Residents Voice Fears of Gentrification at Magnolia Streetscape Forum

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Knoxville resident Amelia Parker, 36, talks during a public meeting about design plans for a Magnolia Avenue streetscape renovation. Parker says she fears that culture in the area may be threatened through gentrification if the project moves forward.Clay Duda

Knoxville resident Amelia Parker, 36, talks during a public meeting about design plans for a Magnolia Avenue streetscape renovation. Parker says she fears that culture in the area may be threatened through gentrification if the project moves forward.

If you thought the city’s plans to churn up and rework inner-city roadways would stop with Cumberland Avenue, or even N. Central Street, think again. Last week city officials brought out their consultants to present a detailed vision for refinishing Magnolia Avenue east of downtown, plans that were met with some concerns and skepticism from people in the 70-person crowd gathered at the John T. O’Connor Senior Center Thursday evening.

The city wants to revamp the roadway and sidewalks with finishings not unlike those currently going in along Cumberland in Fort Sanders: a raised median, more benches and bike racks, and fancy new traffic lights, crosswalks, and turn lanes. Magnolia may also feature a “gateway” close to downtown, two 14-foot-tall brick and mortar pillars meant to represent the start of the East Knoxville community.

“When you have a gateway into the community it’s a point of pride,” city redevelopment director Dawn Michelle Foster told the crowd. The idea behind this streetscaping project is a “build it and they will come” model to attract more private investment to the area. Foster pointed to the millions of dollars being spent on or near Cumberland Avenue, though she also noted (as the Mercury has reported) that much of that was already underway before streetscape improvements began.

“The whole intent of this meeting is to talk about community pride and some of those tangible benefits to the community,” Foster says afterward. “We try to do things that will create a sense of ownership for new investment in the community.”

Yet, many local residents and some business owners voiced concerns and frustrations that the city’s vision would squeeze out the rich, mostly black culture that has long thrived in the neighborhoods flanking Magnolia Avenue. With revitalization could come gentrification, a point one person in the audience said was evident in the city’s rendering of the new streetscape, which included nearly all white people walking and biking a stretch of road now central to Knoxville’s black community.

“Any time I hear urban revitalization I hear ‘whitewash,’” said Xavier Jenkins, a 40-year-old resident of East Knoxville. Jenkins points to areas like the Old City and commercial corridors along N. Central Street that used to house minority businesses, but now either sit vacant or have white owners. “A community like this doesn’t need a facelift, it needs access to low-interest loans.”

Foster noted that some local businesses have taken advantage of the city’s Facade Improvement Program, a grant program to help offset costs for building improvements in businesses in some city-designated redevelopment districts (including the Magnolia Avenue Warehouse District). Pointing to other examples of activity in the area, city project manager Bryan Berry noted the $2.5 million White Lily Flats revamp and $1.6 million on the former Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon building (now to open as a Lonesome Dove Bistro) both in the Old City, the $1.6 million Overcoming Believers Church on Harriet Tubman Street, and the $1.4 million Knoxville Area Transit maintenance facility off Magnolia.

“The economic development of East Knoxville is not solely in the hands of the city, but this is one of the ways the city can spur economic development in the area,” explains Doug Minter, a board member of the East Knoxville Business and Professional Alliance and business development manager for the Knoxville Chamber. “But keep in mind that it is what it is. It’s infrastructure, which is valuable to the aesthetics and value of the community, but it’s one of many steps in the right direction for economic development. It’s going to have to work in concert with private development and community buy-in [to prove successful].”

Amelia Parker sees things differently. The 36-year-old Knoxville native says that, for her, the project marks a crisis moment. She currently lives in northeast Knoxville and says she has strong cultural and personal ties to the East Knoxville community.

“There’s no plan to actually recognize the (black) culture on this side of town, and it seems like it keeps becoming a smaller and smaller space,” she said during the city’s public meeting. “I’m just outraged tonight. I can’t believe this is the conversation we’re having.”

Foster says it isn’t the city’s intent to railroad existing East Knoxville residents or change the demographics of those communities. Instead, she says the streetscape work should help empower locals and spur investment.

“It goes back to meeting the needs of the community and providing the quality of development that will meet the needs of the community,” Foster says when asked about the potential gentrification of the area. “The city has factored that in, and that’s part of the reason why the mayor decided to move forward with this streetscape project a few years back. People were saying, ‘well what about East Knoxville? What are you going to do here?’”

Others in the audience questioned if the money that would go toward the streetscape project, an estimated total of $6-$8 million, could be better spent helping the community in other ways, like relocating some of the public housing complexes in the area, providing low-interest business or home loans, or even offering incentives for a grocery store to open in the community. Streetscape work along Magnolia will be completed with public funds from the city, unlike some other roadway projects that include money from state or federal agencies.

The city plans to ultimately redo the streetscape of a six-block area of Magnolia Avenue closest to downtown, from Jessamine Street to N. Bertrand Street, but will segment the work into two phases. Foster says she’s requesting funding during the upcoming budget year, which starts in July, for phase one of the project, between Jessamine to Myrtle streets. If the city earmarks the estimated $3-$4 million needed for that section it could go out to bid before year’s end with construction starting in early 2017. Phase two construction would depend on available funds in the city’s FY 2017-18 budget. Each phase would take 12 to 18 months to complete.

Work has been well underway on a similar project with similar goals along Cumberland Avenue in Fort Sanders. Work on the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project is expected to be completed in the fall of 2017. Meanwhile the city is working to acquire some easements and line up utility upgrades ahead of streetscape work on N. Central Street from the Old City through Happy Holler. That project could go to bid this year with construction starting in early 2017 as well, meaning two main thoroughfares northeast of town could undergo heavy construction around the same time.

The whole idea is to use infrastructure as a catalyst to build on the redevelopment momentum seen downtown in recent years, installing streetscape improvements in hopes of spurring continued investment along major arteries outside of Knoxville’s urban core, Foster says.

Folks have two weeks, until Feb. 4, to offer suggestions or comments on the city’s plans for Magnolia Avenue. Last week’s presentation and detailed design plans can be found online at knoxmercury.com or on the city’s website at knoxvilletn.gov/redevelopment. Comments can be emailed to Dawn Michelle Foster at dmfoster@knoxvilletn.gov.

Clay Duda

Former Mercury staff reporter Clay Duda has covered gangs in New York, housing busts in Atlanta, and wildfires in Northern California. And lots of stuff about Knoxville.

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