.
“We don’t have a requirement for structured parking. But what we’re hoping is that some developers will find it advantageous to construct a building with structured parking rather than surface parking, which is a pretty low return on your investment,” Green says. “A four-story building with retail on the ground, parking on the second level, and residential on the third and fourth floors, maybe that becomes a better return than having a three-story building with surface parking.”
Allowance for four- to five-story buildings will mean more density than at present, and that could lead to concerns in some quarters about more traffic on Kingston Pike. But Green says, “What we’re hoping is that the type of development we’re proposing will encourage people to use other modes of transportation—walk, bicycle, public transit in addition to the automobile.
The new standards won’t impact existing buildings or establishments. But more development should be good for business and property values in the area. And fostering economic growth, not to mention city revenue growth, is a primacy.
After just four months on the job here, following 20-plus years of planning experience in North Carolina prior to his selection, Green shows an impressive grasp of Knoxville’s diverse patterns of development. He acknowledges that extending the mixed-use template to other commercial corridors may be more challenging.
“Broadway, for example, has three very distinct sections,” he says. “Up to Hall of Fame Drive is an older pattern with lots of buildings up to the sidewalk and very limited, if any, parking. From Hall of Fame to I-640 there’s more accommodation for the automobile and some shopping centers. Then from I-640 on up, it’s very auto-oriented, very suburban in nature with no accommodation for pedestrians. So how do we get a template that will initiate a new pattern of development but still be compatible with existing patterns? How do we encourage retrofits that are more pedestrian-friendly and friendly to bicycles? That’s a significant challenge.”
Along Magnolia the city is separately proceeding with a streetscape improvement plan intended to spur development. The plan, which is still in the design stage, has a lot in common with the Cumberland Corridor plan on which work is already underway. Magnolia’s center turn lane would be replaced with a median strip, allowing wider sidewalks and plantings along the curb. But unlike Cumberland, Magnolia would remain a four-lane street. A four-block stretch from Jessamine to Bertrand will serve as a pilot. And the city’s director of redevelopment, Dawn Michelle Foster, anticipates that funding could be included in the city’s budget for the fiscal year ahead.
How much of a catalyst for residential growth mixed-use zoning will provide in these commercial corridors remains to be seen. But it certainly ought to be encouraged without impinging on the character of adjoining residential neighborhoods.
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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