According to at least two non-fraudulent news sources, it has been approximately 3,610 presidential tweets since Part 2 of this series was published online, and in excess of 5,000 presidential tweets since the final print edition of the Mercury hit the stands in July, 2017. This is the final installment of Architecture Matters; an “Epilogue” is also published online. Please look for it.
SoKno: (K)not Downtown
South Knoxville isn’t downtown, but you can see it from there. It seems obvious enough. Yet, the development along the South Knoxville shoreline is occasionally referred to as “downtown.” For example, in a relatively recent Inside of Knoxville article, one of the new owners of the former Kern’s Bakery site commented: “It is the largest single amount of retail space in one place, anywhere downtown.” (K)no, it’s (k)not. It’s SoKno, as South Knoxville often is called. In this Age of Alternative Facts, the difference matters, as center and edge differ in kind.
The “Mid River” section of the SoKno riverfront redevelopment is within what the The Knoxville South Waterfront Vision Plan (by Hargreaves Associates) calls “a compact and dense district between bridges—from the Norfolk Southern rail bridge at the west to the Gay Street Bridge to the east.” Mid River, the centerpiece of the far more expansive Vision Plan, is intended to complete a loop joining the Henley and Gay Street bridges by way of a strip of public greenway 25 feet wide and over 1,000 feet long.
The sheer quantity of new construction in such close proximity to the city center is unprecedented in recent history: a projected $160,000,000 in private investment. It’s a seemingly unqualified net gain for Knoxville. Spanning over a decade (and two, two-term mayors and Interim Mayor Daniel T. Brown), the buildings nearing completion may be the single most visible legacy achievement for Mayor Madeline Rogero, Bill Lyons (her Chief Policy Officer), and Dawn Michelle Foster (the city’s Redevelopment Director). The Vision Plan’s goal, simply stated, is to “revitalize the South Waterfront to a level that it is recognized as a citywide asset, attraction, and destination….” As a general proposition, it’s difficult to imagine anyone objecting. Yet, nowhere in the document is there an argument as to why the mixture of uses the plan outlines—housing, office space, and retail—is necessary or inherently good. It’s simply presumed that copious quantities of private development along the river ought to be privileged over other possibilities. And while it seems heresy to do so at this point in the process, just as things are wrapping up, it’s worth asking why.
Vitalize, Re-vitalize, Repeat
“Revitalization” is a key term used throughout the Vision Plan. For all of the research presented in the plan, its conclusion seems at odds with its own evidence—that this stretch of waterfront was once a vital place to live and shop and ought to be so again. After all, that’s why it’s called REvitalization. To the contrary, the plan well documents that in 2006, not much was happening in the area save for the hospital, a Shriners Lodge, a Baptist church, and a very fine neon JFG sign, the latter of which it cited as “a familiar and friendly reminder of local spirit.” Talk about damning with faint praise. While the area may have been abuzz with all sorts of activities for the first half of the 20th century, the Baptist Hospital site notwithstanding, the bulk of the new construction is vitalization, not revitalization; there was very little there, there. Even when the hospital operated at full tilt, its relation to the river was more denial than canoodle.
Initiated and approved under then-Mayor Bill Haslam, the Vision Plan and the South Knoxville Waterfront Form Based Development Code pre-date the 2008 decamping of Baptist Hospital, owing to its merger with St. Mary’s Health System. The timing created a potentially ideal scenario for land speculators and developers. The Mid River section alone represented over a quarter-mile-long prime riverfront site at a time when the local government was actively encouraging development with tens of millions of dollars in Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) while offering the land on which the center of the centerpiece was to be built, One Riverwalk, at the relatively modest price tag of $6.25 million. The Bush-era economic implosion came at a cost, however, slowing the project to what seemed a virtual stop, for five years.
Following the Obama Administration’s stabilization of the housing and stock markets, along with new consumer protections and banking regulations (the latter recently undone in Congress), Southeastern, an Augusta, Ga.-based developer, purchased the site in late December 2013. Less than 80 days later, they began the protracted demolition of the five ungainly buildings that comprised the hospital complex.
Unlike the seconds-long 2005 “controlled demolition” of Memphis’ Baptist Hospital, the SoKno Baptist demolition was death by a thousand paper cuts. Originally projected to take 90 days, it wasn’t until 540 days later that construction finally began. In the interim, the view from downtown was more South Allepo than South Knoxville.
Losing this collection of buildings is difficult to mourn. Even when Baptist was open it looked closed; its downtown-facing masses huddled atop a kudzu-covered bluff, windows deeply set in zero-affect masonry walls. As places devoted to health and healing go, not a great look. Moreover, repurposing this rambling, shambling complex posed challenges for any number of reasons, not the least of which are the cellular and highly specific nature of hospital interiors, along with potential contaminates. Still, its obliteration (including a building made from salvaged bricks recovered from Knoxville’s historic Market House) shocked many who presumed a substantial chunk would be incorporated into any redevelopment scheme.
The Regal Entertainment Group’s new national headquarters (see inset photo, above), built upon the only preserved fragment of the Baptist complex and occupied in December 2017, has been ballast and thrust for this building blitzkrieg; it anchors the eastern edge of SoKno’s new face and is the only bit of gristle amidst the usual suspects of architectural invertebrates, filling out the prescribed containers of the SoKno Waterfront’s form-based code.
Architectural merits notwithstanding, the Vision Plan presumes that by creating a physical density of new building fabric that far exceeds the total aggregate of similar new building construction within the city center during the past two decades, it is somehow good for downtown—a sort of Trickle Down Economic New Urbanism. But is it? Similar to Reaganomics, nowhere is there a rational argument that outlines the size of the trickle, how far down it goes, or what happens if it runs dry.
Part of the trickle-down to downtown hinges on a sizable number of new SoKno riverfront dwellers choosing to daily “walk, bicycle, or stroll” across the Henley and Gay Street bridges, availing themselves to amenities in the city center or on UTK’s campus. Yet, the university notwithstanding, many of the surpluses available downtown are planned, or currently under construction, as part of the new SoKno riverfront (typical of mixed-use “deluxe” apartment developments), which seems to undermine the likelihood. The plan’s other key demographics are: “rowers, boaters, adventurous tourists, and regional visitors.” The plot thins.
It’s unclear whether the city or Hargreaves Associates ever considered developing the south riverfront absent a substantial building regime. A “riverfront park” alternative in that locale would have created a unique and substantial extension of Knoxville’s “Urban Wilderness,” a lexical oxymoron difficult to embrace, albeit a local amenity the value of which is beyond measure.
Will the new SoKno Waterfront help make Knoxville a more livable city? It’s difficult to say. Had this quantity of development happened downtown, within the boundaries of its infrastructural cincture, would its impact have been more keenly registered and more fundamentally changed the nature and trajectory of Knoxville’s urban core? It’s difficult to imagine not.
There are plenty of recent examples of “riverfront park” projects from which Knoxville can still learn. Among the most interesting are: Two by James Corner Field Operations – the 1,000 acre North Park, the First Phase of the Freshkills Park in Staten Island, and the two-mile-long Seattle Riverfront Park; Clare Lyster’s (et al.) “Floating Park” winning entry for “The 21st Century Lakefront,” an ideas competition organized by Chicago’s Graham Foundation; Hargreaves Associates’ Chattanooga 21st Century Waterfront Park or their redesign of Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing. Each of these inventive projects is as large as the SoKno Riverfront development, and possibly more complex.
Unlike the SoKno development, however, any one of these (and there are far more worth considering) inspires and projects a contemporary and timely rethinking of the intersection of urban public space and how cities, rivers, and other natural features conjoin to create an amenity for all and still challenge our preconceptions of the public realm in a 21st-century river city.
Many cities the likes of Knoxville, that have suffered the loss of too many fine buildings and the consequences of far too many short-sighted urban planning solutions, inadvertently find themselves reconstructing the image of a past that never existed while failing to address the fundamental structural problems of the present. If the history of cities teaches us anything, it is that to establish and maintain vibrancy and currency, a city must continuously make itself anew—being neither ignorant of, nor obsequious, to its past, building alongside its historic fabric in ways that history could not foretell.
“Can one desire too much of a good thing?”
It’s the question Rosiland put to Orlando in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The development of a vigorous and healthy city ought never assume a zero-sum game; in a healthy economy, it’s always possible to “grow the pie.” That said, while it seems an odd question, particularly now that the Regal Headquarters is occupied and construction on One Riverwalk is wrapping up, what are the risks of the SoKno development being too much the right thing in the wrong place?
For example, while the formulaic form-making required by the form-based code is soundly urban, the very nature of the development is suburban. Residents of One Riverwalk will have the same sorts of amenities as residents of apartment complexes throughout West Knoxville and already available to dwellers in upscale South Knoxville complexes, the latter shuttled between their leafy confines and UTK’s campus in colorful micro-buses. While it may seem like looking for a cloud in what is a genuinely silver lining, could the development across the river have the potential to be to Knoxville what the Renaissance Center was to Detroit?
As its name proclaimed, when it was completed in 1977, John Portman’s center was hailed as the rebirth of downtown Detroit and the larger metropolitan area. Businesses of all sorts (from the city’s suburbs) were expected to migrate to the complex like filings to a magnet. And so they did—but not from where it was hoped they would come. While there was little legitimate commercial life left on (and above) the streets of downtown Detroit in the mid-1970s, it existed.
Not long after the Renaissance Center’s completion, however, virtually every major office concern and retail business that could afford to, relocated to within the complex, literally behind huge battered walls of steam-spewing concrete bunkers separating it from the city. Those that couldn’t afford the move, shuttered. Four decades later, Detroit’s urban center is only now beginning to recover from this re-birthing and its unintended depopulation.
At its nadir, over 40 dead people left Detroit each month, disinterred by family members who no longer wished to cross into the city to visit family gravesites. Only the dead may know Brooklyn, but only living Detroiters know how fast the dead can leave a city that builds the right stuff in the wrong way.
One of the characteristics shared by virtually all urban experiences is the tendency to encounter the unknown and unfamiliar–to interact with those different from oneself. Building so much housing in a mix-use development so near the city center, while still affording residents a largely insular suburban lifestyle that protects one from difference, diminishes the potential pressure to similarly develop sites within the center, on smaller footprints, at greater risk, with greater strictures, and more vertical thrust.
From “Sidescrapers” to Skyscrapers: Change the Game
The memory of 1990s Knoxville remains vivid in the minds of most Knoxvillians; we know how bad it was here, and not just downtown. Perhaps the most important compliment levied on the city’s current administration is that it seems to have taken great pains to see that Knoxville’s rising tide lifts as many boats as possible. Neighborhoods well beyond the center have profited from the city’s revitalization. This is not simply good politics—its good urbanism.
After more than two decades of virtually continuous (albeit scattered) downtown renovation, reconstruction, and some remarkable restoration work that began as gutsy low-impact urban spelunking by the pioneering hairdresser-turned-developer Kristopher Kendrick—followed by the more upscale, surgical, and highly visible work of David Dewhirst, Scott and Bernadette West, and Buzz Goss, in concert with an enlightened local government—the city’s skyline is, nonetheless, much the same that greeted visitors to the 1982 World’s Fair. How can the city’s center (its flagship locus) change so much while its iconic skyline–the image that wallpapers the sides of buses, the backgrounds of the city’s mayoral website, and the backdrops of evening newscasts–remain so much the same?
The answer is complex as the reasons are many. It’s invigorating, nonetheless, to imagine our downtown’s several missing teeth filled in, not only with buildings of heights that mimic their surrounds, but also with something taller. The long, low buildings just now being completed along the SoKno riverfront are different, only in degree, from any number of similar developer projects completed throughout Fort Sanders and West Knoxville since the first Reagan Administration.
Knoxville technically doesn’t really have modern-day skyscrapers–buildings over 40 stories. The term skyscraper originated at the turn of the 20th century, applied to any building above 10 floors. More recently, while there is no internationally agreed upon definition of High Rise or Tall Building, it is generally agreed that anything over seven stories is a Tall Building due to fire codes. Owing to land cost, one tends to find Tall Buildings in city centers. Along the city’s outer fringes the commercial and housing stock is longer than it is tall owing to the low cost of land and lower standards of building codes associated with lower building heights—hence the economic predicate of sprawling “townhomes,” and low-slung office buildings, or “Sidescrapers.” That said, it’s curious that Marble Alley and Regas Square—two important recent and much-lauded developments within the urban core—have far more in common with their suburban cousins than the several Tall Buildings erected along Knoxville’s Gay Street a century ago (Regas’ ground-level commercial/retail space notwithstanding).
Criticizing new construction downtown is never popular; it goes without question that the new construction on the site of Marble Alley is infinitely better than the soulless dross-scape that was downtown’s sorry tattered edge for many decades. It’s worth asking, however, a century after the city built several fine examples of Tall Buildings downtown, why we support (through either TIFS or infrastructural improvements) building what is essentially a suburban building type in our urban center and at the river’s edge in SoKno. In short, if this strategy continues unabated, the density of downtown’s residential population will never move much beyond that of its outer fringes. Yet, if just a few Sidescrapers could be turned on end (becoming Tall Buildings), the positive impact to the city center would be keenly felt and easily measured.
Here’s the rub: Once turned on end, the construction type and building codes for Tall Buildings change and so, too, do the profit margins. Fire codes trump all other codes of conduct. At present, building more densely and higher in the urban core remains unlikely, absent a game change. This is one of several places that city, county, and state governments can assist just as they have with One Riverwalk or the suburban Turkey Creek development. If increasing the population density of the city center is a priority, which it ought to be as it is indisputably the most efficient and sustainable way to live in this or any century, and if it is currently impossible for developers to make the return on investment in the city center from Tall Buildings that they can from Sidescrapers, then this is a clear and present opportunity for intelligent governmental intervention to change a game that may have met its limits.
The Tombras Group’s new headquarters at the corner of Gay and Church is the most recent Sidescraper in the city center. Tombras Group’s good fortunes is the city’s loss; the company is so successful, it did not need to outfit its new building with rentable office space or housing. Had that been the case, they would have built additional floors at a locus much in need of vertical thrust.
Yet, the city still gains much from this new urban corner. A view looking north down Gay Street, away from the riverfront, demonstrates how it’s possible for a forward-looking architecture such as the Tombras building to be knowledgeable of, and yet not obsequious to, the history of its place. On an urban scale, its finely chiseled mass bookends neatly with its existing neighbor across the street, creating a new gateway to Gay Street. At the same time, architecturally, it rejects the hackneyed neo-historicism of Two Centre Square that forms the other stanchion-like mass of this new entrance onto Knoxville’s Great White Way. This work of Sanders Pace Architecture is not only the finest new building of substantial girth realized downtown of late, it is the first significant new architectural project between Henley and Gay Streets that looks as if it has been designed in the current millennium, and designed handsomely at that. Were it reimagined vertically, on end, for some other nearby site, it would point in the direction that downtown ought to build as Knoxville’s center revisions itself, from scruff to something a bit more buff.
Knoxville is not about to become the next Detroit anytime soon; our interred will continue resting pleasantly in peace. Still, there is much to be learned from the hard lessons of a Detroit as well as the successes of several of our nearby neighbors. The answer to urban development along urban riverfronts is not always constructing more environmentally controlled leasable structures; first and foremost, it is about curating the environment, natural and human-made.
The urban center and the downtown must remain one single entity. “Downtown” is not a realtor-word, such as “townhome.” The city center is different, not in degree, but in kind from North Knoxville or SoKno. Numerous studies demonstrate that denser downtowns create more sustainable and livable cities—not simply more densely packed with buildings, but more densely populated.
Great and livable cities (which are often two very different things) refrain from always looking to the past for answers, or looking in the same direction for that matter; to move forward a city must make a habit of looking forward. To continue building Sidescrapers downtown, regardless of how well they’re designed, seems more the former than the latter. Yet, Sidescrapers can become Skyscrapers or at least Tall Buildings (with some public assistance) if the game is changed. Tall or not, the center cannot hold unless there is more there to hold on to. If the game doesn’t change, we will only see more of the same. And while Knoxville’s urban fabric has gone from bad to good since Y2K, unless this outmoded paradigm changes, this may be as good as it gets. Then we must ask ourselves, is that good enough?
George Dodds’ Architecture Matters explores issues concerning the human-made environment, primarily focused on Knoxville and its environs. He has been teaching and publishing commentaries on the practice and history of architecture, urbanism, and landscape architecture for over 30 years. He has practiced in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., has lectured internationally, and has served on the editorial boards of several journals. Since 2000, he has been on the faculty of architecture at the University of Tennessee.
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